Practice of Interest
O Tshwana le Ênê
with Oratile Papi Konopi
Oscillating between performance, painting, text-based mixed media and installation, Oratile Papi Konopi’s practice is multidisciplinary. Working together, the varying mediums investigate unspoken social, spatial and linguistic cues. In this week’s Of Interest we ponder the curatorial affect of his current exhibition O Tshwana Le Ene.
The opening for Oratile Papi Konopi’s solo,chad the makings of a charismatic church crusade. Opening with a performance by pianist Tshepo Tsotesi in collaboration with amapiano duo Don Exotic, the public gradually made its way to the gallery in spite of the day’s weather.
Blending the aesthetics and theatrics of church and groove, O Tshwana le Ênê is as much a reckoning as it is an opportunity for fellowship.
To take the public along as it develops, Konopi’s practice is embodied in the incorporeal non-binary character named Ênê. Building on a project Konopi began working on in 2017, O Tswana Le Ênê is a Setswana statement that translates to You Look Like Them. An attempt to encourage engagement through a search of likeness. Searching for said likeness in the objects, words and worlds Konopi references, the exhibition attempts to challenge how we perceive certain cues.
To begin, the show opens with new but familiar text-based multimedia posters synonymous with Konopi’s visual vocabulary. Referencing memories amd songs encountered at or on the way to groove, the posters’ messages include “Cherish The Day” and “Rest”.
Positioned in the gallery’s centre is an almost floor-to-ceiling black velour and white lace curtain dividing the exhibition into two parts. Referencing a tavern, the front of the curtain boasts the Orlando Pirates Football Club colours in addition to the phrase ‘Ko Monate Mpolaye’: a hyperbolic phrase willing enjoyment to kill its recipient.
Turning the corner to see the curtain’s backside, the audience then enters into a more contemplative, vulnerable part of the show.
There sit lesser known parts of Konopi’s practice, these include paintings, a bronze sculpture as well as an installation resembling the pew of a charismatic church, punctuated with a worn pink-bordered bible and a leather beat neat stacked on a black plastic chair.
With the crowd lingering in and around the gallery, hours after doors opened and the refreshment table had been cleared, O Tshwane Le Ênê effect started to show its head. Although not resonating with all who attended the opening, in the vocabulary used to convey the messaging, O Tshwana Le Ênê did its part in facilitating a communing.
Direct, or, as some detractors describe it, critical and cruel, Hugo likes to think of his style as acknowledging the people he is photographing. “I don’t take pictures, they’re given to me,” he asserts gently. With the exception of The Journey (2014), where he photographed sleeping passengers aboard a 16-hour flight, Hugo positions his process as collaborative. “My agenda or function is not that of a journalist documenting with the intention to inform. The work is closer to questions.”
Existing without time frames, place or theme, Polyphonic resists a linear reading. A portrait of President Cyril Ramaphosa sits next to one of a homeless man on Skid Row. The Honourable Justice Moatlhodi Marumo almost shares a wall with forty-five sleeping strangers. “Apart from the two series, I haven’t grouped it according to anything because I want the gaze that I have to feel democratic,” explains Hugo.
Hung at the same eye line (with the exception of the show’s grids) the portraits are fairly straightforward, the people are photographed against a relatively simple background. Almost as if the subjects are live people in the gallery, it’s easy to make eye contact with the portraits. Resurfacing the show’s function to challenge perception, Hugo offers a reminder, “You’re looking but you’re being looked at. It’s sobering.”
So even though there’s an urge to group the portraits, in search of a singular message, in recognising each voice, represented by each subject’s face, the exhibition is an invitation to encounter each photograph independently. It’s also why the show is titled Polyphonic.