At Art Basel Unlimited, there were several paintings that were so huge that they required their own rooms, but none felt as epically proportioned—both in scale and content—as Meleko Mokgosi’s Bread, Butter, and Power. It becomes practically immersive, spanning 21 panels and nearly all four walls of its designated booth. The monumental painting was acquired by an American collection for $750,000!
In his panoramic cycle “Bread, Butter, and Power” (2016-18), painter Meleko Mokgosi explores how gender roles, particularly gendered divisions of labor, intersect with issues of class, ethnicity and education. The cycle, which includes 21 paintings, comprises just one chapter in Mokgosi’s epic, eight-part “Democratic Intuition” (2013-2019), which employs the scale and tropes of cinema and history painting to explore “the daily-lived experiences of the Black subject, both in the American context and in southern Africa.”
One chapter in the series, Bread, Butter, and Power (2018), is an elaborate twenty-one-panel panoramic painting, wrapping around the walls of an entire gallery, that abounds with overt references to recent social and political histories, as well as diverse associations brought together imaginatively to make a conceptual point. In one panel, uniformed schoolgirls, painted in meticulous detail, till a field of soil rendered in broad abstract strokes; in another, a group of elderly South African military veterans in uniform are gathered, two women seated at the front, as if for a reunion photograph; in a third, two women in period dress embrace in an imagined domestic tableau that contains, among other visual cues, a portrait of a defiant young Harriet Tubman, dressed in the black, green, and red of the Black Liberation flag; a self-portrait by Cameroonian photographer Samuel Fosso in the guise of Black radical Angela Davis; and Mokgosi’s own protest poster in ANC colors, which refers to the people’s battle cry following the infamous Uitenhage massacre in 1985: THEY WILL NEVER KILL US ALL.
In the chapter Objects of Desire (2016–20), individual small paintings of Afrocentric beauty advertisements, Paleolithic cave paintings, and contemporary African objects are grouped together with text paintings in both English and Setswana, in which lines from museum wall labels, poems, and dinaane (oral histories) are accompanied by Mokgosi’s own critical marginalia. His annotations confront the erasure of African languages by racist policies under apartheid and reclaim these varied mother tongues.
Democracy is incompatible not only with the foundational elements of the human subject, but also with the various systems and institutions that support dominant forms of subjectivity or humanism in general. In other words, democracy is incompatible with structural racism and institutionalized or systemic violence; democracy is incompatible with neocolonialism and neo-imperialism; democracy is incompatible with the instruments that reproduce the conditions for and possibilities of capitalism; democracy is incompatible with race discourse, Eurocentrism, ethnocentrism, and humanism—all of which have become the dominant ways in which reality is conceptualized, interacted with, and historicized.
This summer, Mokgosi will serve as the 2021-22 Henry L. and Natalie E. Freund Teaching Fellow at Washington University in St. Louis. The fellowship, which is jointly sponsored by the Saint Louis Art Museum and the university’s Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, is designed to promote the creation and exhibition of contemporary art as well as the teaching of contemporary art principles.
“We are delighted to welcome Meleko,” said Amy Hauft, director of the Sam Fox School’s College and Graduate School of Art. “In addition to his extraordinary dexterity and skills as a thinker and maker, he is an exceptional educator. Our students anticipate his studio visits and seminar projects, and our whole community looks forward to his presence on campus.”