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Press Release

Honor Fraser is pleased to present Objects of Desire: Reflections on the African Still Life, an exhibition of new works by Meleko Mokgosi.

Meleko Mokgosi makes classical paintings that expose the limitations of Western painting techniques in depicting the African body and culture. Interested in how paintings have shaped the public imagination and the ways in which display methodologies reinforce social hierarchies, the artist challenges the viewer to empathize with the subject of the work by presenting imagery devoid of conventional narrative clues. Objects of Desire and Chimurenga are the final chapters in the series Democratic Intuition started by the artist in 2013. Often large in scale, Mokgosi’s paintings fit within the genre of history paintings—the highest form of academic painting—but for this series, the artist has chosen to create smaller works that engage with the lowest tradition: the still life. Revisiting imagery from past works in the series, this play between genres asks viewers to reconsider how we use institutionalized and bias categories in order to construct the conditions under which we create knowledge and therefore work towards conceptualizing and understanding the world.

Mokgosi’s research for this body of work included looking into the Museum of Modern Art’s archives, specifically the exhibitions “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern (1984) and Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life (1997). Primitivism has become infamous for the public backlash, the main criticism involving the way in which curator William Rubin discussed the African works on view only as they were perceived and collected by the early Modernists, not as objects with their own histories. Objects of Desire made a strong argument for viewing the inanimate objects depicted by the Modernists as evidence of a growing lexicon of affluence among the cosmopolitan artists. MoMA has a long and storied history of presenting seminal exhibitions and important scholarly publications. For all of this important output, the institution and its legacy must be questioned in order to remain relevant. Mokgosi approaches these two exhibitions through an examination of the contemporary African object in his own paintings with the aim of challenging the legacy of African art as a tool of the Modernists in developing their own methodologies.

Expanding the idea of the still life to include two-dimensional objects, this recent body of paintings features photographs, posters, and magazines. For instance, in a panel of Comrades II (2016), an image transfer of a bride hangs on a wall behind a ghostly figure. In this work, the bride is background to the main subject of the painting, but in Mokgosi’s new painting, the photograph of the bride fills the entire space of the canvas, making her image the focus of the painting, transforming the object to the subject. Another new work depicts two ceramic dogs against a wall with a poster of Jesus surrounded by his apostles hung close to a photo of an African woman in a bikini. With this work, Mokgosi has swapped in decorative African objects for the sacred and juxtaposes the tradition and influence of Western religion against contemporary mores. Interspersed between the paintings of objects, Mokgosi presents a 1985 Haworth Editorial Submission on the use of “primitive” in library and catalogue protocols as well as texts taken from MoMA’s didactic labels from Primitivism with his own annotations, making evident the cultural biases and omissions in these influential texts.

Capping this series, the artist will present his first sculptures, replicas of seemingly banal objects in museum-like vitrines. The significance of these objects is tied to the polar legacies of two African revolutionaries: Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Nelson Mandela of South Africa. As with the paintings, Mokgosi is employing Western signifiers to tease out the legacies of colonialism in daily African life. The artist illustrates how value is bestowed upon objects by the institution as the museum cases protect objects that privilege meaning for only a specific segment of the global population.

Meleko Mokgosi was born in Francistown, Botswana in 1981 and lives in New York. He is an assistant professor of practice at NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study (2012-present). In September 2018, Mokgosi co-founded the Interdisciplinary Art and Theory Program. Mokgosi completed the Affiliate Painting Program at Slade School of Fine Art, University of London, UK in 2006; received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Williams College, Williamstown, MA in 2007; attended the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, New York, NY in 2007; and received his Master of Fine Arts from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2011.

One-person exhibitions of Mokgosi’s work have been presented at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore (2018, on view through November 11); the Fowler Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles (2018; traveling to the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago in 2019); Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, MA (2017); Memorial Art Gallery and Rochester Contemporary Art Center, Rochester, NY (2017); and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2015).

His work has been included in group exhibitions such as Lines of Influence, SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, GA (2018); 20/20, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh (2017); Art/Afrique, Le nouvel atelier, Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris (2017); Excerpt, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York (2017); The Ease of Fiction, Contemporary Art Museum Raleigh, NC (2016; traveled to California African American Museum, Los Angeles and Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco); A story within a story…, Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art, Göteborg, Sweden (2015); African Odysseys, Le Brass, Centre Culturel de Forest, Belgium (2015); Nero su Bianco, American Academy in Rome Gallery, Rome (2015); Migrating Identities, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco (2013); Meanwhile… Suddenly and Then, Lyon Biennial, Lyon, France (2013); Primary Sources and The Bearden Project, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York (2012); Made in L.A. 2012, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2012); and Pool of Possibilities: Mapping Currents for the 3rd Guangzhou Triennial, Guangzhou, China (2008).

Mokgosi has been the recipient of numerous awards and grants including the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant (2017); the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Grant (2017); Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Fine Arts (2017); Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters & Sculptors Grant (2016); 
and the Mohn Award in conjunction with Made in L.A. 2012 (2012). He participated in the Rauschenberg Residency at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Captiva, FL in 2015 and the Artist-in-Residence Program at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York in 2012.

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