“My work is not seductive,” explains artist Moshekwa Langa, talking about the thick blobs of varnish, sandpaper, coffee stains and charred wood scraps on his work. Although he has lived in Amsterdam since 1997 and his work can already be seen in the permanent collections of the Tate Modern in London and the New York MoMA, he only had his first retrospective exhibition in the Netherlands at the beginning of this month.
Born in South Africa in 1975, Langa’s work is often about displacement, displacement and identity – in short: about borders. This search for borders and location has something tragic for those who believe that his birthplace Bakenberg was never on the official maps during the apartheid era. It was as if the identity of the villagers, and thus Langa’s identity, did not matter. In his work, short and mind map therefore an important motive.
His video art is well known Where should I start? (2001). The line from the song ‘Love Story’, which Shirley Bassey recorded in the 1970s, is repeated over and over again. Langa placed the vocals during the video he shot in Bakenberg. From a children’s perspective, you see people shuffling towards a bus. Only the legs of the passengers, just before they take the step to enter the bus, are visible. They also tell the story of South Africa, where blacks often traveled huge distances every day to reach their employers because they were only allowed to live in villages assigned to them.
“It’s a weird job,” says Langa. “On the one hand I am an observer, on the other hand I am part of it. Where do I begin is actually a self-portrait. This video seemed like a good way to show where I’m coming from. I left the village to become an artist, but it was also a place where I felt comfortable. Bassey’s line comes from a love song that on the one hand reflects the passion, but here it also tells about the sadness of being left behind.”
Langa often returns to South Africa. “The work helps unravel my history: I lived there, and my relatives still live there. The question for me is always: how do I tell a story about my past without assuming gross violence. You can see boarding solely as something people do when they take the bus. You see different legs and they are significant even without the faces involved. How they are dressed, how they walk or move, that says a lot. But the work also raises the question: how do you relate to your history, how do you talk about apartheid, which many people can no longer imagine? Through the years I have been through everything, I often chose poetic moments to show where we are, where I am.”
This exhibition is often about the search for a place. But the works that look like a map are not about real places, they are fictional. Why?
“They are indeed fictional, but they contain guidelines that you can use to start a conversation about your background, whether the paths someone has taken. My work is not ‘pretty’. When you look at it, you wonder: who is this, what story is behind it? I’m not good at text so that’s why I do it this way. The language was complicated for me, the language excluded me. I noticed this when I went to a mixed secondary school as a teenager. I suddenly had to deal with white people, when before then I had only learned about them. We slept in the same room, ate together. It was the normal situation, but I was afraid of them. I didn’t speak fast enough or said things wrong and had to master a lot of English vocabulary. In short, it was difficult to tell my story. But I could visualize it.”
“This is how I make it clear what I want to talk about. The texts are not chronological, but I incorporate in them, for example, which people have been important to me, where I was. They are also facts, things I learned in school. Like many others, I was told that our country’s history began with Van Riebeeck’s arrival in 1652. We had paper money with that man’s head on it. What do I do with this one? Legend What I want to do is make sure you enter another reality.”
The sandpaper in the ‘Encyclopedia series’ [te zien op de foto hiernaast] and the coal in the ‘Moonscape series’: is it to erase a past? Like the apartheid regime did to the history of South Africa, but maybe also what happened to yourself after you left South Africa?
“There really is a story about money laundering, sandpaper makes things smooth. IN Encyclopedia therefore contains historical elements that go back further than Van Riebeeck, traces that people left early. The coal refers to the fire I started in the morning as a child. See lunar landscape as a curious self-portrait, from which something new can also emerge. It may be a slightly obscure method. If you look at the remains, it’s a painful situation that reveals where I come from. I put the evidence of my origin, so to speak. But are you saying I’m trying to delete my history?”
I mean, sandpaper makes things smooth, but it’s also painful when you’re a piece of wood; or if you are talking about your own skin.
“That’s right: Sandpaper over your skin is not a pleasant experience, nor does it burn your skin – it leaves scars. But it goes beyond sensation. These are elements of a crime scene. You have to live with it, deal with it, because you have no other choice.”
Can legends and encyclopedias also help you find a destination?
“You don’t know which way to go. I have no idea if I’ll find my destiny. I’ve been able to keep my South Africanness, at the same time my family says when I come to visit they can see in my body language that I don’t live there. I have become a guest.”
And the thick layer of shiny varnish that covers these works?
“It holds everything, it’s a practical decision. It makes everything coherent, it also indicates solidification. It’s also an aesthetic choice. All my work is aesthetic, by the way. It makes sense, because I live in the place where I work, so it has to be beautiful. I am confronted enough with drama and violence. With my work, I wonder on the one hand how to start a conversation without being too rude, but also: I like how it looks out? It’s a huge mess in my studio. Recently, coffee circles had come to my work. My cleaning help came and said: my goodness, these look like ‘poj paintings’. I thought: you’re expressing what I’m thinking and what I see. Sometimes you can be pleasantly surprised by unexpected things in your work.”
Start a conversation without being rude. Is that also what you want with ‘Sincerely’, a huge collage with all different eyes in it?
“It was a very important job for me at the time, in 2004. I felt invisible and yet very present. Everyone sees you, looks at you, but they also look past you. The work is about the things I experienced in Amsterdam. That i was constantly being checked at strange times. That you’re the only one on the train that gets picked on, or that a police officer right in front of your house asks what you’re doing in that area. You tell those experiences to others, but no one believes you , and they throw it over the arc of your youth under apartheid.At some point you stop trying to tell what happened, what you experienced.
“With my eyes, I portray that you are constantly being watched, but also that you yourself are anxious. Having an agent follow you to your own home at night is supposed to be a private experience and above all, you shouldn’t cause any trouble. Thanks to apartheid, I know how to protect myself from such experiences, how to arm myself against them.
“This work is the most explicit I’ve done. I can only hope it opens people’s eyes. Look, in South Africa the enemy was recognisable, the problem was clear. Not here, nothing is talked about under the pretense that nothing is wrong, because Holland has a history of tolerance. I wanted to visualize the problem in this way.”
Are those experiences also there when you stand somewhere as an artist?
“Yes, for example at the Venice Biennale. People ask me ‘do you hang out here?’ instead of being seen as an artist. I then reply: ‘No, I can be seen in the main exhibition. And you?’ I have often had such conversations. You are profiled, you are seen, but not as a participant. You have to develop a thick skin for your own health.”
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper on 22 September 2022