Q&A: Thato Mogotsi, Assistant Curator Zeitz MOCAA – Tracey Rose retrospective, “Shooting Down Babylon” (2022)

AiW note: In February 2022, Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA, Cape Town, South Africa) opened Shooting Down Babylon, the largest comprehensive retrospective of the work of South African artist Tracey Rose (b. 1974, South Africa):

“A radical voice in the international and South African art world since the mid 90s, Rose’s cutting and uncompromising vision will be foregrounded in a large-scale exhibition including work spanning from 1996 to 2019.

The title of the exhibition derives from an iconic installation Shooting Down Babylon (The Art of War) (2016), which reflects on varied exorcist and cleansing rituals from non-Western communities. The work points to several themes that stem from post-colonial entanglements such as repatriation, recompense and reckoning and epitomises the wide-ranging medium and concerns that are prevalent in Rose’s practice.”

The exhibition runs until Sunday August 28th.

Earlier this year, and just a week in to the exhibition’s opening, AiW’s Tom Penfold caught up with Assistant Curator at Zeitz, Thato Mogotsi, discussing the radicality of Rose’s practice and revolutionary voice, and the import of holding the retrospective of her work at Zetiz MOCAA in this moment – the impact of the pandemic on the exhibition, but also on the terms of the future of the museum’s own commitments as a contemporary institution, and as a timely reflection on the curatorial role… 

Tom Penfold for AiW: Hi Thato, thank you for agreeing to talk to us today. I wanted to start by asking how things have been going since the exhibition started? 

Thato Mogotsi for Zeitz MOCAA: Oh, we’re all still recovering from the work that went into Tracey’s show to be quite honest. My colleagues have been working on this for probably two years in between the lockdown and the striking devastation of the pandemic. 

So you should know, Tom, that I’ve joined the team very recently, actually. I started in my position as assistant curator on the 17th of January. I arrived at a moment where everything was literally just really, really in full swing.

TP: And how are you finding things after joining the team when things are in such flux? Indeed, thinking about Tracey’s show, it has clearly been quite a long time coming, this particular moment. How do you think that delay – with the pandemic and other delays in opening it – how’s that changed what you’re trying to do with it? Or has that become a particularly good reflection of how society has changed? How’s the first week been, as well, I suppose?

TM: We’ve received a lot of great, great feedback from the general public and Cape Town. Granted, we opened the show in the same week as the Cape Town Art Fair, and a lot of other activities going on in the local art scene. So I think we had a really good sort of moment, in the initial opening of the show. 

But how the show comes to happen is as a result of our Executive Director and Chief Curator, Koyo Kouoh, having a long standing personal and professional relationship with Tracey Rose. And it’s really telling how it speaks to the kind of care that goes into curatorial work, as we understand the word itself, curator and curatorial, to refer to the notion of caring for not just art objects, but artists. I think this exhibition is very much indicative of the kind of approach that Koyo has brought with her to the institution when it comes to curatorial work and what it means in the context of a museum with as big or as grand a design as Zeitz MOCAA – Zeitz being the largest contemporary art museum on the continent, being very focused in terms of its vision to reposition contemporary art from the continent and its diaspora in very particular and intentional ways. So Tracey Rose occurs as a solo exhibition in our programming as a very pointed way of doing that quite actively. 

The long standing relationship that Koyo has had to Tracey has led to a very interesting repositioning or re-looking at Tracey’s practice; looking at how she contributes to a very particular generation of South African contemporary art practice as well. She begins her career in the 90s and what we see in this exhibition is the spectrum of 30 years, the continuum of her work. 

And so I think the exhibition occurs at a point where we haven’t done that for a long time in South Africa. In terms of the art scene, the contemporary art scene, we haven’t reflected on the kinds of artists that occurred, or whose careers took a particular kind of trajectory after the end of apartheid, for instance, in the post colonial moment in South Africa. So that’s the significance of having a very pointed, intentional retrospective of Tracey Rose.

TP: Cool, thanks. That leads me to two other questions which come to mind. Firstly, as you say it’s obviously three decades’ worth of Tracey’s practice, encapsulating that, or re-looking at that. What do you think some of those shifts are over that period within her work? And do you think there’s a particular piece, or two, that particularly highlights these shifts?

TM: I remember, for instance, seeing a very early work of Tracey Rose’s, a video work, or the kind of documentation of a performance piece, called Span I and Span II (1997), and it’s a work that she did at the South African National Art Museum here in Cape Town. And you know, that work was featured in another seminal exhibition – I mean, when you think through exhibition histories that Tracey Rose’s work has featured in, it’s quite interesting to see her move in very particular ways in the global art world and also within exhibition history. 

This work, Span I and Span II, is a work where she literally shaved her bodily hair, and then begins to knit it. And the performance itself has her sitting in the nude, in a box, knitting her bodily hair. 

I first encountered this work in Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent, a very seminal show curated by the very well known and renowned African curator, Simon Njami. And it’s interesting how I encounter that work in the context of a group show about African contemporary art, a very influential show, and then to see it in the context of this solo retrospective. I realised that Tracey has always used her body as a kind of frontier to deal with socio-political issues, to deal with thematics that are quite challenging, in the context, not only of South Africa, but of the world; to deal with the kind of historical consequences of colonialism, for instance, of identity and representation, of agency, as an African body, as a Black Woman body. 

So it’s quite interesting to see how her work really hasn’t shifted in big, gigantic ways. It’s been consistent in the way that she expresses or confronts us with the inequalities of the world; or the hierarchies of power that exist in the world that we continue to live with, that haven’t been dismantled, that haven’t been challenged, to the extent that they need to be. In the 30 years spanning the retrospective, that kind of unrelenting contestation remains the same throughout her practice. That work about how her body exists in the world, how her body represents in ambiguous ways, racially speaking, for instance, is something that remains throughout her practice, something that she contends with throughout her 30 years of working and continues to do so today. 

There’s another body of work that I think is most familiar to a South African audience – for instance, The Kiss (2001), a photograph of her and her longtime friend and former gallerist, embracing – that’s referencing sculptural work. There is also an art historical kind of investigation that can be pursued in Tracey’s work that continues to the current moment of her practice. 

But we really haven’t put together an exhibition that is linear, that’s trying to create a kind of timeline of a practice. Her work goes back and forth and pulls on multiple threads simultaneously, constructs and deconstructs quite persistently throughout her practice, so it’s not a good idea to think of a retrospective along the lines of time. Temporality, I think, in Tracey’s work is something that operates in very unusual ways.

TP: You mentioned the importance of the body. And that’s really obvious just looking at Tracey Rose’s work. My own research is looking at how performance in the body and using the body has come, in many ways, to the forefront of culture, particularly in South Africa. And a lot of literature has been sidelined, for example in #FeesMustFall which turned away from protest literature and poetry and turned increasingly to bodily performance. In some ways Tracey’s a forerunner to all that, isn’t she? As you say, this has been going on for 20-30 years in her work. Why do you think the body is so significant so early on for Tracey, I suppose, in terms of this wider moment.

TM: There’s a lot of anecdotal information around much of her work, her performative work, that uses her body. And what I have heard Tracey express about why her body is so present in much of her work is that, just simply, it’s something that is accessible to her, at a quotidian level. Her body is all that she has, and has had, even as a young artist, as an art student, not having access to art materials. What did she have access to? Her body. 

There’s something quite interesting about that, I think, for me, and maybe perhaps that’s something that is quite common for artists who come from a particular geopolitical socio economic background. I don’t want to make it a racialized thing. It’s not an aesthetic, not at all, and especially not for Tracey. But it is a kind of way in which she forms a language of protest. 

And if you think through protest as well within the South African human rights narrative, the body’s at the frontline, right? Apartheid, protests, language, really, you see this in photography, you see this in other mediums of visual art and visual language – the body is frontal. So I think that’s an interesting way to think about it, that beyond just representing oneself or the agency that comes with self imaging, it forms a kind of a broader social language of protest, you know what I mean? And that’s why when Koyo, who has worked the longest and the most intimately with Tracey, talks about rage in Tracey’s work, it is as a thinking through the body as an intelligent kind of weapon. More than just the canvas, it’s like: I am going to show you through my physicality, through my presence in the world, the things that I am not satisfied with, the things that I am enraged by, the things that I want to push back against. So there’s a complicated understanding of the body and Tracey’s use of her own body that I think needs to be foregrounded when we talk about her work in relation to the current zeitgeist of figurative painting or self portraiture that we see in a lot of contemporary art from Africa. 

TP: It’s the face that really strikes me with her work. We talk about the body, but to look at so many of her pieces, you’re automatically drawn to faces. You mentioned The Kiss, for example, Lucie’s Fur (2003-04) does something similar – we are automatically looking at a face; Die Wit Man (2015), also the same. It’s the face that captures you when you first look at it. Why do you think the face is perhaps so important? Has Tracey mentioned that?

TM: I haven’t spoken with her about it but I think there’s something really alluring about her features, the face she was born with. And I think, in that sense, there’s a kind of bravery in that she doesn’t obscure her face in ways that some artists who have used their body as explicitly as Tracey does sometimes do. 

I think you’re picking up on the kind of frontal approach that she has, with the way that her body is photographed, documented, either through performance, or even through her drawings – for instance, there’s one drawing, one painting that she did when she was pregnant with her son. The work is called Lala (2013), named after her son. And it is a beautiful image that foregrounds the bubbly lips of her son, her child, a baby infant’s face. So I think she is aware of how her face works in relation to the rest of her body in her practice. There is also an exploration of blackface that Tracey does in certain bodies of work that is, I think, very confrontational, and very challenging, but that she places herself in physically as well, so she’s not obscuring her face. 

This is her face in relation to the body and the way she uses her body – I think it’s like: I am not afraid to actually be seen as the person who is making these statements in my work. And that really does speak to the kind of bravery that she has always portrayed in her work. When you think quite specifically about the generation that she comes from, that’s really powerful and very rare. We don’t see that amongst her peers, not as blatantly as we do in her practice.

Image: Tracey Rose, Lucie’s Fur, Version 1:1:1 – The Messenger, 2003.

TP: The other thing that I notice is her use of colour. In some instances it is really, again, powerful, quite confrontational. Some of what she is trying to say is shocking. And the show does come with its discretionary messaging, that the exhibition content is not suitable for persons under the age of 16 and for sensitive viewers. Viewer discretion is advised.” Why was it important to include that? Has there been any feedback around the nature of her content from the first week the exhibition’s been open?

TM: Again, it’s about thinking through what Tracey’s work has done throughout her practice. I mean, I feel like the show is like landing on the moon, or landing on Mars! For me, the colour that I would point to in Tracey’s work is the colour red. She uses it as a kind of signifier for ideological contestations. It’s a very difficult motif to explain, but there are these pillars that exist within the exhibition installation itself, that are of different colours of red: so there is a communist red, for instance. She’s signifying the politics of the colour, but also raising a kind of contestation with why red is such an aggressive colour in our own minds’ imaginations, that for many people it signifies violence, right? So that use of colour is very intentional in Tracey’s practice. 

In this show, there’s an entire room that houses and restages another performance of hers that she did when she was a student at Goldsmiths in London many years ago. It’s called White Girl Fart Factory (2015), and the entire room is painted this very particular kind of red. And it is in that installation and in that moment in the exhibition layout that you realise that there is no apologising; there’s absolutely no apologetical stance in Tracey’s work. And it’s always been the case. It wasn’t just a result of being a young startup, being a brave, cocky young thing. No. It’s just absolutely part of her personhood. So that installation features a work in which Tracey is urinating, simulating a urination over the Thames with London Bridge and the Tate Modern gallery in the background. It’s a work that really strikes me but is also one that I find really challenging to contextualise. And that, I think, makes my point, but in Tracey’s work there is a lot of information that for anyone under the age of 16, we really believe would need to be guided through, that we believe would need a lot more framing. But that is where our Centre for Art Education comes in. The Head of our Art Education Centre, Liesl Hartman, is actively trying to do that work with a younger audience to frame Tracey’s work in very specific ways in which it is relatable. And it’s not just spectacle, or about just the intensity of the imagery. It is about the kind of messaging that exists in Tracey’s work that young people can be cued into. 

As art institutions in South Africa, I think we tend not to interrogate the level of visual literacy and inherent knowledge that many of us have as a culture in this country. We just assume that an art audience is an expert audience. But even a European visiting the museum and seeing Tracey Rose without knowing who she is and what her practice has been about, we would need to actually actively guide someone like that about the specific kind of critique that a work like White Girl Fart Factory is having about South Africa’s colonial entanglement with the British Empire. 

So it’s not just a discretionary note for younger audiences. It’s really just a discretionary note for anyone who might struggle to access Tracey’s work, and just be distracted by the explicit imagery, the difficult imagery, and the kind of sensory interior interrogation that Tracey demands in her practice.

TP: From a curating point of view, does having that educational focus as well, at the same time, as you say, as actively trying to showcase this and explain it to different audiences, does that make curating work more challenging? Does it make it more enjoyable, when you put together these retrospectives thinking: How do I educate at the same time? – because you’re not just showing, you’re not just displaying, you’re doing something productive at the same time – what’s the relationship between those? As you say, it’s quite rare, isn’t it? To have that dual purpose, almost.

TM: Absolutely. It’s very rare. And it’s the kind of work that is the invisible labour of curating, educating through subtle choreography of an exhibition installation; educating through the language you’re using to articulate what the artwork is about or the artist is doing. It’s also about having active moments of reflection with art educators. 

I think that’s been the really exciting thing about Tracey’s work – it’s invited moments of deep reflection about what an artist is doing, in an institution that does a lot of things – we have so many other works and exhibitions that are being navigated by our visitors. But when we’re intentional in directing people towards a particular artist’s longstanding practice, directing them towards the thematics that are still relevant in their work and that continue to be poignant in the present day, contemporary moment, that is a form of educating, re-educating, and also knowledge production and knowledge transfer. So for anyone who thought that South African contemporary art was about, you know, hate to say it, your William Kentridges of the world or your big name hyper-visible artists of the world, relooking at an artist like Tracey Rose and the persistent consistent messaging in their work, we reposition art history for a lot of people who wouldn’t have a moment to think about what the history of artistic practice in South Africa looks like, from a diverse group of artists, a diverse generation of artists. 

So it’s not just about Black artists coming from the township, it’s about Black artists coming from a multiplicity of subjectivities, and positionalities. We do that in very pointed ways through our art education programming. And our art education programming is multigenerational. It’s not just schools and outreach, it’s literally members, people who have membership with the museum who really just want to know what this artist is doing in this particular exhibition, or what the collection at Zeitz MOCAA is made up of, and who are these artists from other parts of the continent that form part of that collection? What are other conversations happening outside of South Africa about art? So it is very much an active way of producing new knowledges around South African contemporary and modern art history.

TP: I suppose that brings me up to a kind of final question. You mentioned knowledges and moving forward: where do you see this retrospective going forward?

TM: The solo exhibition is meant to counter the kind of categorization and the ways in which African artists have been categorised according to biography, or according to geopolitics, or geography. We see this through what we call “the event economy” of the global art world that really wants to put African artists all in one silo, but the African art identity is not a kaleidoscope at all. So the solo exhibition for African contemporary artists is important in that way. It’s countering that kind of grouping, and group identity-based representation. 

I think that what Koyo and the team here are trying to do is to actively point to artists who are seminal in shifting our understanding of contemporary art from both the continent and its diaspora. We’re also trying to think through Zeitz MOCAA’s programming as Pan African, actually, shooting outwards from Cape Town into the continent and its diaspora. And, so, audiences bigger than us, bigger than we can imagine. When we take that very intentional approach, we’re not talking to ourselves, we’re not talking to the art community here in Cape Town alone. We are talking to a wider world that needs to rethink its understanding of contemporary art practice, by artists of African descent.

TP: As a gallery and museum, moving forward, do you think Zeitz MOCAA will be placing more emphasis on individual exhibits of artists rather than groups? Because as you say, there is this longstanding tendency to put things into boxes and give them easy labels, which the contemporary moment is really exaggerating, or seems to be. It’s either black or white, left or right. Do you think as an institution, you’re going to be decidedly trying to challenge that more proactively and embrace single artist shows more?

TM: Absolutely. Already, we’ve had two other solo exhibitions that function as surveys of particular artists – Johannes Phokela, Only Sun in the Sky Knows How I Feel (A Lucid Dream), which is still showing at Zeitz until January 2023, as well as Senzeni Marasela’s Waiting for Gebane, which ran until August last year – both artists also like Tracey having worked for the last 20 to 30 years. 

In Senzeni’s case, she’s the youngest of the three who have had solo shows here at Zeitz but prolific in terms of the amount of work she had, and the amount of work that was represented, and the diversity of forms and mediums that she was working in. 

And then Johannes Phokela, who really we can consider a master painter, a master South African painter, who is of Tracey’s relative generation – also came up in the 90s, also part of this post colonial post apartheid cohort that then studies abroad; his work travels extensively abroad after 1990.

And so there is a way in which I think we have been pointing to a particular moment in South African art history that shifts the notion of Black artists in particular, as being second to an older and perhaps even more Eurocentric-leaning [laughs] cohort of artists that are named when we talk about South African contemporary art. So yes, it is intentional. And it is the way that we’re moving as an institution. I know this because of the conversations that I’ve been privy to in my short time already as part of the team here. It is absolutely intentional. 

We are looking at Black artists, and our Black artistic practice in a very radical way compared to how it’s been looked at within the art history books, the art history canon, and also in the contemporary moment, on the continent and globally. We’re challenging the kinds of spaces and the kind of real estate that is given to Black artistic practice, institutional work and institutional programming.

TP: Thank you so much. It’s been really interesting to hear your thoughts. I would be inclined to stop here, unless you’ve got anything else you just want to drop in or, or add, anything you can flag moving forward? 

TM: I mean, I’m really really passionate about the new vision that the Museum is headed towards, and the explicit ways in which we’re doing it. As the pandemic showed us, life is too short. The current programme is coming into play after two years of lockdown and the two years my colleagues were sitting thinking through, reflecting and researching what needs to happen, and what the role of a museum is, and Koyo likes to think of the civic duty that Zeitz MOCAA can really commit to as an institution. So I think we’re well led and we’re heading in the right direction.

TP: I suppose as you say, you’ve not you’ve not been in post too long, but how’s the pandemic been? Obviously, there was that initial hit, but also as an opportunity for real conversations to take place? The pressures of being day to day on it? 

TM: Right, right. I mean, that’s the beauty of it. From what I’ve understood from my colleagues, it was a really important moment for them to be able to have deep conversations about what this programme should look like for Zeitz, and what the vision should be moving forward. Because looking at the global devastation of institutions all over the world… I witnessed this first hand before I arrived: the last institution I worked at had to shut down because it absolutely had no commitment to a local audience. And so when the borders closed, that was the end of a long standing institution.

Those are the painful questions that I think my colleagues had to contend with. Who are we talking to as an institution? Who are we here for? And so projects like, for instance, the Home is Where the Art Is exhibition, which took place during lockdown – it was an open invitation to Cape Town citizens to share whatever they consider to be art with the museum. And those pieces, those knickknacks, whatever was valuable as art to Cape Town citizens, were put together in an exhibition that elevated it in the same way that they would elevate a Gerard Sekoto, or a major work from the museum’s own collection. It was a way in which the museum and the curatorial team here was signalling to Cape Town that: Hey, the foreigners may have gone but you are still here, and we are still here, so, let’s talk to each other. Let’s engage. Let this be your playground as well. 

TP: That’s a lovely way to leave it. I love that idea. The local, the community is so important, isn’t it? And art is so individual to so many people – being able to showcase what you see as art and what’s important to you.

TM: Exactly. Thank you, Tom. I really enjoyed this.

TP: Me too. Thank you. So lovely to speak with you.

Shooting Down Babylon runs at Zeitz MOCAA until Sunday 28th August. Book your tickets and for more information here (and catch Johannes Phokela‘s Only Sun in the Sky Knows How I Feel (A Lucid Dream), showing at Zeitz until January 2023).

Thato Mogotsi (b.1984, Johannesburg) has collectively curated contemporary art projects and exhibitions in various South African art institutions as an independent practitioner, including at Wits School of Arts and the Wits Art Museum, the Johannesburg Art Gallery, ROOM Gallery & Projects, the Market Photo Workshop, Constitution Hill, the Apartheid Museum, and Rhodes University (UCKAR).

After an initial start as a picture researcher and journalist at local media houses, she has since garnered a multifaceted curatorial profile in the contemporary art field. Her current focus is on artist-centered dialogue and research-based interrogations that further complicate notions of curatorial responsibility and authority.

She is currently completing her Master of Arts degree in Contemporary Curatorial Practice at the Wits School of Arts, University of the Witwatersrand and in January 2022, began her role as Assistant Curator at Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MoCAA) in Cape Town, South Africa.

Image and text c. of Thato Mogotsi at LinkedIn.

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