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In Our Words: Mohau Modisakeng (PART 2)

Our ongoing series, In Our Words, provides an opportunity to connect with the faculty and staff of Black Studies at UT's community. In the second part of this two-part essay, Dr. Hershini Young provides an in-depth look at Mohau Modisakeng's haunting three-channel video Passage, which was on view in the Art Galleries at Black Studies Idea lab in 2020.

Young is a professor in the department of African and African Diaspora Studies where she teaches she teaches classes on queer/black performance, focusing on Southern Africa. Her latest book, Illegible Will: Coercive Spectacles of Labor in South Africa and the Diaspora (Duke UP), uses performance to critically reimagine the archive.

In this essay Young says Passage moves "...from a singular exploration of hidden South African histories to a situating of that history within the anti-black afterlives of slavery and imperialism."

Young's essay, Mohau Modisakeng’s Passage: The Space of Mourning, unpacks this meditative 20 minute exploration, in two parts. Part 2 is presented here.

An excerpt from Passage, Mohau Modisakeng, 2017.

Mohau Modisakeng’s Passage: The Space of Mourning (Part 2)

By Hershini Young

Of Mimicry and Men

In his artist statement, Modisakeng tells us that the Setswana word for life is ‘botshelo’, meaning ‘to cross over’. Life is a voyage across time and space and the living are ‘bafeti’ or voyagers who experience the ‘passage’ of life. However, this passage of life is shaped by what Achille Mbembe describes as “subjugation of life to the power of death….[where] vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of the living dead” (pgs. 39-40). The colony is a death-world marked by certain important technologies of power that the bafeti must traverse.

In his now classic text The Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha [1.] describes mimicry as one of the most effective (though elusive) strategies of contesting colonial power. The slippage or double vision that arises between the colonizer producing a civilized subject who is just like him but different, “almost the same, but not quite” (pg. 86) becomes one of the major ways in which the colonized subject destabilizes structures of imperial dominance. The menace of these ‘mimic men’ who are “part-objects of a metonymy of colonial desire” (pg. 88) lies in their strategic deployment of the trace, the artifice, the ‘not quite’ that widens the cracks and fissures in colonial epistemologies. Modisakeng’s boats are filled with these ‘mimic men’ who are dressed in emblematic Western dress and who carry specific accoutrements of the civilizing mission: a three-piece suit, a large black umbrella, a Trilby hat, a trained kestrel, a sjambok [2.] made from rhinoceros or hippopotamus skin, a Basotho blanket and a scepter.

Modisakeng, however exposes that which Bhabha largely overlooked, namely, how normative, cis-gender identities are part of this colonizing mission. Modisakeng’s exploits the slippage between normative gender and the way that his characters occupy gender roles in order to move us away from heteronormative gender binaries. On first glance, one boat appears to contain a woman, the other a man and the third a figure whose gender is largely indeterminate. [3.] On second and third glances, we notice that the bearded male figure appears to be wearing a skirt that swirls around his hips, revealing legging underneath. The female figure with two braids on the top of her head like horns and voluminous skirts wields the sjambok, inverting stereotypes of women as being passive victims of violence. The third figure with a delicate face is elegantly dressed in what is traditionally seen as a man’s suit and their gender is ambiguous. Modisakeng repeats with difference the scripted imperial performances of cis-gender enforced by an ongoing imperial project. The menacing mockery of these performances undercuts, fractures and erodes the ground under the feet of colonial regimes.

In addition to these alternately gendered bodies, each boat contains a specific artifact meant to represent particular “topographies of cruelty” (Mbembe pg. 40). It would be reductive to suggest that each of them stands in for one specific aspect of power. Rather the collection of these artifacts function as shorthand for discussions of cultural authenticity and the complex historical navigation by various South African peoples of structures of power. What is most striking about each ‘part-object of colonial desire’ is Modisakeng’s focus on reappropriating and reinvesting them with meaning. He dis-identifies [4.] with authoritarian structures of meaning, inscribing the objects instead with a signification that stresses the creative survival strategies of Africans subjugated by global capital.

Let us briefly consider the Basotho blanket (Seanamarena) which is a distinctive woolen blanket that has become a marker of ethnicity for the Sotho. This blanket was originally gifted to King Moshoeshoe by a Mr. Howell in 1860, and it gradually replaced the indigenous kaross or animal skin cloak, due to socio-economic and environmental changes [5.] and also as a result of the King’s use of the blanket as a fashion statement and status symbol. The increasing difficulty in procuring the skin for karosses led to Moshoeshoe in 1876 securing the mass production of Seanamarena from Scottish textile manufacturer Donald Fraser. One of the primary aesthetic characteristics of the Seanamarena today is its one-centimeter wide pinstripes. This was originally a weaver’s mistake but instead of correcting the error, the company with a careless disregard sent the flawed blankets to Lesotho anyway. The pinstripe has now become an essential feature of the blankets, carefully woven in. Through this circuitous route, the blanket has become an essential part of ceremonial and everyday Basotho culture. The Seanamarena encapsulates a complex history of global exploitation, the appropriation and re-appropriation of culture that belies reductive notions of authenticity and Southern African resistance to imperial regimes. This blanket is at once culturally authentic and not, a botched product foisted on ‘unsuspecting’ Africans and a product characterized by a unique aesthetic flourish, a sign of imperialism and as well as a sign of resistance to exploitation. As the boat fills with water, the blanket, which is wrapped around the ‘female’ character, gets heavier and heavier. Waterlogged, it sinks to the foot of the boat, a large clump of dark wool. Here then is a metonym of colonial relations as an imported material artifact becomes a sign of cultural vibrancy and gestures towards the creativity of black peoples. Hlonipha Mokoena thus writes that by placing such artifacts alongside the floating, drowning, living and dead bodies of the various characters, “Modisakeng signals that the list of the tools of oppression is limitless; and so is the list of the tools of liberation” (pg. 5).

Conclusion: Looking at this

Elizabeth Alexander’s famous reading of the Rodney King videos [7.] argues that the practice of viewing, how a performance is watched or otherwise consumed, is just as important as the performances’ contents. Alexander also raises important specific question about how, as black viewers, we position ourselves in relation to performance and art. “Can you be black”, Alexander asks, “and look at this”?

In 2017, as part of their country’s entry to the Venice Biennale, Cuban performance artist Carlos Martiel presented his work Mediterraneo. Martiel immersed himself in a glass container that was simultaneously filling with ice water. A powerful test of endurance, Martiel tolerated approximately twenty minutes before indicating that he needed to be helped out as he was at risk of hypothermia and drowning. Martiel wanted to simulate the experience of many migrants and refugees who have attempted to cross the Mediterranean and often ended up in water where they perish unless rescued by the coast guard. During those twenty minutes, a sizeable audience gathered around the glass container, taking photographs of the performance before moving on to another nation’s exhibit. As Cheryl Finley et al [8.] argue, “[b]y taking pictures of his near-drowning act, the audience, wittingly and unwittingly, turned into the privileged citizens of countries that ‘watch’ the human catastrophe that is taking place right in front of their eyes, yet then have the privilege to choose to turn around and walk away” (pg. 324). At the heart of this question of viewership and blackness lies our fundamentally different, racialized relationships to black suffering.

We are surrounded today by an unprecedented amount of cell-phone and video footage showing the brutal deaths of black people. While the technology might be novel, spectacularized black suffering is by no means a new phenomenon. Instead it was essential to colonial governance as slaves were tied to the masts of ships and publicly flayed or the heads of convicted slaves were impaled outside the door of the Cape Castle, a warning to other slaves to obey their masters. To be black and look at Modisakeng and other performances is to accept and embrace a terrible intimacy. It is at once to see our connection to the drowning body and to collectively mourn our dead. It is not to be seduced by the terrible beauty of the performance but instead to step into the slow time of the wake that insists that justice is inextricable from the work of mourning. Passage then is an injunction: to feel, to mourn, to refuse the privilege of disinterested viewership and to act.


1. Homi Bhabha. The Location of Culture. London. Routledge UP, 1994.

2. Robert Ross in Cape of Torments notes that “[t]hen as now, the sjambok, a hippopotamus hide whip, was the symbol of white baasskap in South Africa” (1983 1).

3. Composer Neo Muyanga describes this third figure ‘hybrid’ and ‘inbetween.’

4. José Esteban Muñoz. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. U. of Minnesota Press, 1999.

5. A series of natural disasters such as drought, a ‘Rinderpest’ outbreak, and unusually cold winters led to a decrease in livestock and other animals in the late nineteenth century. The animal-skin kaross became increasingly difficult to procure and many were forced to use inadequate, cheaply made cotton/ wool blankets that failed to keep out the cold. The Scottish blankets are made almost entirely of wool, making them coarser but warmer.

6. Hlonipha Mokoena. “’Isidwaba yini na?’ What is that Pleated Skirt?” Mohau Modisakeng: With Essays by Hlonipha Mokoena, Ruth Simbao, and Ashraf Jamal. Exhibition Catalogue.Tyburn Gallery, Whatiftheworld and Galeria Ron Mandos. 2016: 4-7

7. Elizabeth Alexander. “’Can you be Black and Look at This?’ Reading the Rodney King Video(s). Public Culture 7. 1 (1994): 77-94.

8. Cheryl Finley, Leigh Raiford and Heike Raphael-Hernandez. “Visualizing Protest: African (Diasporic) Art and Contemporary Mediterranean Crossings.” Journal of Transnational American Studies 10.1 (2019): 315-332.

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