As a fine arts student trying to get some insight into what contemporary South African art might be (let’s not open that can of worms though) I remember coming across an image online of Moshekwa Langa’s Untitled (Skins) 1995, installed at the Iziko South African National Gallery. Dirtied and torn cement packets hung in an exhibition space from a washing line. It was a moment of sublime understanding, encountering a work so rich with multiple references, yet rooted in a simplicity of form and material that was breathtaking. And so I first encountered Langa’s work (albeit online and not in the flesh), and since then I have followed his artistic output with a fair amount of excitement. He is an artist that works across a wide array of mediums, refusing to be pigeonholed into one specific mode of working, which is actually rather unusual for a contemporary artist. His exhibitions are famed for combining painterly works, collage, installation, drawings, and film, presenting the viewer with a multi-sensorial experience. Whilst there is a definite sense of creative freedom in his practice, he owns and continues to master his approach. And you can’t help but get the feeling from looking at his work that Moshekwa Langa enjoys being an artist.
Fugitive, the artist’s first show in Johannesburg since he last exhibited in the city in 2009, is evidence of an artist who is thinking and working through a studio practice. Where this relationship between process and product is most noticeable for me is in the works incorporating collage. A technique that Langa has employed since his early years as an artist, it allows him to juxtapose and think through images, drawing onto them, manipulating them. It leaves you with the sense that as the viewer you’re witness to the inner workings of the artist’s mind; drifting between the black and white grainy images referencing the landscape of his home town of Bakenberg, whilst caught up in the swirling colour of his imagination. Masking tape, a staple of any artist’s studio, is a material generally used and discarded once the “job is done,” but for Langa it’s a material that becomes part of the very fabric of an artwork, utilizing it practically as it holds used sandpaper and photographs, and formally for it’s opacity and ability to layer, building up texture.
The evidence of a man displaced, separated by land and ocean from a place he once called home, is subtly woven into what might be referred to as abstract paintings. Just as Langa flits between process and product, so he seems to traverse the terrain between abstraction and representation. As a viewer, this terrain is somewhat pleasant to explore, as one feels free to stand in front of a work, lost in the physical experience of colour and one’s own thoughts, yet still able to root it in a present and geographic reality (often through the titles given each work by the artist.) As the artist does not start with a predetermined image of an artwork in mind, but rather makes through experimentation, the evidence of this creative play and struggle are embedded in the works, which translates to the viewer a vulnerability. We are not being presented with a particular agenda, but rather we are encouraged to observe the path of one still finding their way. The result of this organic studio process is rather refreshing, works that are situated in personal memory and experience, which then ripple outwards to reflect a larger social and political discussion. The personal becomes public with Langa’s work, and just as with his Drag Paintings, created by literally dragging large canvasses through dusty dirt roads, the debris of society gets tossed up by the motion of the artist through the studio.
The artist will be giving a walkabout of his work at Stevenson, Johannesburg, on Saturday 9 September at 11 am.