On Moshekwa Langa

Christian Haye

Christian Haye is a writer based in New York. His work has appeared in frieze, the Village Voice, OUT amongst other publications and journals. His poetry has been included in the anthology ALOUD: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café. From 1998 – 2010 he ran the gallery space The Project in New York and Los Angeles.

Moshekwa Langa

Born in Bakenberg, South Africa, and based in Johannesburg and Amsterdam, Moshekwa Langa studied at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam in 1997-98. Rising to international prominence in the late 1990s, he was an active participant in what is now considered the golden age of biennales, including those of Johannesburg (1997), Istanbul (1997), Havana (1997), São Paulo (1998 and 2010), Gwangju (2000), Venice (2003 and 2009), and Lyon (2011). He has had solo exhibitions at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam (1998), the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva (1999), the Renaissance Society in Chicago (1999), the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati (2003), Kunstverein Düsseldorf (2004), the National Museum of the 21st Century Arts (MAXXI) in Rome (2005), Modern Art Oxford (2007), Kunsthalle Bern (2011), the Krannert Art Museum in Champaign, Illinois (2013), and the ifa Galleries in Stuttgart and Berlin (2014). In describing his work, he says: “For me it is interesting to work in that liminal space between losing consciousness of the real and falling into a fantastical wakefulness, of making sense of what is around me, and what I imagine and hope to be around me and what I wish to be away from me.”

On November 14, 1999 the curator Hamza Walker initiated a discussion with the artist Moshekwa Langa with a prescient observation: “I feel I should open with a strange question. The issue of chronological development in the work [is] . . . difficult.” After slightly more than two decades of practice, attempting to capture what is “difficult” about Moshekwa Langa’s work remains, well . . . difficult. I’m now convinced that this isn’t merely the result of a solipsistic decision by an artist who has chosen to play coy in the midst of the international art world, but rather a survival strategy to avoid being run over by that very system.

Veiled Landscape
Veiled Landscape
Detail View 2010-16
Mixed media installation
Dimensions variable
Stevenson Cape Town, 2016
© Moshekwa Langa courtesy of Stevenson Cape Town and Johannesburg

Langa’s work encompasses virtually every medium one can think of, including sculpture, installation, performance, video, photography, collage, drawing, and painting. He approaches the making of objects with the simple idea that the work consists of whatever the artist is doing at any given moment. He is of the generation of South African artists — I am thinking of Johannesburg contemporaries like Kendell Geers and Tracey Rose — who have declined to serve as docents for their own work, and who refuse to be confined to any one medium or style, to the degree that this refusal itself becomes their style.

Unfortunately, many in the art world seem to have a pressing a need to pin these artists down, as well as to ask what their work says about South Africa in particular and about Africa in general. This colonial mindset is what sets the artists to flight.

Veiled Landscape
Veiled Landscape, 2010-16
Mixed media installation
Dimensions variable
Stevenson Cape Town, 2016
© Moshekwa Langa courtesy of Stevenson Cape Town and Johannesburg

“Temporal Distance With a Criminal Intent” — a work first premiered at the second South African Biennial in 1997 — serves as a valuable starting-point in coming to terms with Langa’s work. This floor installation with various spheres and haphazard objects (a toy truck, a mirror ball) created an impression of a bas-relief map with an approximation of topography, and simultaneously a kind of playground for the artist positioned guilelessly in their midst. Each successive recreation of the piece shifted the goal posts away from any steady interpretation, forcing the viewer to follow the artist, knowing only that the chase had begun.

In 2011, a large museum exhibition of Langa’s work, Marhumbini — In Another Time, was presented at the Kunsthalle Bern, Switzerland. Here photos, video, drawings, and an installation captured the depth and range of Langa’s artistic vision of a multiverse that simultaneously exists everywhere and nowhere. As this concept took on life the artist himself began to fade from view. The slippery eel that is Langa the artist once again had the last word(s); against a sludgy black backdrop a text painting displayed the words I AM LEAVING YOU NOW.

I Am Leaving You Now
I Am Leaving You Now
Kunsthalle Bern, 2011
© Moshekwa Langa courtesy of Kunsthalle Bern

A new body of work from Langa now comes at what seems a time of control and mastery for the puzzle-maker. These 2014-2015 works on paper offer a simple set of variables: no more than seven media (acrylic, ink pigments, the occasional use of coffee, for example) and no more than two sizes (140 x 100cm or 162 x 122cm). “Mountains of the Moon” is one of the works at the smaller scale.

Moshekwa Langa
Moshekwa Langa, Mountains of the Moon, 2014/2015
Acrylic, Indian ink, tape, pigments, interference paint, varnish on paper
140 x 100 cm / (55 ⅛ x 39 ⅜ in)
BSL ref: 52021

Two-thirds of the image is made up of thickets of semi-hatched birch-like white strips, which could also easily stand in for barren earth. The puffy green globules above the hatchwork could be leafy tops for the birch trunks or iridescent clouds in an alien sky. The top of the piece is sky blues interrupted by streaks of black. The syncopated rhythms that Langa orchestrates here summon a landscape in which the composer Sun Ra, traveling the spaceways, would have felt right at home.

Moshekwa Langa
Moshekwa Langa, Ramothibedi le Maloma (Cedrick and Eddie), 2014/2015
Acrylic, Indian ink, pigments, interference paint, varnish on paper
162 x 122 cm / (63¾ x 48⅛ in)
BSL ref: 52028

For a contrast take a look at “Ramothibedi le Maloma (Cedrick and Eddie).” There is something so intimate and moody going on in this maelstrom of deep blues, black, and white that I’m tempted to call the figures it depicts lovers, though perhaps I’m mistaking them and they are members of a family.

Moshekwa Langa
Moshekwa Langa, The Children, 2014/2015
Acrylic, Indian ink, pigments, interference paint, varnish on paper
162 x 122 cm / (63 ¾ x 48 ⅛ in)
BSL ref: 52029

One subject that is not addressed often enough in contemporary art is joy. “The Children,” like “Ramothibedi le Maloma (Cedrick and Eddie),” is one of the larger pieces in this current body of work. In it, more than two hundred circular forms mutate into the rainbow hues of a group of children, happy and sad, blissful and petulant. The assembly of these forms becomes a class portrait of young people who are impatiently waiting to inhabit the space that we now occupy.

The world (and the word) feeds on itself. Moshekwa Langa will continue to provide the essential protein whenever it is needed in order for this feast to continue.

Atlántica

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