South Africa’s violent history in haunting artworks
8:57 AM EDT, Fri June 10, 2016
Untitled, 2014 —
Mohau Modisakeng's images will haunt you. The South African artist readily admits his "preoccupation with violence". But these images and sculptures are not sensationalism or mere internet fodder. They're designed to spark a conversation on South Africa's recent history and its impact on personal identity, he says. From the country's political uprisings to the brutal stabbing of his brother, nothing is off limits.
Fossils Black is a work that deceives the eye. Although it looks like a photograph, it is actually a scan. The artist made a cast of his face which was then broken into several pieces and arranged onto a scanner bed. "I grew up in a part of Soweto that witnessed a lot of conflict" he says. The 1990s saw bloody clashes between followers of the African National Congress (ANC) and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).
He recollects one particular incident walking past dead bodies the morning after one of these conflicts. "I was quite young but I was able to recognize what I was looking at. Even though it wasn't really spoken about in my family", he explains.
Courtesy Tyburn Gallery
Ga Etsho 3, 2015 —
Modisakeng says his artworks come from a history of violence that has not been dealt with and that people have been forced to forget. He references the Bang Bang Club - a group of photojournalists documenting the transition from apartheid within townships in the 90s: "The environment they were working in was the kind of environment I was growing up in".
Named after a suburb in Cape Town, the piece sees a lone figure dressed in white standing against a stark asphalt landscape and brandishing large industrial tools as if they were weapons. "Endabeni is actually very key in understanding where the South African structure of a town comes from because it was the first segregated structure in the whole of South Africa", Modasikeng explains.
"I knew I wanted my landscape to be strange and exotic and extraterrestrial" he says of Endabeni. For an earlier work, Modasikeng sculpted an Okapi during his fourth year at Michaelis School of Fine Art, in Cape Town. This was a deeply personal piece of artwork, surrounding the fatal stabbing of his brother who had been involved in grass roots movements, mobilizing people during the transition from apartheid.
Recalling memories surrounding such a tragic death: "I think my mum was looking through his things and she pulled out this white sweater which had a small stain on it, and under the stain was a cut. Apparently this is what my brother had been wearing on that day". The sculpture was a response not to the physical presence of his brother but his absence and what was unspoken. "I'm trying to understand the events around his passing". He adds "it was not something that we talked about at home".
Series Ga Ethso and Inzilo - "mourning" - dive deeper into the poignant way violence is such an integral part of South African history. He references the 2012 Ludlow Massacre, where mineworkers were shot by the police during a strike. "In subsequent reports, the use of traditional weapons is what led to or justified the kind of force used", he says. "There hasn't been any effort to address this violent history" he concludes.