Born and raised in Botswana, Meleko Mokgosi is codirector of graduate studies in painting and printmaking at the Yale School of Art, New Haven, and cofounder of the Interdisciplinary Art and Theory Program, New York. Reconceptualizing the intersection of art history, postcolonial nationhood, and democracy within an interdisciplinary critical framework that includes paintings of epic scale, Mokgosi explores and redresses the ways in which Black subjects have become unattributed objects of empire and institution.
Louise Neri has been a director at Gagosian since 2006, working with artists and developing exhibitions, editorial projects, and communications across the global platform. A former editor of Parkett magazine, she has authored and edited many books and articles on contemporary art. Beyond the exhibitions she has organized for Gagosian, she co-curated the 1997 Whitney Biennial and the 1998 São Paulo Bienal, among numerous international projects.
Democratic Intuition is an epic of southern African life and folklore by Motswana artist Meleko Mokgosi, who lives, works, and teaches in the United States. Several of the work’s eight chapters are currently on view at Gagosian Britannia Street, London, in Mokgosi’s first-ever solo exhibition in the United Kingdom and Europe.
Inspired by a lecture by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, in 2013, the project’s guiding principle is the importance of reciprocity and equality in democratic process—an idea that is simple to grasp yet, it seems, difficult to achieve. As Spivak argues, democracy is, in essence, a counterintuitive rather than an intuitive practice: the practice of democracy, the recognition of others’ freedoms, and the ability to participate in governance depend on access to state apparatuses, but these apparatuses would have to be utilized in such a way that their electorates are educated toward the ethical, as well as toward some kind of collective consciousness that would take into account class interests—which is rarely, if ever, the case.
In the middle of the Quattrocento, Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted the six-part fresco cycle The Allegory of Good and Bad Government in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico as a civic commission for this city republic. Centuries later, Mokgosi engages the concept of democratic process and its internal contradictions by painting compelling genre scenes, often involving prominent figures from public life in Africa and the African diaspora, which jump-cut between the confines of manual work, the freedoms of intellectual enterprise, and their ties to gender and race. Drawing on his own extensive research and archival photographs, Mokgosi uses the strategies of cinematic framing and montage and the lessons of history painting to storyboard in meticulous detail scenes from the narrative of postcolonial southern Africa—right down to the last, seemingly spontaneous brushstroke. Out of this long and arduous research process, which for some chapters took years, a parade of finely drawn characters emerges out of raw canvas, portraying the asymmetries of power that underscore the traditional divisions of labor.
In each of the eight titled chapters that make up Democratic Intuition, Mokgosi attempts to break open another facet of democracy and to grapple with the cultural biases that complicate and impede the attainment of equality by peoples around the world. And in reconceptualizing where art history, postcolonial nationhood, and democracy intersect within an interdisciplinary critical framework, Democratic Intuition seeks to redress the many ways in which Black subjects have become unattributed objects of empire and institution.
When I began conceptualizing Democratic Intuition, in 2013, my approach was rooted in historical and theoretical research and shaped by confronting my limited understanding of the ideas and practice of the democratic. Before this project I had spent the previous five years examining national identification, xenophobia, the political ramifications of nation-state discourse, the asymmetrical nature of globalization and how this affects where I am from—and, last but not least, the notion of postcolonial aesthetics. The focus on the nation-state led me to inquire how we practice the democratic through various political discourses. At the outset, I quickly realized that apart from vague and populist conceptions, I did not understand the practice of the democratic. Therefore, I moved forward with an abstract question: if democracy is founded on the impossible choice between exercising my nation-state-granted freedoms as an individual while having to recognize the individual freedoms of another, how can I reciprocate democracy? Moreover, how would I use representation as a tool to unpack and investigate this question? The question felt—and still feels—urgent. It is clear that the ways in which the economic, political, and social situations were established and how they now function do not produce wholesale equity, shared access to resources, beneficial participation in governance, and the well-being of the general public.
I had previously thought that the role of representation is a straightforward one. There is a direct link between political discourse and what I try to do as a painter. An artist aims to represent, to depict, to render something. In politics, “to represent” could be defined as a way of “speaking on behalf of” or “to stand in for” or “decide for.” As a painter who focuses on the human body, this project resonated with me because the body is fundamental to coming to terms with all notions of representation. Consequently, Democratic Intuition examines the complexities of what it means to represent something or someone. The intricacies of representation bring to the fore some of the most pressing epistemological and gnoseological concerns.
From the beginning, skepticism about democracy was built into the project because it was evident to me how almost all of society’s institutions and systems came with built-in biases and injustices. Such a sentiment was captured well by W. E. B. Du Bois’s theorization of democracy, which I encountered early on in my research. For Du Bois, democracy always involves a tense and delicate balance of multiple opposing perspectives. Most importantly, he argues that democracy “is the method of showing the whole experience of the [human] race for the benefit of the future.” Democracy depends on recognizing the worth of each person’s “feelings and experiences to all.” According to Du Bois, any social system or institution that excludes anyone automatically reveals that democracy cannot be realized. Or to put it differently, the practice of democracy remains impossible because it is an ideal that can never anticipate the effects and progression of capitalism (with which democracy is always intertwined) and its abuses. The subject who can realize the democratic project does not exist and cannot be constructed through Western humanism.
Regardless of the pessimism and troubled histories of these ideas, this project proved to be a great learning curve for me. First and foremost, I discovered that to access the democratic through apparatuses of the state, one must utilize particular models of intellectual labor in order to perform the kind of abstract thinking needed to develop reflexivity, critical analysis of systems and institutions, and participation in governance. This is the main premise behind “Exordium” (2015), the project’s first chapter. The core of these ideas, the title of the project, and many other concepts derive from the seminal work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.
The complexities of access to resources, education, and class structures are further explored in “Comrades I and II” (2016), “Bread, Butter, and Power” (2018), and “Objects of Desire” (2019). “Comrades” looks at anticolonial sentiment and liberation struggles and the effects of those movements, mostly within the confines of Botswana and South Africa. By coupling group portraits with Setswana texts that detail dinaane (a form of storytelling rooted in the oral tradition), I had hoped to highlight the roles that language and education play in self-actualization and various forms of resistance.
To give a primary example, the 1976 Soweto Uprising was triggered by these two elements. After years of underdevelopment and racist policies in education under the apartheid system (mainly done through the Bantu Education Act of 1953) came the directive that Afrikaans had to be used on an equal basis with English as one of the languages of instruction in “African” schools. This mandate—to forcefully instruct South Africans in colonial languages (English and Afrikaans) while at the same time disregarding the numerous African mother-tongues that had nourished the imaginations of millions of people and were connected with invaluable histories of cultural, personal, psychological, and pedagogical import—sparked outrage. These populations were being forced to comply with an education system that was specifically designed to devalue them. The Bantu Education system was meant to train Africans to perform only cheap manual labor; i.e., the aim was to ensure that Africans could only occupy the roles of laborer, worker, and servant in apartheid society. As H. F. Verwoerd, the architect of the Bantu Education Act, explained: “There is no place for [the African] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labor. . . . It is of no avail for him to receive a training which has as its aim absorption in the European community.” Those who valiantly fought for colonial liberation under the auspices of egalitarianism, equity, and equality did so with the aim of toppling racist and violent colonial regimes. However, given how most postcolonial nations on the African continent have progressed since liberation, it is difficult to argue that there exists comradeship across ethnicity, race, gender, and class lines; in other words, not all comrades are equal.
“Bread, Butter, and Power” furthered my research and knowledge around issues of class, equity, and gender in relation to democracy and self-actualization. Of particular importance was the interrogation of intersecting oppressions, with a main focus on the subject of the Black African female. As Patricia Hill Collins has remarked so well, intersecting oppressions reproduce themselves by corrupting and distorting sources of power within oppressed groups that provide energy for change.1 Through this chapter I conducted research around the history and politics of Black and African feminism. In trying to understand how individual citizens gain access to the democratic, I realized the importance of acknowledging and engaging with the idea of gender. Just like race, gender is a discursive construct that has been transformed into a systematized fact that occupies an important role in subject formation. Consequently, gender is a psychosomatic object that makes itself felt most forcefully on the body. Yet gender is not just a construct but a meaningful social and relational sense of one’s body that is produced through systems of difference. This differentiation conditions methods or protocols of interpreting our experience of reality within a symbolic structure that exceeds and precedes any subject. A subject and his or her partner in interaction are located and able to speak only on the grounds of mutual recognition within this symbolic structure. In the geopolitical areas I was looking at, these divisions of labor have particular manifestations and results. One that I considered closely, through historical texts and personal experience, was the field of informal economic enterprises, which is mainly occupied by women who do not have access to capital and resources. Toward the end of completing the chapter, I came to understand that feminist discourse does not travel effortlessly between cultural manifestations of femininity and gender roles. Therefore this political movement has to be transcribed and transformed in the continued process of building alliances.
In order to negotiate these representational spaces, I use allegory to rewrite or reimagine preexisting texts with the hopes of compelling the viewer to acknowledge and reconcile their biases and methods of interpretation.
In addition to exploring how laws, customs, and emotional attachment (say, to a flag or a native tongue) are linked to the democratic space, these chapters further pose questions around representation with their focus on unconventional compositional structures and display strategies, the structure and shape of the picture plane, and narrative tropes such as allegory. Central to all of these are the politics of Blackness. Having spent considerable time trying to construct representations of the Black subject, I became more ambivalent about how representations of Blackness are always used to refer to race and injustice. Representations of white subjects are seldom affected by the politics of whiteness because it is these very politics that have rendered the white subject universal and therefore not immediately subject to race discourse. What then can one make of representations that take the Black subject and render it within an allegorical context? Is it possible to overcome the baggage of Blackness when viewing and analyzing representations of a Black subject? Convention stipulates that the representation of any Black subject function as a hermeneutic limitation. The Black subject is never just a subject but a Black subject, never universal. Therefore, a polysemic interpretation can only happen theoretically, because the Blackness of the Black subject always comes with cultural, symbolic, and emotional histories. Put another way, race discourse always accompanies the Black subject. In order to negotiate these representational spaces, I use allegory to rewrite or reimagine preexisting texts with the hopes of compelling the viewer to acknowledge and reconcile their biases and methods of interpretation.
A viewer cannot help but be cognizant of the method of reading and interpretation at the moment he or she begins to engage with any allegorical narrative, whether visual or textual. Because allegory is contrived to show something else (as an extended metaphor within a structured system of meaning), it presents itself as first and foremost a constructed thing. This constructedness of presenting itself as one thing with the promise of saying something else necessarily places emphasis on the method of construction and reading one will employ. In a way, the allegorical has a built-in alibi for the viewer in the sense of an elsewhere that is accessible through the viewer’s idiosyncrasies. These preoccupations led me to a chance encounter with William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s 1883 painting The Motherland. It struck me as a peculiar allegorical history painting that did not feel right in its representation. I began an in-depth examination of the French painter, his tropes, techniques, and history. Added to this inquiry was the coincidence that most of Bouguereau’s paintings I was looking at were painted around or during the Scramble for Africa. Although coincidence is sometimes arbitrary, it was an important factor in this case because it revealed something quite important: that history, with a big H, is better understood through historicity. History is not an event or collection of events but rather a number of “unfoldings” that bear the mark of things before. I tend to think of history as something that is already present.
“Acts of Resistance” (2018) was site responsive in two ways: over the course of two years of research, the chapter engaged the permanent collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art, examining the politics of representation in its holdings. Additionally, the project occupied institutional space not ordinarily granted to contemporary works of art (namely the exhibition rooms that display works by European masters). I was particularly drawn to Madonna Adoring the Child with Five Angels (c. 1485–90), a tondo by Sandro Botticelli. The painting is an emblem of a master narrative in Western painting that has taught viewers to read spirituality and adoration in the specifics of a subject’s gender and race. Additionally, I greatly admired the defiant stance and expression of Little Gypsy (1850), by the French nineteenth-century painter Alfred Dehodencq. But my appreciation was no doubt tempered by Dehodencq’s exoticizing of his dark-skinned subject. The pose of resistance portrayed by the subject captures one of the central questions I wanted to explore in this installation: namely, what should the viewer make of the subject’s gestures of resistance when the person who created that representation of defiance is more empowered than the subject? Contradicting this painting was Portrait of a Young Lady (1560), attributed to the Flemish painter Caterina van Hemessen. The painting depicts a fashionably dressed white female subject adorned with gold chains. She addresses the viewer directly. I was drawn to the extraordinary technical and formal elements of the painting, even more so when I discovered that van Hemessen is credited with creating the first portrait of a painter seated in front of the canvas while painting—unknown during the preceding Renaissance period. Furthermore, I was fascinated by the metaphors embedded in the use of golden chains, which the wall label makes out to be about costume and fashion. The fact that van Hemessen was a talented young female painter (who made about ten paintings in total), but was unable to continue as a practitioner due to gender roles and divisions of labor, signaled to me that the chains were used as a protofeminist symbol.
Overall, the chapter focuses on an expansive notion of resistance. Regardless of whether resistance is formal or informal, it must always involve self-care for those who are marginalized and thus made to feel less valuable. It is important to emphasize that resistance does not solely involve scrutinizing external pressure acting on your subjectivity; it also involves interrogating how we understand and conduct ourselves. Just as we have to resist things from the outside, we also have to resist internalized pressures that work against who we want to be. For the most part, informal resistance finds its expression through cultural resistance—and I was drawn more to this element. As a result, “Acts of Resistance” made evident that in order to practice or support resistance against institutional forces, it must always involve radical forms of intimacy with systems that perpetuate systemic injustices and abuse those whose voices and demands are illegible to dominant structures and political mechanisms.
“Objects of Desire” and “Chimurenga” (2019), the final chapters of the project, returned to some of the key questions in the previous chapters, but in them I decided to invert the shift of power within the subgenres of painting. Whereas before I had relied on large canvases and grand narratives, which mostly suited history painting, the last two chapters utilized formal and technical elements mostly found in still life paintings. Furthermore, the materials did not rely solely on specific politics in southern Africa but directly responded to formative exhibitions and aesthetic precedents by looking at how the art institution as a whole creates systems of value, legitimizes certain practices and objects, and creates discursive parameters that are meant to leave out many for the sole benefit of a few. Elements I focused on were: the invention of “primitive art” and its relationship to “African” art and artists; the development of “modernism” and its racist politics and histories; and, last but not least, the correlation between linguistic systems and semiotic ones and the results of privileging one over the other. These two chapters allowed me to closely examine the historical and epistemological effects of the Western art canon and its relationship to political discourse and democratic ideals.
With Democratic Intuition complete, it has become clear that democracy is incompatible not only with the foundational elements of the human subject but also with the various systems and institutions that support dominant forms of subjectivity or humanism in general. Put another way, democracy is incompatible with structural racism and institutionalized or systemic violence; democracy is incompatible with neocolonialism and neoimperialism; democracy is incompatible with the instruments that reproduce the conditions for and possibilities of capitalism; democracy is incompatible with race discourse, Eurocentrism, ethnocentrism, and humanism—all of which have become the dominant ways in which reality is conceptualized, interacted with, and historicized.
Meleko Mokgosi shares forty-three books that have informed Democratic Intuition.
1. The Color Purple – Alice Walker
2. The Keepers of the Kumm: Ancestral Longing and Belonging of a Boesmankind – Sylvia Vollenhoven
3. Binding Cultures: Black Women Writers in Africa and the Diaspora – Gay Wilentz
4. So Long a Letter – Mariama Bâ
5. Our Sister Killjoy – Ama Ata Aidoo
6. The Boer Whore – Nico Moolman
7. Gender – Claire Colebrook
8. Woman Native Other – Trinh T. Minh-ha
9. The Wretched of the Earth – Frantz Fanon
10. Sisterhood Is Global – Robin Morgan (ed.)
11. Racialized Boundaries: Race, Nation, Gender, Colour and Class in the Anti-Racist Struggle – Floya Anthias and Nira Yuval-Davis
12. Recasting Postcolonialism – Anne Donadey
13. Maids and Madams: Domestic Workers under Apartheid – Jacklyn Cock
14. Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World – Kumari Jayawardena
15. Beloved – Toni Morrison
16. Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures – M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty
17. Gerard Sekoto: ‘I am an African’ – N. Chabani Manganyi
18. Threads of Solidarity: Women in South African Industry: 1900–1980 – Iris Berger
19. African Perspectives on Colonialism – A. Adu Boahen
20. The First Next Time – James Baldwin
21. The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses – Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí
22. African Gender Studies: A Reader – Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí (ed.)
23. At Home with Apartheid: The Hidden Landscapes of Domestic Service in Johannesburg – Rebecca Ginsburg
24. The Souls of Black Folk – W. E. B. Du Bois
25. Changes: A Love Story – Ama Ata Aidoo
26. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa – Walter Rodney
27. Reflecting Rogue: Inside the Mind of a Feminist – Pumla Dineo Gqola
28. Love in the Time of Treason: The Life Story of Ayesha Dawood – Zubeida Jaffer
29. 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69 – Winnie Madikizela-Mandela
30. Burger’s Daughter – Nadine Gordimer
31. A Question of Power – Bessie Head
32. Discourse on Colonialism – Aimé Césaire
33. Nervous Conditions – Tsitsi Dangarembga
34. Beauty of the Heart: The Life and Times of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke – Zubeida Jaffer
35. Triomf – Marlene van Niekerk
36. The Spivak Reader – Donna Landry and Gerald MacLean (eds.)
37. Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity – Chandra Talpade Mohanty
38. Convergences: Black Feminism and Continental Philosophy – Maria del Guadalupe Davidson, Kathryn T. Gines, Donna-Dale L. Marcano (eds.)
39. Black Families in White America – Andrew Billingsley
40. We Need New Names – NoViolet Bulawayo
41. Winnie Mandela: A Life – Anné Mariè du Preez Bezdrob
42. Black Feminist Thought – Patricia Hill Collins
43. African Women and Feminism: Reflecting on the Politics of Sisterhood – Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí
1Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (London: Routledge, 1991/2008).
Text originally appeared as the preface for Meleko Mokgosi: Democratic Intuition, published by Pacific with Jack Shainman Gallery (October 2020) on the occasion of the exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery’s The School; reproduced on the occasion of the exhibition Meleko Mokgosi: Democratic Intuition, Gagosian, Britannia Street, London, September 29–December 12, 2020
Artwork © Meleko Mokgosi; photos (installation views): Lucy Dawkins