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Turning an important gaze inward – ‘When We See Us’ at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art

Turning an important gaze inward – ‘When We See Us’ at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art
Zandile Tshabalala, “Two reclining women” (2020), Acrylic on canvas, 122 x 91.5cm. Image: Supplied/Zeitz MOCAA

The latest exhibition at the Zeitz MOCAA largely consists of paintings from the previous 100 years by black artists working globally, brought together into dialogue with each other and ‘leading Black thinkers, writers and poets who are active today’.

“Every society – more importantly, African society – needs to define for themselves the direction [and] meanings they want to give to their collective adventure,” says Dr Felwine Sarr, philosopher, economist and scholar at Duke University, in conversation on the webinar titled, “Defining the ‘We’ and the ‘Us’”, organised by the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCAA).

The webinar forms part of a year-long discursive programme in collaboration with the Institute for Humanities in Africa at the University of Cape Town to address topics around global Black subjectivity and Black representation, with a focus on the role of artistic production also expressed through the exhibition, “When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting”. 

The exhibition debuted on 20 November 2022 and will be running until 3 September 2023. It features nearly 200 artworks created by 154 artists from 28 countries, and, as Tandazani Dhlakama, the exhibition’s co-curator and assistant curator at Zeitz MOCAA explains, it “brings together a myriad artists and their practice in dialogue for the first time”.

From “When They See Us” to “When We See Us”

The title of the exhibition is derived from American filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s 2019 miniseries, “When They See Us”. The series follows the story of five black and brown teenage boys who were wrongly accused of sexual assault against a white woman in New York’s Central Park. 

During the conversation, Kimberly Drew, art influencer, writer and the former social media manager of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, explained that by changing the pronoun “they” to “we”, the curators suggest a shift in dialogue, from African realities being the “object of discourse” by others, to an internal evaluation of collective self-representation.

“We have to build our own visions, [and be on an] active pursuit of rejecting being an object of discourse,” she says. “And really [say] on our terms: ‘This is who we are, this is who we were’, such that future generations understand that they’re not sovereign… that they’re not alone.”

Installation views, ‘When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting’, 2022, Zeitz MOCAA. Image: Dillon Marsh / courtesy of Zeitz MOCAA.

Installation views, ‘When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting’, 2022, Zeitz MOCAA. Image: Dillon Marsh / courtesy of Zeitz MOCAA.

Installation views, ‘When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting’, 2022, Zeitz MOCAA. Image: Dillon Marsh / courtesy of Zeitz MOCAA.

Installation views, ‘When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting’, 2022, Zeitz MOCAA. Image: Dillon Marsh / courtesy of Zeitz MOCAA.

Dr Sarr explains that, during some historical sequences, “Africans have been dehumanised” and that the project of rehumanising the life and world of African societies remains an urgent task. 

Drawing from history and cultural heritage, the active task of building the present and future narratives of African societies is executed in a “space of invention and creativity.

“It’s what I call the Afrotopia or Afrotopos: It is a place that is not yet here, but we can (make it happen by bringing) in the historical reality (and) by thinking, imagining and acting,” says Sarr. 

In summary, the exhibition applies a strong focus on finding more complex ways to critically engage with Black identities and histories from pan-African and pan-diasporic perspectives to craft a narrative for present and future generations. 

“This exhibition is a true reflection of the historic contexts of African and Black existence, with the oldest artist in the exhibition born in 1886 and the youngest in 1999. It amplifies a historical continuum of self-representation while highlighting important contributions towards a previously understated canon,” says Dhlakama. 

While the exhibition largely comprises paintings from the last 100 years by artists working globally, these works are brought “into dialogue with leading Black thinkers, writers and poets who are active today”.

Designed by Wolff Architects, “When We See Us” is organised around six themes: The Everyday, Joy and Revelry, Repose, Sensuality, Spirituality, and Triumph and Emancipation, and “celebrates the resilience, essence and political charge of Black joy”. 

A tour towards triumph and emancipation

The Everyday aims to encompass the beauty found in everyday practices. From conversing in an open car boot in Marc Padeu’s “All the light on me” (2021), to fixing a paint job and lounging in Meleko Mokgosi’s mural, “Pax Kaffraria: Graase-Mans” (2014). 

When you attend the exhibition, pick up the booklet at the museum’s entrance – it shines a light on the story behind the artworks and the conversation between them. 

For example: “Artists such as Moké and John Biggers remind us that home is where the community is… Here we come together in our backyards, in the field, on our front stoeps, in the garden and at our dinner tables, for the elders to pass down life lessons, or to be encircled by sisters, brothers and other kin that may or may not be blood-related… 

“Whether it is in the routine of water carrying, reading, running, knitting, beer drinking or braiding hair, we express joy and revel in our being.”

Joy and Revelry calls for a celebration of life, and that “every occasion calls for a song and for dance”. Whether this “collective merrymaking” is in Moké’s “Kin oyé ou Couloir Madiokoko à Matonge”’s (1983) club with colourful lights bouncing off bodies and drinks on round tables, or in Jacob Lawrence’s tranquil joy amongst friends around a card table in “The Card Game” (1953), the African and African-descent subjects in these works “radiate fun”. 

The message of joy being found in all spaces is effectively communicated by placing these contrasting paintings next to each other. The viewer is lead from a more tranquil and quiet joy in “The Card Game” to the loud enjoyment of music and drinks in “Kin oyé ou Couloir Madiokoko à Matonge”. 

Moké, “Kin oyé ou Couloir Madiokoko à Matonge” (1983), Oil on canvas, 67 x 87cm. Image: Supplied/Zeitz MOCAA

Moké, “Kin oyé ou Couloir Madiokoko à Matonge” (1983), Oil on canvas, 67 x 87cm. Image: Supplied/Zeitz MOCAA

From merriment and laughter, the viewer continues to a more peaceful indulgence in the exhibition’s next section, Repose. 

“This is the dreamscape of slow wondrous living, of radical self-preservation, for mind-body-soul connection and of unapologetic rest.”

This section arguably embraces the subjective notion of redefining the “direction” and “meanings” towards a “collective adventure” that Sarr refers to in the webinar, “Defining the ‘We’ and the ‘Us’”

In the slow voyage of lounging on sofas with outstretched limbs, enjoying a smoke or leaning into the back of an open boot with others, the acts of introspection and dreaming up the next move are borne. 

Whereas Repose places an individualistic focus on self-expression, the next section, titled Sensuality, is centred around the self in relation to the other. Intimacy and tenderness are expressed in an array of different methods: from a soft delicacy in the contrast between white and black colours in Elladj Lincy Deloumeaux’s “À mes yeux” (2022), to a playful twist in Mickalene Thomas’ colourful panel, complete with rhinestones, “Never Change Lovers in the Middle of the Night” (2016). 

Mickalene Thomas, “Never Change Lovers in the Middle of the Night” (2016), Rhinestones, acrylic and enamel on wood panel, 182.8 x 182.8cm. Image: Supplied/Zeitz MOCAA

Mickalene Thomas, “Never Change Lovers in the Middle of the Night” (2016), Rhinestones, acrylic and enamel on wood panel, 182.8 x 182.8cm. Image: Supplied/Zeitz MOCAA

Jacob Lawrence, “Genesis Creation Sermon V And God Created All the Fowls of the Air and Fishes of the Seas” (1989), Gouache on paper, 75.5 x 55.8cm. Image: Supplied/Zeitz MOCAA

Jacob Lawrence, “Genesis Creation Sermon V And God Created All the Fowls of the Air and Fishes of the Seas” (1989), Gouache on paper, 75.5 x 55.8cm. Image: Supplied/Zeitz MOCAA

In this section, the “Us” in “When We See Us” is seen through corporeal communication, wherein pleasure, devotion and connection are explored. 

The shift in accompanying audio from a joyful jazz beat to a hauntingly dark sonic design on the other side of the museum’s bridge signals the viewer’s arrival at the next section, Spirituality. 

A note to the reader: six more artworks from the Sensuality collection are found in this new space, which might cause a slight confusion; similarly, some labels do not seem to be conveniently placed next to their artwork – it could be a little puzzling when looking at video instalments where the viewer enters the content without any context as to what is happening on the screen. 

The utopia, or metaphysical word, of Black experiences and Black consciousness is explored in Spirituality. A “Triple Heritage” rooted in “Indigenous cultures, alongside Christianity and Islam” is explored to communicate a multi-faceted understanding of the universe. 

“This is a space for rituals, ceremonies and storytelling. We transcend the present by participating in Alex Shyngle’s ‘Ritual Dance’ (1995) and our souls are revived by Jacob Lawrence’s ‘Genesis Creation Sermon’ series (1989).”

The exhibition ends on a powerful note with the section, Triumph and Emancipation. With reference to powerful historical figures such as Nelson Mandela and Barack and Michelle Obama in Cheri Cherin’s “Revolution Obama” (2009), we are celebrating African people’s and people of African-descent’s strength, resilience and courage. 

Cheri Cherin, “Revolution Obama” (2009), Acrylic and oil on canvas, 200cm x 300cm. Image: Supplied/Zeitz MOCAA

Cheri Cherin, “Revolution Obama” (2009), Acrylic and oil on canvas, 200cm x 300cm. Image: Supplied/Zeitz MOCAA

“We are proud of our collective achievements, and we immerse ourselves in the spirit of Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise. Our love runs deep and reminds us that future generations depend on our ascendancy.”

“Over the last decade, figurative painting by Black artists has risen to a new prominence in contemporary art,” says Koyo Kouoh, executive director and chief curator at Zeitz MOCAA. 

“There is no better time for an exhibition of this nature – one that connects these practices and reveals the deeper historic contexts and networks of complex and underrepresented artistic genealogies that stem from African and Black modernities; an exhibition that demonstrates how multiple generations of such artists have revelled and critically engaged in projecting various notions of Blackness and Africanity.” DM/ML

The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MOCAA) exhibition “When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting” debuted on 20 November 2022 and will be running until 3 September 2023. Parallel to the exhibition is a year-long webinar series to address topics around global Black subjectivity and Black representation. These discursive programmes are available on the museum’s YouTube archives

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