Chit Chat: Mohau Modisakeng

2011-09-09 13:55

Soweto-born visual artist Mohau Modisakeng was recently announced the winner of the 2011 Sasol New Signatures Art Competition. Percy Mabandu spoke to him.

Congratulations on your win. How does it feel, considering you are only the second black African to win in the competition’s 22-year history?

Winning the competition is great, but being one of only two black South Africans to win it is not. Even though I’m overjoyed by such an achievement, I worry about what it means for the competition to be in its 22nd instalment under Sasol, and yet only two black artists have been recognised for their work in this regard.

Did you anticipate the win?
I have to admit that I was a bit sceptical about the prospect of me winning the competition. I never even let the thought cross my mind, but when I was informed that my name was among the top seven in a competition that attracted about 600 entries from across the country, I saw how that could be a possibility.

How do you see this victory affecting your career?
This kind of recognition can either break or make an artist. There is a lot to my work that the South African public is yet to experience, and this win marks the beginning of an interesting journey.

My solo show at next year’s Sasol New Signatures exhibition will be a way of introducing myself to a particular part of the local art domain.

You were also a finalist in the MTN New Contemporaries Art Awards. How important do you think art competitions are?

There are very few avenues through which young artists can enter into the mainstream of galleries, curated exhibitions and art fairs. Competitions represent a space where the work itself tends to be the focus. Though there are usually politics around most of these competitions, there is typically some objective/critical engagement with an artist’s work.

Your winning work, Qhatha, plays on fighting rituals in Zulu culture. Do you think you might be accused of stereotyping?
If you only choose to read my work selectively you are probably missing much of what I’m trying to say. The misinterpretation of meaning in my work has become an interest of mine, and in fact forms a large part of what I am currently writing about in my thesis. I see it a symptom of a much bigger problem of denial and/or pretence.

The violence, which threads through most of my work, is deeply personal and largely symbolic. This because black people in this country didn’t only experience violence as a physical threat but also on a political, economic, psychological and spiritual level. My work responds to the complexities that have come from such a history.

Qhatha fuses performance art and sequential photography. Why didn’t you choose a video piece instead?

Being a black artist, you are forced by constraints to be resourceful. For this, it just worked out that I had access to a photography studio with good equipment and so on.

Also, video tends to follow the logic of time. I am interested in the mechanism of time, and how in our current context it seems to be speeding up at a rapid pace (with the internet and other technology). I wanted to bring time to a halt.

There is a limit to how much you can slow down a video before it becomes a still image.

Themes of identity are also strong in your work. How much of it is biographical?
It all departs from a personal standpoint, a very personal place. But all my work is about “us”, whatever that means.

I think that in many ways we are the same people, yet in many other ways we are different.

To suppose that such a thing as a homogenous South African, or African, identity is possible is to play into many of the problematic ideas from which apartheid rose.

As South Africans we have a preoccupation with discovering our “collective self” for the sake of sociopolitical cohesion, yet we refuse to come to terms with the history that divided us to begin with.

These are things I attempt to negotiate in my work.

The visual art sector has yet to be transformed. Does this present special challenges for you as a young artist?

This is a topic that I am very passionate about. I have had some really bad experiences in this sector, particularly within academia.

Cape Town (where I have been based for the past six years) in general is an old place, governed by very old ideas. The question of transformation in that city alone is a huddle that a lot of people are content with not tackling.

It is the same with the art school at which I am studying. People seem more committed to keeping things as they are, as opposed to opening that space up to more diverse people, with more diverse ideas and influences.

The level of complacency at such institutions has reached the point where it smells immoral.

» Modisakeng’s winning work, Qhatha, is on exhibition along with other 2011 Sasol New Signatures finalists at the Pretoria Art Museum until October 1

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