Short email interview conducted with Meleko Mokgosi for the exhibition project The Beautyful Ones, 2013
What do you understand, and think off when you hear ‘The Beautyful Ones’?
My associations to this are slightly obscure and more than anything, highlight my cultural and intellectual investments. I tend to associate the idea of the beautiful ones with the Setswana word ‘Makgowa/Makgoa’. This term, although sounding more derogatory than it really is, is what we, Batswana, use to refer to white people. And something tells me that the word itself comes from the verb – ‘go kgwa’ – which literally means ‘to spit out’, or this is just my own made-up etymology of the term. My guess, strong emphasis on ‘my guess,’ is that the term originated from a phrase that alluded to those that were spat out by the sea… i.e. Makgowa. Makgowa, or the singular, lekgowa, also refers to a person of privilege or the ‘boss’. Hence the word is sometimes used to coddle the person with whom you are indebted, and whose favour is important. Of course the term, also used to indicate people light in complexion – refers to a particular kind of beauty, since white/fair skinned people in my region, Botswana, were more often than not, perceived to be more beautiful just by virtue of their skin tone. So this phrase, the beautiful ones, means something quite specific in my thinking – because it ties the idea of beauty/favour to an articulated subject position: the ones that are beautiful.
Are there any particular African writers/theorists/intellectuals that have made an impact on you? Who, and in what way did they influence your practice as an artist?
I dont really read much by way of African (whatever this means) writers. Yet I have been recently reading a bit of Zakes Mda, Jennifer Wenzel and Achille Mbembe. However everything I read some how points to the continent because it informs how I negotiate my relation with the region.
Are you comfortable being called an ‘African’ artist? Is it a valid term?
Yes and yes.
Any further thoughts?
Well, I have always been terrified of being called or labeled (as they say) an ‘African artist’ because I thought this would limit me, and do less good. But the more I thought about it – which is a lot – the more I realized that by not allowing myself and my practice to fall under this category, the more I contributed to the already existing and established stereotypes and misreadings of what ‘African artist’ actually means or could mean. So now it seems ever more important to absolutely welcome this label or category of ‘African artist,’ because this is the only way of expanding and transforming the category in a way which makes it more representative and less stereotypical.
Where is home?
It would be plural for me, wherever my wife is, and my mother is; namely – New York and Gaborone, respectively. But I have other homes too, Williamstown is another very important one.
You are in many ways a contemporary history painter. What is the critical value of painting today, and how do you see this ‘value’ in the process and understanding of history?
I dont think painting has a critical value, it seems too old to have critical cache. Painting, I would argue, would have difficulty holding on to appearing as critical because ‘criticality’ in art is a stylistic trope that has always tried to negate and critique painting. Just as abstract painting depended on and responded to perspectival representation for its emergence, ‘criticality’ must need painting. But I do think that painting and all other mediums are equivalent in that all mediums have limits; and it is how an artist finds those limits productive that a critical engagement can surface. The point has never been, and should not be to transcend the medium, but to hover around its limits until something productive happens.
Have you ever felt like a stranger?
To myself? Always.