Born in Soweto in 1986, Mohau Modisakeng’s work’s ‘responds to the history of the black body within the (South) African context’ – the violence of the apartheid era and the early 1990s. While his work does not depict graphic images of violence, the imagery he creates through film, large-scale photographic prints, installations and performances have been described as powerful yet poetic invocations.
‘I remember the smell of teargas and burning tyres; plumes of dust and smoke signalling what could have been the beginning stages of a bloody civil war.’
Tell us a bit about your upbringing and the moment you decided to study Fine Art at the Michaelis School of Fine Art.
I was born and raised in Soweto. At the time my parents, not unlike millions of other black South Africans, did not have a house of their own in Johannesburg, so they erected a shack in an informal settlement known as Kwa Mshengu, which was an enclave of Zulu migrant workers.
This was during the political turmoil of the 80s when the racist white government was at loggerheads with black political organisations. Towards the late 80s and early 90s, Soweto was on fire as black political parties were being pinned against each other in an effort to derail the impending collapse of apartheid. It was termed ‘black-on-black violence’, which fuelled the manufactured feud between the African National Congress and the predominantly Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party.
I saw it all play out right in front of me as I was coming into myself as a child. I saw houses and cars being set alight, community leaders and political opponents gunned down in daylight, blood-hungry mobs with red bandanas and armbands brandishing axes, spears, knobkerries and sjamboks. I remember the smell of teargas and burning tyres; plumes of dust and smoke signalling what could have been the beginning stages of bloody civil war.
Fast forward to 2004 when I was 17… I was fortunate enough to be part of a small group of learners from our school in Soweto to be invited to partake in an exchange programme with a school in the UK. For the first time I travelled outside the borders of South Africa and was thrust into a world of art museums, art classes, private collections, and a general enthusiasm for all things art – something I had never before witnessed. On my return from this trip, I enrolled in the fine art programmes at the University of Cape Town and at the University of the Witwatersrand. The following year I was accepted for both programmes, but I was subsequently awarded a scholarship to go to the Michaelis School of Fine Art.
When did you decide to tackle the topics of race, the militarisation of society and post-apartheid South Africa?
I think it was during my second year of undergraduate studies at Michaelis that I wanted to understand myself and the country I belonged to better. So when we finally did a self-motivated project, I elected to focus mine on my own lived experiences with trauma; on growing up in the townships during the social anxiety and unrest of the dying years of apartheid.
The result was a body of work that not only placed my personal story at the centre of my visual narrative but the project also reflected on the tragic passing of my eldest brother, the political education of my second brother in the form of conversations, poems and writings, and my mother’s spirituality.
This is when I realised that the personal is very political in my country.
‘I realised that the personal is very political in my country.’
Your work has been exhibited at a number of galleries locally and internationally, tell us what are your thoughts and feelings during the exhibition process?
There is a lot that goes through my mind before I even exhibit the work, but when the works are finally hanging and the exhibition opens to the public, I no longer have control over what the work communicates. At that point it is up to the audience to engage the work.
I enjoy being able to see people’s emotions written on their faces during an exhibition. I also enjoy the conversations around certain aspects of the work. The audience always brings another dimension to the reading of the work. They participate in the creation of meaning.
What has been the most memorable response to your work?
It was in 2014 when my mother first visited my solo exhibition Ditaola. I think this was the first time she had seen my work outside of the reproductions of my photography in publications she had seen.
How important is the role that material plays in your creations and to what extent does it encourage or augment the narrative?
The work I make acts as a mirror to a world that is inhabited by different bodies. In my photographic work for instance, these bodies are as much material as the landscapes, backdrops, and the props that may be framed in the artwork. In a self-reflective photographic practice where the body is at the centre of the image and the narrative, such as in most of my work, materiality becomes the vehicle through which meaning can be inscribed and retained. Material can also work to prescribe/describe a particular context in an artwork.
In most cases the material is often the narrative.
‘The audience always brings another dimension to the reading of the work. They participate in the creation of meaning.’
How important, do you think, is it for an artist to express the conditions of the society they live in?
I think that the role of the artist is to act as a mirror to themselves and their environment. The artist’s work ought to reflect the realities of the lived experiences of the people from which they come.
Perhaps this is important now more than ever in a time when globalism has become synonymous with Western domination in culture, politics and economics around the world. Globalism has engendered a homogeneity that seems to favour Eurocentrism, while also flattening our understanding and experiences of the world.
So now more than ever it is important to have individual voices that speak on behalf of or from the perspective of a diversity of backgrounds. As Africans we come from a history that survived colonial erasure and dismemberment and so our work should indeed express the particular conditions of African society, which are unique to our context.
If globalism speaks for centralism, the artist working from the African geopolitical context should speak for the margins as a testament to the fact that that is where the world has positioned him or her… through slavery, colonialism, and neo-colonial capitalism.
‘As Africans we come from a history that survived colonial erasure and dismemberment and so our work should indeed express the particular conditions of African society, which are unique to our context.’
Do you think the wound afflicted on (South) Africa by colonialism and apartheid will ever heal?
I think healing should be preceded by the acknowledgement of the trauma and the violence caused by colonialism across Africa. There needs to be an overt effort to outline how such a toxic past has affected and continues to affect our society.
In South Africa the oppressor lives side by side with his victim and life carries on unchanged under the veil of post-apartheid rainbow nationalism. The cosmetic changes of early democracy in South Africa are failing to conceal the growing mass inequality between whites and blacks, the under-education of black youth, the record-breaking crime rates, the unemployment… All these are the wounds that have not healed, because there has not been any accountability – the architects and beneficiaries of apartheid will not be called to account.
The story of South Africa is essentially a story of a heinous crime against humanity where the institutionalised violence against Africans dished out over centuries is to be forgotten as the instigators continue to thrive.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or work that we should look out for?
I will be working on a project for the city of Amsterdam in the Netherlands to erect the Nelson Mandela Monument at the Nelson Mandela Park in the neighbourhood of Bijlmer in South East Amsterdam in 2020.
I will also be having a solo exhibition titled ZANJ opening in September at the Ron Mandos gallery in Amsterdam. The exhibition features a series of films and photographs related to my Land of Zanj performance artwork commissioned for the Sharjah Biennial, which happened in March 2019.
Where can people find out more about you and your work?
By visiting my website.