In Case You Missed It
An educational reflection on African Masters
with MOMO Outskirts
Programmed event: Meet the Gallerist
Contributors: MOMO Outskirts co-directors Nisha Merit and Monna Mokoena
Key outcomes of the day’s programme:
- A practice that will outlive those who activate it, collecting is a means of preserving diverse histories.
- Active participants in cultural communities, artists practices are not in isolation and as such, their works are often in conversation with each other.
- Although it was reserved for European men in art history, artistic mastery is a criteria that observes an artist’s technique, their community, political or social message as well as the impact of their practices.
On 13 May 2023, BMW Young Collectors Co. members made their way to MOMO Outskirts to Meet the Gallerists, Nisha Merit and Monna Mokoena. Located in Krugersdorp, about an hour away from central Johannesburg, MOMO Outskirts is an intervention with programming that focuses on the non-commercial aspects of contemporary African art. Established in late 2022, on the eve of Gallery MOMO’s twenty year anniversary, MOMO Outskirts is currently on its second-ever exhibition.
To start the day’s programme, MOMO Outskirts’ co-director Nisha Merit welcomed BMW Young Collectors Co. members to the stronghold. “MOMO Outskirts renders itself as a speculative space. It is centred around being here. Today we want to introduce you to an eclectic exhibition in terms of medium, in terms of materiality, in terms of story, in terms of time,” explained Merit. A group exhibition, Regarding Time, Visual Contemplations on Indexicals is a celebration of the art inheritance we hold in Southern Africa.
There, BMW Young Collectors Co. members had the opportunity to see the works of established African Masters and potential Masters in conversation with each other. The artists include Gerard Sekoto, George Pemba, Malangatana Ngwenya, Helen Sebidi, Johannes Phokela, Vivien Kohler, Sarah Tabane, Roger Botembe, Mary Sibande, Yinka Shonibare, Santu Mofokeng, Andrew Tshabangu, Charles Nkosi, Kenrick McFarlane, Ben Arnold, Durant Sihlali, Dumile Feni and Percy Konqobe.
An experience offering BMW Young Collectors Co. members a moment to contemplate the different aspects of artistic mastery including an artist’s technique, their community, their political or social message as well as the different ways this grows as an artist develops their practice. Below are some of the key takeaways from the walkabout.
The problem + solution
In art history, Older Masters referred to established, celebrated painters of skill working during the 16th and 17th century. Historically reserved for European men, this term neglected the impact of Africa’s contribution toward the global canons of today. An active, solution-based response, the exhibition Regarding Time, Visual Contemplations on Indexicals is an invitation to relook the canon by considering Black artists, women and those whose artwork exist beyond the painting medium. “We are introducing the master in the indexical. The indexical speaks of looking at words as having different meanings at different times,” explains Merit. “So in that sense we can relook at the word master in the context we think it works in. That’s language. It changes as our understanding change. It’s releasing the word from that burden.”
On global artist communities
While Yinka Shonibare studied at the Royal Academy of Arts, South African Master Johannes Phokela was at the St. Martins College of Art. Although at different schools, Shonibare and Phokela would encounter and form meaningful connections with the likes of Cindy Sherman, Damien Hirst and Chris Ofili. Before that, during the 1920s, Gerard Sekoto left South Africa to settle in Paris. There, Sekoto’s friendship circle included the likes of Dumile Feni, George Pemba, Sydney Khumalo, Ernest Mancoba and renowned Nigerian painter Ben Enwonwu.
Each with extremely different practices and conveying different messages, read together, these artists’ works suggest the importance that an artist community can have on an artist’s process, practice, their technique and ultimately their trajectory.
Studying the varying artists’ journeys to mastery, both Merit and Mokoena say it is not an easy one. Consider Mme Helen Mmakgabo Sedibi: an artist with a practice that spans five decades, Mokoen mentions how it takes six months to a year for the artist to complete one of her smaller works. “Her practice is not a conveyor belt where the desire is constant output. There are layers and layers,” shares Mokoena. A younger example is Vivien Kohler who after investigating his materials through various trials, tests and manipulations was able to present mixed media works that successfully live between sculpture and painting.
Before mastery, what is art?
After considering the importance of technical prowess in mastery, one of the BMW Young Collectors Co. members was puzzled by the way that the medium of photography can be masterful.
Acknowledging how far contemporary art has come, Merit mentions how the first thing galleries and museums did was dismiss this medium as a journalistic document.
However around 1885, the pictorial movement spearheaded the consideration of photographs as art. More than the act of pointing and shooting at a scene, photography as a medium requires people to consider the relationship that an artist has with their subjects, the artist’s messaging, the artist’s ability to work with and understand light as a material that affects the medium, all in addition to the effects that framing have on the audience’s perception of the moment sealed in time. Adding to this, Mokoena said, “even as things are becoming more and more mechanical, the artist’s agency and gift decide what we end up seeing”.
While MOMO Outskirts does not have a commercial outcome, the day did not neglect to consider the collecting journey that BMW Young Collectors Co. members are currently on. Addressing this, Mokoena discussed the significance of thematic and technical longevity. With over twenty years experience, Mokoena has come to witness how the stances that artists take in their work outlive the fleeting moments that cement a collectors interest. “These things are going to predate all of us, including the artists who make them,” he says in reference to the likes of Dumile Feni and Gerard Sekoto. “Right now there’s a lot of figurative work that most young collectors are gravitating towards. But is that the only canon that we have? So I invite you to look for the sociopolitical weight embedded in the work as you collect.”