October 11th, 2017
Mohau Modisakeng in conversation with Damien Davis
On October 1st, I met with Mohau Modisakeng at Madiba restaurant in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. There, we discussed his plans for Zion, a new performance piece commissioned by Performa for their 2017 biennial. On his last day in NYC before flying back to South Africa, we talked about our countries' shared histories of segregation, violence, and displacement.
Damien Davis: Let’s start by you telling me a little bit about your project you're performing.
Mohau Modisakeng: It's inspired by the history of forced removals in South Africa during apartheid. Back then there was the Group Areas Act, the series of laws that defined where different kinds of people would live—based on what race you were, you were put into a particular part of the city you lived in.
I grew up in Joburg—or in Soweto. Soweto came about as a result of a place called Sophiatown, a predominantly black suburb of Johannesburg, being demolished to make space for a white suburb. I was keen on looking into the history of displacement within South Africa, and also relating it to the current global crisis of migrants trying to move across the Mediterranean to Europe for a better life. I did a film for the Venice Biennale that dealt with that idea of displacement; I wanted to find South African examples, and Sophiatown came up.
I wanted to find parallels with that history here in the New York City. In a previous visit here, somebody told me about an African village that used to exist where Central Park is now. I didn't quite believe it, but there really was this village called Seneca Village—I did some reading and found parallels between the history of forced removals in South Africa and what happened here in New York, though there's a long time in between the two events, because Seneca Village was destroyed some 200 years ago, and in South Africa the Group Areas Act was in the ‘50s. Seneca Village was one of the only communities of free black landowners in New York. Because they owned property, that meant they were able to participate in the political setup of the time; it allowed them to vote.
Which made them dangerous.
Very dangerous. I think anywhere where a ghetto develops and there’s an interest in being self-dependent, that’s always going to be a threat to civil authorities—that's the story in South Africa. As a cultural epicenter, Sophiatown was similar to Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance. A lot of writers, musicians and artists lived there and were responding to what was happening socially in South Africa. So, it was quite dangerous. In South Africa, that story played out the same way it did in Harlem.
They got rid of Seneca Village in 1857 using a legal instrument called eminent domain, where private property can be used as long as it's for the public benefit. There were churches there—including the AME Zion Church, probably one of the first black churches in New York. After Seneca Village was destroyed for Central Park, the AME Zion church was reestablished in Harlem, where it still stands. So, I figured my work in New York would have to respond to the remnants of that history; I decided that I would do a procession that brings up images of people being forcibly removed, some kind of aesthetic of the fugitivity of people not being where they need to be or having to leave home to reestablish themselves in an undefined place.
My research from the South African side of things was looking at images of forced removals after the Group Areas Act. There are images of people out in public with all their belongings—the kind of being-out-of-place aesthetic I wanted to work with. I imagined a procession starting in Harlem and progressing through Times Square.
Yeah, but I figured that was physically impossible for me to do because of the route’s span. Instead of having the procession travel along that route all at once, I decided to cut it into three parts—so that it's three, one-hour performances moving across different spaces.
When you're talking about displacement and its imagery, it's a familiar sight. It's something that we’re seeing a lot more of in the media right now with Syria, but also thinking about this idea of seeing predominately black faces and the mechanisms—legal or otherwise—that are used to forcibly remove them. There's another neighborhood in the United States, around Tulsa, Oklahoma, that was known as Black Wall Street that was burned to the ground.
In 1921, in Greenwood, Oklahoma. There was a large amount of black wealth accumulated there. Black self-reliance. The neighboring white community had problems with that. After a couple of false arrests, everything came to a head, and there were days of riots and violence that completely destroyed the town. Your discussion of these themes makes me think of the shared history that South Africa and the United States have, but also how the history of displacement gets played out on both a micro and macro level. There are so many different places you can take this conversation. Could you talk more about this idea of displacement and the mechanisms by which people displace other people?
In my previous visits to New York, I've heard a lot of people being worried about gentrification; people that have been in the city for a long time being forced out suddenly. I knew that bringing the work here would resonate because people are already thinking through being removed from where they've lived.
In South Africa, the mechanisms are all connected to apartheid, efforts to make sure that the black population was controlled; most of that stuff that happened leads to us being free, or supposedly being free in this time. But everywhere in the world gentrification is taking hold. Even in Cape Town where I've lived for the past ten years, there's a lot of that happening. There's an area called Woodstock, which is historically black, though I guess in South Africa we'd say colored. People who have been there for the longest time are being forced out. There're new apartments going up, new shops going up. People are being pushed further and further out into to the margins of the city. That's a history that's been playing itself out in South Africa for a long time.
Sounds like New York.
The parallels between the United States and South Africa are very clear and very vivid. Things that are happening in South Africa are happening here. From what I've read about the apartheid system, they studied racial segregation in the rest of the world, brought it to South Africa and mastered it. The victims are usually black folk.
Aesthetically, your work is very strong. There's a lot of black and white, strong lines, and shapes. How are you imagining this procession looking visually?
This is my first attempt at something so elaborate. I'm working with 20 performers, moving through the city. I've never done a performance that lives in public with the audience; my performances have previously been confined to gallery spaces. I want the procession to refer to Seneca Village and this Colonial Victorian aesthetic. But, also this is a procession of people carrying their belongings, pieces of furniture…things that are dear to them. I'm imagining people that have been evicted without notice and having to grab all the things that they want to carry with as they take on this new journey, carrying these pieces and somehow struggling with the weight of carrying them, but also taking moments to pause and take a rest. It seems like the work is timely. People are already thinking about it—it's an anxiety that's part of the fabric of the city.
Yes. How has it been working with Performa?
Amazing. The support I’ve gotten on taking my original idea further has been great. I sat down with RoseLee with just a basic idea, and after that conversation, I thought I would make this thing the best work I've ever made. It's a bit scary because I don't know how far I can go with it. The city itself is so overpowering and overwhelming—I want to be able to balance it so that the performance doesn't get lost in the general energy of this place.
Is this the first public project you've done since the Venice Biennale? Can you talk me through the transition between that project and this project, one that was confined and controlled and one that's going to be very public? I'm someone who thinks through the transition between projects—are you thinking about that too?
I feel like the themes in my previous project are much the same. It's all about displacement. It's about black bodies being out-of-place. I work across different disciplines. Mainly, I'm known for my photography, and the photography derives from a performance that happens in the studio, performing for the camera. I'm always using the body as an instrument somehow, so I feel like the transition is natural. In my previous work, I’ve moved across photography to performance, and from performance to film. The main challenge is that this performance is happening in New York and not in Cape Town or Johannesburg. I'm not from here, so I've decided to spend a lot of time speaking to people.
How has it been here in New York? Have you had a chance to see or do anything interesting while you've been here or has it just been meetings?
It's great. I've been in Harlem, and I spent some time by myself walking through the path that I'm going to travel with the procession. I’ve had interesting conversations with people, and also have just been observing. It’s stood out how the conditions change between different neighborhoods in New York. It seems things are a bit more rough in Harlem, you see more poverty. I'm getting to understand how this work might resonate in this kind of space. Historically, Harlem has been a point of assembly for people moving from the South and coming up this way. I've been interested in what remains of that.
Yesterday, I took a tour with someone from the Harlem Alliance. I've been wanting this red, green and black flag—
The American flag? Or—
I guess it's the black American flag. I saw the flags hanging on the side of the road close to the Apollo. I asked the guy selling them, “how much is this thing?” and he's like, “first off, do you know what it means?” He went into a history of black folk and what the red means, what the green means—I realized that the stuff I'm trying to talk through in my work is part of the everyday fabric of that space in Harlem. I was happy to discover an African or pan-African element on that one block. If that's there, I know that people around there are thinking about this stuff as well. It's things like that, trying to reactivate this history that is still very much present but not quite spoken.
Perfect. Thank you.
Damien Davis (b. 1984) is a Brooklyn-based artist. His practice explores historical representations of blackness through design and digital modes of production. His recent solo presentations include White Room, METHOD Gallery, Seattle, WA (2017); MoMA PopRally Presents Arty Gras, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY (2017) and OBJECT | AFFECTION, Black Ball Projects, Brooklyn, NY (2016); Davis holds a B.F.A in Studio Art and an M.A in Visual Arts Administration from New York University.
Multidisciplinary artist Mohau Modisakeng (b. 1986, Soweto) works primarily in photography, film, sculpture and performance, creating powerful and often poetic imagery that gestures to South Africa’s legacies of colonial and apartheid-era violence. He holds a BFA and MFA from Michaelis School of Fine Art, and in 2016 he was named the Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Art. His work is exhibited internationally, and in 2017 represented South Africa at the Venice Biennale.