The exploitation of the black body, and the counter efforts to resist, are the centre of gravity for South African history. Everything else- colonialism, Apartheid, violence, war, brutal labour and toil, paranoia and fear revolve around this to various degrees. Such a trouble reality of embodiment is central to the work of Mohau Modisakeng, the winner of the 2016 Standard Bank Young Visual Artist award. Originally from Soweto, he initially studied sculpture under Jane Alexander at UCT. But his focus shifted from sculpting external bodies to documenting his own. And through a series of photographs, films and installations he has made profound imagery which draws upon ancient and contemporary scars.
A great example is the 2012 photographic series Untitled. What strikes you first is the beauty of the images. They are expertly posed and styled, with plumes of mist and white doves giving a dream-like atmosphere. But the items included in the shots, like colonial style bowler hats and repeating rifles, betray a more brutal reality. History seeps like blood into all his work, with Endabeni being made at the site of the first official segregated settlement in South Africa, a literal birthplace of Apartheid urban planning.
His more recent work extends his critique beyond the borders of South Africa, with potent references to global forms of exploitation. An image called ‘ To Move Mountains’ is a stark close up of hands being soaked in crude oil. It subtly highlights how the substance we depend on is also the cause of war and environmental destruction, from the Niger Delta to the Middle East. My favourite image of his features a fancy dining room table covered in piles of filthy coal and scattered debris. Historically it speaks to how European high culture was built on the backs of black slavery and the plundering of the Global South, and to how white supremacy was haunted by the fear of revolt and reprisal from the repressed. It also implies that our modern civilization is built on a fragile foundation of non-renewable resources.
Modisakeng makes visual poetry from these contradictions. His work is like a documentary snatched out of nightmares.