oes anyone know when the word ‘comrade’ lost its egalitarian – some might even say communist – slant to become this flagrantly selfgazing state-bureaucrat euphemism for relationships consumed by self-enrichment (an apparent parody of the word’s selflessness among cadres during the years of liberation struggle)?
Or was this the premise all along – that some comrades are more equal than others?
Meleko Mokgosi’s current exhibition, Comrades, explores many such assumptions through figurative and textbased works that foreground the ambiguity contained in the “successes” of struggle, as seen in the ebullient post-liberation moment.
The piece Comrades I portrays black children in a typical school photo. Mokgosi’s use of natural light to bathe the figures gives the image a “clean”, almost saintly, quality. A subversion, perhaps, of the typical portrayals of township schoolchildren and, in some way, a challenge to stereotypes of township aesthetics. The shirts, pants, skirt and tunic are of a typically black school, but one ought to be careful of assigning absolute power to signifiers, for the image is compositional, and thus what one discerns is merely one’s own baggage.
Contrast it with that of Comrades IV, where the construct typifies that of private school: one black person among a group of white students. These paintings read as a series, although they are not hung as such. Being unable to decipher the Setswana text, one is left with the pure image, with the correspondence of colour and pose. In Comrades IV, one observes a depiction of post-liberation aspirations among comrades.
I’ve often wondered if the whites who participated in the liberation struggle intended for their children to go to the majority-black township schools of their comrades – or was democracy to be aligned with leftist liberal ideals, which, to a large extent, work to retain patterns of power and privilege, with only a handful of elitist
A seemingly innocent, idyllic township scene containing a vexing metaphor of the value of black life