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In 1991 Mohau Modisakeng was five years old, playing near his home in Soweto under the care of his older brother, Sthembiso. Their mother worked as a nurse in the city, their father at a local school. It was a Zulu settlement but was rife with unrest between various tribes affiliated to rival black parties, the African National Congress and Inkatha Freedom Party.
Suddenly the stutter of AK-47 fire cut through the air. Modisakeng remembers his brother gathering him in his arms and running hard. “He ran from home to home until he found a tap and I remember him holding my face under the water, washing something from it,” says Modisakeng, now 29. “I couldn’t tell you what was being washed from my face. I can’t remember.” Later, he would learn that the police had been firing tear gas.
It is the most vivid of a handful of memories Modisakeng has of Sthembiso, who was murdered in another such outburst soon after. One day, Modisakeng found his mother holding the white sweater Sthembiso had been wearing on the day he died and noticed it had a hole and a dark brown stain. Sthembiso’s death was not talked about again.
Today, Modisakeng still lives in Soweto, a poverty-stricken township in Johannesburg, and has risen to become one of the leading African artists of his generation. His birth as an artist, he says, was directly linked to Sthembiso’s death. “This [happened] in the early years after apartheid, between Mandela’s release in 1990 and the elections in 1994, when South Africa was transitioning into a democracy,” he says.
In these unstable early years of the 1990s, the Bang Bang Club, a group of photojournalists who followed the transition of South Africa from apartheid to a government based on universal suffrage, were documenting the violence of the liberation struggle. “They produced images that have come to define apartheid in the place I called home,” Modisakeng says. “The conflict they describe in their work was the kind of violence I encountered as a child on a very regular basis.
“I remember seeing people who had just been killed, their bodies still in the street. Death was part of my every day. So when I reflect on violence today, it’s based on those experiences, filtered through my own memories and emotions.”
In 2004, Modisakeng travelled to London on a school exchange programme. He remembers seeing the turbine hall at Tate Modern. “There was room upon room of artwork in the gallery. I had never been exposed to anything like that,” he says. “I didn’t know what it meant to be an artist. I didn’t know any other artists. But I made the decision.”
At 18, Modisakeng went to study at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art. For his final project, he returned to Soweto and tried to force his family to talk about his brother’s death. “I had never asked questions about my brother,” he says. “A detail that stuck with me was the knife that was used to kill him. I suddenly knew exactly what it looked like, where one could get hold of one. I replicated the knife that killed him until it became a large-scale sculpture.” This sculpture, “Untitled (Okapi)”, created in 2009, is an outsized replica of a knife designed to be used by tradesmen, with a carved wooden handle and a long blade.
“Right from the start, my art was drawing from my experiences of loss and trauma,” Modisakeng says. “I started to work with photography and to put my own body into the images, layering narratives over the top of it. I saw my body as a way of describing my own struggle with loss, but also reflecting on the collective black experience in South Africa and the trauma and loss that is such a part of our history.”
Modisakeng creates his artwork using costume, props and gestures. In a recent series “Ditaola” (2016), a white dove perches on the barrel of a rifle, splayed across his shoulders. In the images, the dove is seen still, then launching into flight and, finally, flying away. Modisakeng stares past the dove into emptiness, wearing animal furs and a traditional tribal dress, signifying a country moving towards freedom but still freighted by its violent past, still in the process of reclaiming its ancestral history.
Then there are the series “Endabeni” and “Ga Etsho”, from 2015, on show recently at London’s Tyburn Gallery. In both, Modisakeng wears a trilby, a symbol of migrant labour in Johannesburg. “Men would arrive from the countryside to work in the mines but would fashion themselves to reflect the image of a gentleman. It became a marker for a certain type of masculine worker during apartheid,” he says.
He wears a leather apron and horse blinkers made to fit a human head. “If you wear blinkers, you can’t look behind you, only forward. They symbolise the idea of being blind to history,” he says.
Modisakeng’s work engages with tribal customs and traditional beliefs, a recognition of the influence of his mother. “I learnt a lot about my country from my mother’s experiences. She would go to work as a nurse in the morning and come back late at night. On the trains she took to the city, they would hold makeshift church services. These churches took on a political tone, and became spaces for people to exchange ideas — mostly through song. She would come home still singing these struggle songs.”
Modisakeng’s rise as an artist has been steady. After graduation, he won an artist-in-residency grant at the Gyeonggi Creation Center in South Korea. In 2011, he won the Sasol New Signatures award for emerging artists and has since exhibited his work at the Volta art fair in New York, London’s Saatchi Gallery, the 2012 Dakar Biennale, Focus 11 in Basel and the Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town. He has also been invited to study for a masters in fine arts at Columbia University in New York but has had to defer this year, he says, because he cannot afford the travel costs.
So, for now, Modisakeng remains in Soweto, still mining the collective experiences of apartheid in a country that is still defined, he insists, by white supremacy. And still meditating on his brother’s death. “Sthembiso is a memory I must live with, so the only way to try and resolve his death is to reflect on it. He is a part of me, and that’s why our bodies can hold such power, if we want them to.”