From South Africa to Brooklyn – The work of Mohau Modisakeng and Dineo Seshee Bopape

by Liona R. Nyariri

It is a beautiful summer afternoon in Brooklyn New York. The cold snowy winter has passed and everyone is glad to be out and about on the streets of Brooklyn. Barbecues are lit up on the blocks and music is playing from every corner. It is exactly as you would image it when you think of Brooklyn especially when you think of Black 90s movies set in Brooklyn. There are street vendors selling all kinds of goods from sunglasses, to hats to snacks and cold beverages and mango slices - a delicious summer treat. So much of this reminds me of Cape Town neighborhoods and this scene could easily fit into Woodstock - gentrification included. This burgeoning black neighborhood is certainly going through a massive shift as its landscape is changing with rent prices going up, organic smoothie bars opening up, public facilities improve, policing gets done for those who count and in the middle of all this we find We Buy Gold.  A newly opened gallery space owned and run by a women of colour, Joeonna Berlorado-Samuels. She herself is also a resident of Brooklyn with a home not far from the gallery and in some ways her newly opened space feels like a suggestion as opposed to a declaration. It’s a quiet encroachment in a neighbourhood that is seeing its fair share of invaders and even with the name, We Buy Gold, the space tries to fit itself in and to be part of the community as opposed to being out of it. It takes its name fittingly from the pawn stores around Brooklyn and Manhattan that trade in gold. The idea was to have a gallery that considers concepts of value, commodity and exchange as they exist in the “art world” and then to think about how art spaces play a role or don’t in these changing neighbourhoods. Berlorado-Samuels has expressed that this is not a one stop gallery – in other other words she has thought of it as a roving gallery space with potential for it to move to LA and even Johannesburg. Again this seems like a suggestion for how we can think of art spaces in general but also as a way to deal with gentrification as it comes along.

Mohau Modisakeng,  Passage , 2017, Three-Channel HD Video, 18:49 Minutes. All images courtesy of  We Buy Gold

Mohau Modisakeng, Passage, 2017, Three-Channel HD Video, 18:49 Minutes. All images courtesy of We Buy Gold

Currently on view are the works of Mohau Modisakeng and Dineo Bopape in an exhibition titled Two, aptly following the gallery’s inaugural exhibition titled One. Entering the gallery, one first encounters Modisakeng’s three channel video titled, Passage, 2017. The work shows two characters each in their own row boat lying flat in it while performing various gestures. The boats are floating on dark water, and as the video progresses, the boats slowly start to sink, taking their performers with them. It is quite a chilling work filled with layers of meaning and symbolism. From the heavily clad use of black to the eerie stillness of water and the gothic feel of the performers, the three channel video invokes more than just a shiny full HD aesthetic. On the gallery’s floor, there is another one of Modisekeng’s video titled, Ga bose gangwe, 2013. The single channel video features a group of men all struggling to rise only to falter halfway and reassume their position on the floor time after time. It is shot in black and white and just like the first video it comes too with its own heavy stillness and symbolism. More profoundly the metaphor of black bodies falling is not lost on us and questions of black men progressing and developing linger on our minds.

   Mohau Modisakeng,  Ga bose gangwe , 2013, 1:36 Min (loop), Single channel video

   Mohau Modisakeng, Ga bose gangwe, 2013, 1:36 Min (loop), Single channel video

Further down in the gallery, Dineo Bopape’s two channel video The beautiful ones are not yet born, 2007, is projected onto a grey wall. The wall has a grey background that adds to the overall grey feeling of the show. On each screen, a hand comes into the space from the left performing various hand gestures that have meaning of their own as another way of performing a physical language. For example, the hands often do an up and down motion while the index finger is flicked against the others, causing a sharp cracking noise. Coming from South Africa, this gesture usually indicates impending trouble and is also readable in any context. There is also a recognizable motion of the hand going up and down while waving an accusatory finger. This work evokes a transportable Blackness rooted in a Diaspora culture that is also a collective blackness marked by what we remember and what we lost and what we now know. However, the gestures are also so general in some instances that they carry a kind of universal tone. Part of what make this work successful is this very idea.   

  Dineo Seshee Bopape, the beautiful ones are not yet born, 2007, Video, 2:49 Min

  Dineo Seshee Bopape, the beautiful ones are not yet born, 2007, Video, 2:49 Min

Throughout the the show both Bopape and Modisekeng’s works seem to be tied through their emphasis on gesture and body movement without spoken language. Formally they are tied together by their mediums - being video - and they are also tied together by the use of black and white and varying degrees of greyscale. The gestures in their works seem specific to the artists but are gestures that can easily transport themselves across borders. When Bellorado- Samuels was curating the show, she says she was thinking about the underlined colonialism in both their works. In Modisekeng’s it was the relationship to the middle passage and in Bopape’s it was the carried universality of some of the hand gestures that could connote to some kind of universal experience. In their current context, the works spoke heavily to a Diasporic dispersed identity, which is a theme that is strongly resonant in our current times. Be it a forced Diaspora or a willing one - the works seem to touch on this in different ways. While Modisakeng embodies a deep and studied heavy ghostly aura in the works; Bopape’s embodiment of the work is more whimsical, quirky and still serious. Both approaches allow for the viewer to enter the work and to still get a critical understanding of what the artists are expressing. Bellorado-Samuels also stressed on the importance of narrative in both works and how again this narrative transports itself across geography, giving light to the strong presence of gesture throughout the exhibition.

Walking through the gallery space again I am reminded that this is indeed a show in Brooklyn, New York and it is a show with two South African artists. However, the focus is not on their geography but rather on the medium and content of the work. Often when dealing with ‘other’ artists coming from a non - Western background the tendency is to highlight their otherness and this often reduces the work. Samuels has cleverly chosen strategies that curtail this practice and what we have is a full show with a set of questions that show the thoughts and processes of the artists. Viewers are able to read the signifiers and enter as well as transport themselves into the work without much vagueness and coding from the artists. 

With an exciting second show - We Buy Gold certainly makes for a space to watch out for and where Berlorado-Samuels takes it next will be exciting to watch.

About the author:

Liona R. Nyariri is an installation artist working across a range of mediums and with a special interest in language. Her research revolves primarily around Pidgin languages formed in Southern Africa as well as formally colonized countries. Nyariri completed her undergraduate ay Michaelis School of Fine Art and her MFA at Parsons The New School of Design. In 2017 she completed a fellowship at the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program. She currently lives and works in New York where she will be acontributor for the Art Meets blog with a special focus on South African and African Diaspora artists.