It is a measure of how things have shifted in South Africa since 1994, when voters of all races charted a new direction for the country by voting in the African National Congress, that the figure of the orphan genius – a self-taught black artist, typically from an impoverished background, for instance Dumile Feni, Tito Zungu and Moshekwa Langa – is gradually being eclipsed by the young black professional. Born in Soweto, that epicentre of black urbanity and cosmopolitan culture, 28-year-old Mohau Modisakeng is a product of the art school grind, having submitted, sometimes grudgingly, to the liturgy of critical theory and indignity of student exhibitions at Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art. His untitled 2012 Master’s degree show neatly summarized his early pop style and, unavoidably, rehearsed many of the formal and thematic preoccupations of ‘Ditaola’ (literally ‘divination bones’), his elegiac debut solo exhibition with a commercial gallery.
Mentored by Jane Alexander, an elusive artist whose Ed Kienholz-inspired sculptures privilege figuration and ethical enquiry, Modisakeng’s Master’s exhibition included a variety of sculptures animating his core themes of violence, labour and mourning. These included a stained leather apron used by steelworkers, an oversized rifle made of wood and fabric and a self-portrait from his 2010 untitled triptych series depicting the artist in a leopard-print vest and leather apron. ‘Ditaola’ similarly juxtaposes sculpture and photography, and comprises nearly a dozen sculptural pieces – ranging from life-size figure studies to large non-representational objects – presented in conjunction with two new series of self-portraits, and bookended with a body of video works, including Inzilo (Mourning, 2013), a kind of Chris Cunningham slow-motion study of the artist performing a mourning ritual associated with widows.
Where Modisakeng’s early sculptures expressed a pop ambition similar to Brett Murray and Stuart Bird, both alumni of Michaelis, Modisakeng’s new sculptures are marked by baroque grandness. Works like Untitled (Trumpets) (all 2014), three ornately decorated steel pyramids leaning on white plinths, and Untitled (Bust, 1–4), four bronze mannequin busts variously sporting bubble-wrap scarves, horns and headgear, are of the same cosmos as Wim Botha, a Cape Town artist similarly occupied with myth, memorials and classical figuration. In a show that flirts with quotation and pastiche, works like Untitled (Table) and Untitled (Chair), both of which incorporate carved plastic whips into domestic objects, read as striking and generic at the same time. Kendell Geers has similarly transformed instruments of policing into minimalist sculptural statements.
Modisakeng is interested in South African history, particularly in its constant mediation as a narrative, as well as the recurring presence of violence and exclusion in the material culture of the everyday. Many of his sculptures, including Untitled (Fence), an elegant defensive enclosure made from painted wood and mild steel that is of the same ambitious order as Nicholas Hlobo’s kraal Umthubi (2006), feature ornamental spear-shaped finials. There is a banal familiarity to these wrought iron objects, which cap suburban fences and gates in Modisakeng’s crime-embattled country. He manages, however, to wrest these objects from their suburban gloom, offering them as rich symbols of a sustained violence.
Unfortunately his photographic work is less concise. Robin Rhode is an obvious reference, and while Modisakeng is equal to Rhode in technique and composition, the display of his work lacked formal care. Inelegantly splashed across the gallery like posters, Modisakeng’s self-portraits also verge on cliché. Ditaola III – VII is a frontal mid-length study of the artist in military pose, antique rifle hiked over his back. Like Rhode, Modisakeng wants to take on the role of the trickster; unfortunately, the white pigeon that recurs throughout the series, in rest and in flight, establishes him as a mere circus magician. Ditaola I, II & – VIII–XVI offers a fuller view of Modisakeng, again with bird and wearing a pleated skirt, which is stained black like the leather apron on his Master’s exhibition. Unlike Zimbabwean expatriate Kudzanai Chiurai’s photographic series, ‘State of the Nation’ (2012) – a self-consciously kitsch David LaChapelle-influenced meditation on political violence through portraiture – Modisakeng’s photographs offer only glossy surface and strategy. Gone is the working class superhero of his 2010 untitled triptych, replaced now by the professional artist playacting.
Modisakeng is an ambitious artist whose approach to material and metaphor is exciting. But, rather than mark a bold new trajectory after a period of increasing sameness in art from South Africa, ‘Ditaola’ rehearses rote positions, in effect reiterating the sameness. This is not unusual: after the distilled rage of Public Enemy came the high opera of Kanye West and Jay-Z. Modisakeng could be as big as the latter, but not on the strength of this exhibition.