In her essay “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” originally delivered as a paper in 1980, Audre Lorde says of poetry: “Yet even the form our creativity takes is often a class issue. Of all the art forms, poetry is the most economical. It is the one which is the most secret, which requires the least physical labor, the least material, and the one which can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps of surplus paper.” Later in the same paragraph, she contrasts this with the sometimes prohibitive costs of art materials for poor women of color and others. Access to resources and questions of representation are inseparable in Lorde’s work, and encompass race, class, and gender, as well as age and geographic location.
A similar attention to intersectionality is central to Meleko Mokgosi’s two current exhibitions, spanning both of Jack Shainman Gallery’s New York City spaces, and poetry plays an important role. A number of the paintings on display at the 20th Street exhibition, titled The social revolution of our time cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the poetry of the future, include a poem by a female African or African diasporic writer and activist, such as Ama Ata Aidoo, June Jordan, and Nkiru Nzegwu. Born in Botswana and currently living in New York City, Mokgosi understands both sides of this diaspora.
The poems are printed on separate canvases placed flush with Mokgosi’s figurative paintings of a range of African and African American figures. Image and text are frequently in conversation, directly or indirectly; in some cases the diptych composition resembles an open book. In one work, a young woman rendered on a thin, vertical canvas executes a ballet leg hold while standing on a man’s head; next to it, Aidoo’s equally vertical, short-lined poem describes the discrepancy between middle-class and working-class women — the latter “taken up with / what’s waiting of the / brutal loads that were / their lives” — in terms of time and access to a local public library and the knowledge that translates into power to be gathered there. (All works at both locations are from 2019.)
Like most of the figures in the exhibition, the woman is near life-size and realistically painted. The faces in other works impassively look at the viewer, radiating a sense of self-possession, but this woman is smiling, adding a performative dimension to the work; her gaze is turned away from us but still directed at an audience. She is backed by swathes of white paint against a blank background. As with all of the paintings on display, the accompanying text helps provide a narrative framework focused more on general issues of race and gender than on specific political or historical moments. Mokgosi is as interested in the discourse around these figures as in their representation (not that the two could ever exist separately). Thus, on a number of the texts he has written in black cursive his own comments and annotations, explicating and contextualizing, and in a few cases amending them.
Each of the 11 paintings on display at 20th Street share the exhibition title along with a number (the aforementioned work is #9). The titular phrase, “the social revolution of our time cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the poetry of the future” is from Karl Marx’s 1852 essay “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon,” in which he reflects on the failures of the European revolutions of 1848. Mokgosi’s exhibition is a bit more hopeful than Marx’s diagnosis as the poems he has chosen are mostly ones of female empowerment, an approach mirrored in his figurative representations of African and African American identity.
Pride of place near the entrance is given to #3 in the series, which features an excerpt from Toni Morrison’s Beloved exhorting a (self-)love of (Black) flesh next to Mokgosi’s rendering of a girl posing in a tiara and formal white dress, its skirt spread out to cover the entire loveseat on which she sits. Mokgosi’s underlining and comments on the companion text are extensive. They include a box around the phrase “love your heart” and address the treatment of the Black body by Whites as a “psycho-somatic object.” The canvas with Morrison’s text is larger than the painting next to it, and its descriptions of body parts violated by White violence are more visually vivid than the adjacent figure. Mokgosi’s annotations and his preference to work in series suggest that the individual painted image is not intended to be the final criteria of his artwork’s value, with the elements of containment and commodification this involves.
In keeping with this practice, Jack Shainman’s 24th Street gallery presents a single serial work with annotations entitled Pan-African Pulp printed on 31 large panels measuring 64 x 44 inches each. Here, Lorde’s concern with representation, class, and politics is even more clearly defined. In the 1960s, Black South Africans without the resources to make films instead produced photo novels — stories told in photographs and text resembling graphic novels. Mokgosi has chosen to repurpose one entitled Spear Magazine (1968–72) that presents action-and-adventure narratives featuring a James Bond–inspired African protagonist named Lance Spearman (more informally known as Spear). Reproducing the original pages but substituting his own text, Mokgosi tells the story of a Black minority in an imaginary postcolonial African country attempting to impose its rule over a more democratic and revolutionary populace. Spear infiltrates the usurpers’ secret hideout and destroys it before barely escaping in a dramatic getaway.
Mokgosi’s handwritten annotations to the image-text combinations of Pan-African Pulp are extensive, ranging from critiques of capitalism to Michel Foucault’s notion of discourse as materially creating the conditions it describes. The works in Pan-African Pulp also deal with the ways in which colonized people internalize oppression, and in this sense the show differs from the more liberatory paintings on 20th Street. In both sets of works, language engages the image in ongoing, contested histories on either side of the Atlantic, inextricably joined by the slave trade. In an annotation to one of the canvases in Pan-African Pulp, Mokgosi describes the importance of not only what gets said publicly in different societies but who gets to say it. Access is central to what both Mokgosi and Lorde seek, whether in art or poetry, in order to expand the realms of the visible.
Meleko Mokgosi: The social revolution of our time cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the poetry of the future continues at Jack Shainman Gallery (513 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 21. Meleko Mokgosi: Pan-African Pulp continues at Jack Shainman Gallery (524 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 21.