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Issue 226

Dineo Seshee Bopape and the Multiplicity of the Ocean

Ahead of Bopape's presentation at TBA21–Academy's Ocean Space in Venice, Eric Otieno Sumba reflects on the artist’s relationship with the sea

BY Eric Otieno Sumba in Roundtables | 23 MAR 22

In lieu of a classic artist resume stating career milestones, the most common version of South African artist Dineo Seshee Bopape’s online biography is dense with miscellaneous historical information. ‘During the same year of her birth [1981], there were perhaps 22 recorded Atlantic Ocean hurricanes and four Indian Ocean cyclones close to Mozambique.’ That year, the text informs us, also brought an annular solar eclipse visible from the Pacific Ocean and news that the US and Japan were leading the seabed mining industry. ‘Other concurrent events of the year of her birth, and of her lifetime, are perhaps too many to fully know; some things continued, some shifted, others ended, some began, some transformed.’

Dineo Seshee Bopape, ‘Lerole: footnotes (The struggle of memory against forgetting)’, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: © the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg
Dineo Seshee Bopape, ‘Lerole: footnotes (The struggle of memory against forgetting)’, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: © the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg

Concurrence, in the many senses of the word – cooperation, alignment, agreement – that go beyond pure coincidence, is at the centre of Bopape’s recent works. Consider Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings] (2016–18), her installation presented at KW Institute for Contemporary Art as part of the 10th Berlin Biennale in 2018. Illuminated by Martian-orange lights, the piece evokes a post-apocalyptic scenario in which mounds of bricks and debris converge with dispersed makeshift bucket fountains, a playlist written on a framed paper napkin and a looped video of Nina Simone performing. A humongous cardboard disco ball hanging from the ceiling (Discoball X, 2018), a sound installation (Occupations of Uninhabited Space, 2013–ongoing) and a projector throwing images onto a t-shirt pinned to the wall (Justice for __, 2014) complete the scene.

Dineo Seshee Bopape, ‘Ile aye, moya, l , ndokh...harmonic conversions...mm’, 2021, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU, Richmond
Dineo Seshee Bopape, ‘Ile aye, moya, l , ndokh...harmonic conversions...mm’, 2021, installation view. Courtesy: © the artist and Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU, Richmond

Bopape’s inclusion of the latter three works – by Jabu Arnell, Robert Rhee and Lachell Workman, respectively – typifies her receptiveness to co-creation. For her, unforeseen convergences of various materials and lines of thought are wholly embraced as a welcome point of departure for her artistic practice. The orange glow, for instance, was inspired by the orange wall behind Simone as she performs ‘Feelings’ in 1976. Yet, despite the dishevelling nature of Bopape’s installation, this multiplicity of media and material evinces a totality of form and content that inaugurates a strangely coherent, multisensory realm with its room-filling scope and capacious dimensions.

In his essay ‘New Wave’ (2021), Carson Chan has previously written in these pages that ‘water’s disposition for depth, complexity and boundless fluidity, as well as its proximity to questions of mortality, has made it a potent motif in contemporary art’. While her Berlin installation only included water slowly dripping into the buckets from the ceiling, Bopape’s most recent practice rests heavily on water as a central theme. At the invitation of Chus Martínez, curator of TBA21–Academy’s two-year programme cycle, ‘The Soul Expanding Ocean’, the artist took part in an expedition to the Solomon Islands in 2019. Bopape’s project, to be presented at TBA21–Academy’s Ocean Space in Venice from April through October this year, begins from the concurrence of the personal, historical and spiritual with the currents of the ocean.

Dineo Seshee Bopape: Prep Sketches (Mawatle), 2019 - 2022, Chalk on paper, 23x31cm. “The Soul Expanding Ocean #3: Dineo Seshee Bopape” is commissioned and produced by TBA21–Academy.
Dineo Seshee Bopape, Prep Sketches (Mawatle), 2019–2022, chalk on paper, 23 × 31cm. Courtesy: © the artist, TBA21-Academy and Scott & Co

Invested in a mode of thinking with the sea as metaphor and materiality that sociologist Renisa Mawani describes in her book Oceans as Law (2018) as ‘the Ocean as method’, Bopape’s installation in Venice, titled Ocean! What if no change is your desperate mission? (2022), brings historical inquiry, traditional wisdom, illusion, imagination and hope together. True to its probing title, the installation draws on extensive research to counter the trivialization of the African oceanic imaginary as ‘cargo on somebody else’s boat’, in the words of novelist Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor in Swahili Names and Poem-Maps of the Ocean (2021).

Dineo Seshee Bopape, Untitled (of occult instability) [feelings], Exhibition view, Palais de Tokyo (23.06 – 11.09.2016). SAM Art Projects. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Aurélien Mole
Dineo Seshee Bopape, Untitled (of occult instability) [feelings], 2016, installation view. Courtesy: © the artist, SAM Art Projects and Palais de Tokyo; photograph: Aurélien Mole

For Bopape, the challenge, of course, was how to give form to the boundlessness of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, which she primarily engaged with during the expeditions and in a subsequent research residency in Jamaica. During a swim in the Solomon Islands, the artist found herself caught between the waves of the Pacific Ocean and a formidable curtain of tropical rainwater. In the aftermath of the mesmerizing encounter, Bopape dreamt of the song that forms a part of the installation in Venice. The video footage of the encounter, shot on a GoPro camera, is complemented by augmented reality to accentuate the atmospheric totality and ephemeral spirituality of her serendipitous baptism in rain and seawater.

Dineo Seshee Bopape's ‘Ocean! What if no change is your desperate mission?' is on view at TBA–Academy's Ocean Space during the 59th Venice Biennale from 09 April to 02 October 2022.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 226 with the headline ‘4 Artists to Watch 2022’. For additional coverage of the 59th Venice Biennale, see here.

Main image: Dineo Seshee Bopape, Prep Sketches (Mawatle), 2019 - 2022, chalk on paper, 23 × 31cm. Courtesy: © the artist, TBA21-Academy and Scott & Co

Eric Otieno Sumba is a writer and editor at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany. His work has been featured in publications including Camera Austria, Contemporary And, Griotmag, Lolwe and Texte zur Kunst.