Next Chapter: Mohau Modisakeng on investigating the impact of cultural histories on contemporary society

Working across the disciplines of performance, sculpture and photography, with an interest in exploring the relations between post-colonial societies and their connected histories, Modisakeng’s work,“emerges from a dark past, striding forward into the light, clothed in history.” [1]


© Mohau Modisakeng, Ditaola VI, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist and Brundyn+, Cape Town.


Having recently presented his debut solo exhibition, Ditaola at Brundyn+ Gallery in Cape Town, we were fortunate to sit down with Mohau Modisakeng to chat about the influence of cultural capitals like Cape Town and Johannesburg on the development of his practice and the experience of emerging in a “new,” ever-evolving South Africa.

Houghton Kinsman | Considering your interests in reframing histories, how important has the cultural climate of Cape Town and Johannesburg been to the development of your practice?

 Mohau Modisakeng | The cultural climate of both Cape Town and Johannesburg is informed and controlled by the legacy of a racialist history founded on segregation. Johannesburg is more interesting in the sense that it allowed for an influx of migrant labourers from all across Southern Africa and further.

Due to that particular characteristic Johannesburg developed into a cosmopolitan urban environment with various cultures converging in one place.  The result of that was a confluence of otherwise removed cultural influences.

The colonial legacy of both Johannesburg and Cape Town remind us of that history more so in Cape Town where colonial infrastructure engineered to separate still inform how blacks and whites relate.

My work is concerned with some of the tensions that arise out of that history and the memory of the violence imposed on black bodies in the span of Western rule on the continent. The effects of that history extend into the lived experiences of (South) Africans living in either city. Ultimately, South Africa’s past affects the conditions under which people practice and experience culture today.

© Mohau Modisakeng, Untitled (Fence), 2014. Image courtesy of the artist and Brundyn+, Cape Town.


With your practice rooted in South African history, do you think that your work be wholesomely different if you were working abroad in the Diaspora?

I believe that my work would constitute itself differently if the context and environment changed. Although my work is very much centered on the history of South Africa I feel that the more dominant narrative of that history, which is often mediated by political entities, can restrain one’s individual liberties for self-determination. It further affects how we as (South) Africans project ourselves into the global domain of culture and politics.

In your quest for self-determination, could you comment on the availability of resources like education, training, materials and exposure in South Africa for a young emerging artist like yourself at this point in your career?

Over the past few years I have grown more frustrated at the many hurdles that exist for someone of my background trying to make their work known. I have realized just how tough the whole journey can be, from the struggles I personally endured trying to enroll myself into institutions like Michaelis School of Fine Art with no money right through to trying to make my work known as an emerging artist.

I had to struggle putting together my portfolio without any real access to material; I struggled further with raising the necessary funds to realize my projects in the four-year program.

In that kind of space you become vulnerable and the willingness for some people to help is often an indirect way to influence the development and direction of your work as a black student.

Today I have similar challenges with my own practice. I sometimes feel that the timing behind my debut exhibition was decided by the time it took me for me to foster a favorable environment that would be comfortable enough for me to pursue my ideas unrestrained. This took me about two years of being locked into working with photography which seemed a more accessible medium for me.

Besides the challenges you faced at Michaelis, how important was your time there in terms of developing your practice and receiving exposure for your work?

Studying at Michaelis was a challenging on a number of levels. The experience affected my general outlook on the global art scene but also it affected my self-image in a very personal and profound manner.

The environment was alienating and disorientating and in that way it forces one to work hard to situate and align one’s ideas with ideas developed in ‘other’ contexts but describing the conditions of my experiences.

The experience of studying at Michaelis exposed me to various discourse around artists I admire, but it also provided the opportunity to personally interact with artists such as Jane Alexander and Kurt Campbell who were both my supervisors. I value my personal relationships with the people I encountered whist I was a student more than I can appreciate the experience of being a black student in a predominantly Eurocentric institution.
© Mohau Modisakeng, Untitled (Swings), 2014. Image courtesy of the artist and Brundyn+, Cape Town.

© Mohau Modisakeng, Untitled (Swings), 2014. Image courtesy of the artist and Brundyn+, Cape Town.


How informed were you about the arts in South Africa before you went to Michaelis?

I hadn’t had any formal training before I went to Michaelis. Before that I had been doing art in my personal capacity with the support of both my parents. I was completely isolated and was not entirely aware of the South African art scene other than the few trips I made to exhibition openings at the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

Finally, what does it mean to you to be an emerging artist working on the African continent in the 21st century?

It means that I am actively engaged with a deep-rooted culture and heritage of the African continent, which has proven to be resilient, surviving the effects of colonialism and globalization, adapting and expanding. Yet I feel like I’m both at the center of it all and simultaneously at the margins of the global cultural community.

Mohau Modisakeng was born in Soweto in 1986 and lives and works between Johannesburg and Cape Town. Ditaola, his debut solo exhibition at Brundyn+ engaged, “several discourses related to the political economy of the racial segregation, institutionalised/systemic racism, militarisation, and civil unrest of apartheid South Africa and the African continent at large.” [2]

His work has appeared in exhibitions at the Johannesburg Art Fair, Johannesburg; Volta NY, New York and the Pretoria Art Museum, Pretoria. Modisakeng holds and BFA and an MFA from the Michaelis School of Fine Art, Cape Town and is a recipient of the prestigious Sasol New Signatures art award formed to recognize young, emerging artists.


This article forms part of the series Next Chapter:Inquiries into emerging art practices


[1] Ewing, William. “Mohau Modisakeng.” – Artist’s Profile. Saatchi Gallery. Web. 2 Sept. 2014.

[2] Ditaola” BRUNDYN +. Web. 9 Sept. 2014.


Written by Houghton Kinsman

South Africa | Doing our part to combat immappancy

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