Stream of Consciousness
Moshekwa Langa’s Poetic Mind Maps

James Joyce’s “Ulysses” had a decisive impact on Moshekwa Langa’s artistic career. The modernist masterpiece inspired the South African to create very personal images revolving around his feelings, memories, and associations. Langa is represented at the Berlin Biennale, and starting September 27 he will be shown in “The World on Paper,” the opening exhibition of the PalaisPopulaire featuring 300 international masterworks on paper from the Deutsche Bank Collection.
Moshekwa Langa has known Berlin for a long time. In 1995, the then 21-year-old was one of 36 artists included in Colours, the first international exhibition of South African contemporary art after the end of apartheid. The show at Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) was opened personally by Nelson Mandela. “The youngest of the invited artists, Moshekwa Langa, who before his Berlin visit had never sat in an airplane, pieced together his imaginary map tableaus and occasionally disappeared in Berlin’s nightlife,” recalls Sabine Vogel, who coordinated the HKW’s exhibition program at the time. In 2014, the artist then realized his own exhibition project at the ifa gallery. At the center is the expansive installation Siren Song. The arrangement of yarn rolls, neckties, disco balls, and spiral-striped objects that look like giant candy canes poetically tells of the charms of big cities. At the Berlin Biennale, he is currently presenting another important part of his manifold work: abstract painting. And starting on September 27, Langa will be on view at the PalaisPopulaire, in The World on Paper, the opening exhibition of the Deutsche Bank’s new forum for art, culture, and sports.

Titus, a painting on paper, will be shown at the PalaisPopulaire. Clouds in shades of blue float between red color fields, fragments of photographs, and comic-like speech bubbles. Written in the latter are the names “Solomon,” “Titus,” and “Dina Zulu,” the Zulu king who led a rebellion against the British colonial rulers, as well as words including “Isomiso” (drought) and “Ixilongo,” the title of a song. The creation from the Deutsche Bank Collection is typical of a work group Langa executed in the 2000s. He calls the group Index or Legends, referring to cartography. A legend is an explanatory list of the symbols on a map. And indeed, these pictures are “mind maps,” cartographies of certain moments in Langa’s life. Text passages alluding to his time at a boarding school in Pretoria—boarding school / secrets and lies / the clock is ticking / the bell is ringing—can be found here as well as the names of stars, including the R&B singer Mary J. Blige and Hollywood diva Lauren Bacall.

“The material flotsam of a biographical novel,” is how South African art critic Sean O’Toole refers to Langa’s Legends. They are akin to a visual stream of consciousness in which perceptions, feelings, memories, and associations overlap. These works are also a result of Langa’s occupation with James Joyce. He read Ulysses right after finishing school. The great novel, which describes a day in the life of advertising salesman Leopold Bloom, makes use of the stream-of-consciousness technique. The focus is not on outer events, but on what takes place in the minds of the protagonists—their thoughts, associations, and memory fragments. “I was having a lot of fun following this very weird, obtuse, abstract, descriptive and all communicating thing,” Langa recalled in an interview with O’Toole. “I did not even know what the story was, I just found it so compelling.”

He is fascinated by the novel’s sundry literary languages, in which lyrical passages are juxtaposed with sober, almost scientific segments. The collage principle of Ulysses occurs again and again in Langa’s artistic work, as does the novel’s radical subjectivity. And just as the book cannot be fully deciphered, Langa’s richly inferential meandering in Legends eschews complete interpretation. “It is a nonfactual, nonlinear account of what interests me,” explains the artist. “If I had to explain what I do to someone, to myself if I was not an artist, I would say that I make kind of dreamscapes.”

The point of departure for his dreamscapes is Bakenberg, a small village situated around 300 kilometers north of Johannesburg where he was born in 1975. At the time it was located in KwaNdebele, one of the “homelands” the apartheid regime set up for the black population. When he was in school, Langa once wanted to show a classmate where he came from. But Bakenberg was not on the map. Too small, too insignificant—and thus nonexistent. That was a decisive experience for the young Moshekwa and impacted his artistic work later.

Langa was still a teenager when he started making art. For his first artworks, he painted over maps. He imbued purportedly objective representations of topographical conditions with subjective elements, inscribing his existence into them. The works convey the experiences and feelings of a young black man who grew up in a country in which, day in and day out, the policy of apartheid told non-white residents that they were second-class citizens. Blacks who lived in the segregated homelands lost their South African citizenship. On the maps circulating at the time, these pseudo independent areas looked like small enclaves, surrounded by South African territory. Maps illustrate much more than just topographies. They also speak of history and politics.

Already in the reworked maps of his New Visual Atlas, Langa worked with collage elements, gluing together photos and found pieces such as foils, notes, and strings. For his 1995 work Skins, he then used empty, cut-open cement sacks consisting of multilayer, coarse paper that he processed using Vaseline, turpentine, coffee, and beet juice. He hung the large sheets of paper, which are reminiscent of animal skins, on a clothes drier in his grandmother’s yard. With works like Skins, for which he used everyday materials for economic reasons too, Langa invented his own version of Arte Povera. In the works, the links between his identity as a black South African and his exploitation as an underpaid worker can scarcely be overlooked.

When they were presented in Langa’s first solo exhibition in 1995 in an art space in Johannesburg, the Skins caused a sensation and were later acquired by the South African National Gallery. The show of the then 20-year-old artist marked the starting point of a remarkable international career. Soon, he was invited to the biennials in Johannesburg (1997), Istanbul (1997) and Venice (2003/2009). He also took part in important traveling exhibitions such as Africa Remix (2004-7). At that show, Langa was presented with Collapsing Guide (2000-3), large black plastic foils on which he attached webs of lines using colored tape. These pictures look as though he combined metro plans with abstract paintings of the South African Ndebele tribe and the late work of Mondrian, which was influenced by jazz rhythms, and beamed them into the present day. Langa also alludes to the pioneer of geometric abstraction in his manner of working: Mondrian was one of the first artists to experiment with adhesive tape, for example in his trailblazing composition Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942/43).

Langa’s works are always distinguished by their materiality, from his painted, collaged maps and Skins to Collapsing Guide, to his abstract paintings at the Berlin Biennale, which he painted on kraft paper. This coarse, tear-resistant paper is used to make sacks, but also to cover things, and is thus utilized at many construction sites in Johannesburg. Langa coated the paper with layers of acrylic and pigments, resulting in blue-green and orange-red iridescent color fields. This process of overpainting also gives rise to irregular surfaces that lend a tactile quality to the works.

Langa’s paintings spontaneously recall the water surfaces in Claude Monet’s famous water-lily pictures. And this association is not far-fetched, inasmuch as in these works the artist wanted “to create the sensation when you are looking at water,” be it the blue of the ocean or the green of the deep pool found at the Big Hole, the remains of an abandoned diamond mine in northern South Africa. In the catalog for his exhibition at MAXXI, the artist Nicola Brandt wrote that Langa’s abstract works are akin to “a materialization of feeling and emotion through color, texture.” When one views his flickering, incredibly vibrant works for Berlin, one can imagine Langa as a happy person—at least when he was working on these paintings.
Achim Drucks

Works by Moshekwa Langa are on show in the following exhibitions:

The World on Paper. Deutsche Bank Collection
9/27/2018 to 1/7/2019
PalaisPopulaire

Moshekwa Langa - Relatives
Until 9/15/2018
Blain|Southern London

Berlin Biennale
Until 9/9/2018
Akademie der Künste

Road to Justice
Until 10/14/2018
MAXXI, Rom