Meleko Mokgosi: Bread, Butter and Power
Fowler Museum at UCLA
Through July 1
By Kathy Zimmerer
Twenty large panels of coolly rendered figures dominate Meleko Mokgosi’s exhibit, Bread, Butter and Power, at the Fowler Museum. Mokgosi tackles different social injustice issue through his contemporary history paintings showing various tableaux of life in South Africa. Hung together in Salon style without any space between them, this lends weight or unease to the subject matter as these varying panels display contrasting economies and life styles. Noteworthy is the painting, Democratic Intuition, Bread, Butter, Power, where a stunningly beautiful woman reclines on a white chaise lounge in a pristinely appointed environment, she looks like a contemporary version of Jacques Louis David’s Madame Récamier. This panel is hung cheek by jowl with paintings of uniformed school children and their backpacks hung up in a tent.
The disparity of wealth and poverty is finely tuned in all his work. Oddities abound including one panel that shows a portrait of Harriet Tubman, a photo of Angela Davis in the sixties and two women embracing, a marble bust of Mary Seacole, Jamaica’s Florence Nightingale and a poster replicating the revolutionary black power salute and the words, THEY WILL NEVER KILL US ALL. Although the imagery is cobbled together it works in a celebratory way, binding together different African American symbols that shows the underlying power of resistance.
He researches his paintings extensively through several years of reading, taking his own photographs, collecting stories and newspaper articles and even gathering samples of sand so he can use the correct color in his paintings. His audacious paintings both reveal the unprimed canvas and use it as effective negative space. This use of space adds to the narration of his stories as in the exquisite scene of school children gathered in a yard watching students and a teacher dig. Nothing is revealed about the why behind this scene and the viewer is left wondering what it is all about-are they digging for a class, is a new foundation to be laid? However, the children cluster together in typical groups, talking and hanging out. Their crisp blue and white royal blue uniforms stand out against the monochrome backdrop of the school building and the dirt, and they are beautifully rendered. One group segues to the bare canvas; their figures are silhouetted against the cream ground as they pop out visually like cutouts. Mokgosi’s tremendous painterly skill imbues this scene with a monumental and outsized importance; even the sketchy ground dissolves and fades but holds the weight of the children.
The mystery deepens in a split panel showing a young man in his room with his dog, and another room dominated by a sculptural black figure that has lost an arm. Both rooms are bleak with photos tacked to the walls, sheets for drapes, and minimal furniture. The proud, beautifully modeled dog makes the room seem even smaller as it fills up the room up with its powerful and noble presence. There is an air of poverty in the room, yet the young man is looking forward and his room is filled with light, in contrast to the broken sculptural figure that seems huddled on the floor in despair. Symbolizing the essence of Mokgosi’s enigmatic art, this panel encompasses the everyday and the mythological in one brilliant frieze where the figures act out an unknown drama.
Fowler Museum at UCLA
308 Charles E Young Drive N
Los Angeles CA 90095-1549
office 310 825 4288