Entering the contemporary art space located just a few minutes’ walk from my home in the Hudson Valley last fall, I had no idea what to expect. Gallerist Jack Shainman had just opened an exhibition by the Botswana-born artist Meleko Mokgosi. Entitled “Democratic Intuition,” Mokgosi’s opus fills all three floors of the stunning 30,000-square-foot building called The School. The artist’s massive paintings feature jarring mash-ups of people, places, objects, and animals that draw from the lives of the people of southern Africa. To write that the exhibition fills the space barely captures how the paintings burst off of the walls, confronting viewers with image overload and leaving the visitor with the challenge of coping with the unexpected discomfort the images conjure.
Mokgosi’s paintings are gorgeous, with saturated colors that sting the eyes. At least one of the pictorial pieces is paired with a canvas covered with dense, hand-written verbiage that maps the artist’s philosophical explorations. In that piece and others, Mokgosi makes visible his desire to reveal in painstaking detail his underlying thought process. But unlike the work of many other contemporary artists, Mokgosi’s powerful imagery requires no verbal explanation. In truth, Mokgosi gives the game away in a modestly scaled, straight-on self-portrait that the gallery’s curators had the wisdom to hang in a light-filled back-hall space that allows the achingly honest and unsparing self-image to stand on its own.
It is there, in the quiet of that space, that Mokgosi’s intention is laid bare. The artist’s eyes, staring straight ahead, burn into the viewers’ eyes with unblinking confrontation. Mokgosi’s expression seems to hide a complex mixture of tightly held messages. A polite invitation is not one of them. Instead, his expression signals a demand to those of us who take for granted our place in a predominantly white, privileged, first-world society to step outside our self-imposed indifference to the lives of minorities, people of color, the poor, and the disadvantaged. Mokgosi implores us to open our eyes. “We are here,” he demands. “Look at us. See us.”
Mokgosi’s paintings were still churning around in my brain when I happened upon reporting and devastating video footage from ProPublica about the tragic death of Carlos Gregoria Hernandez Vasquez. Carlos, a sixteen-year-old Guatemalan taken into custody by ICE, died of flu-related complications in the bathroom of a quarantine cell at a border station in Weslaco, Texas, in the early hours of May 20, 2019. The crime — and the shame — is that Carlos didn’t die because he was ill with a 103-degree fever. He died because he was denied proper care. He died because the guards at the facility acted as if his life was of so little value that they ignored instructions to check on his condition every few hours. He died because the border-patrol station lacked the proper facilities, personnel, and adequate funds to care for sick, quarantined children. He died because the Trump administration made the cynical and cruel decision to punish children like Carlos whose parents’ only crime was to make the heart-rending decision to send their loved ones alone on a dangerous journey to the U.S. border in a desperate bid to find a safer life.
Carlos is one of twenty-three immigrants – including two children under the age of ten — who have died in custody since the Trump administration came into office. In the end, the sad truth is that Carlos Gregoria Hernandez Vasquez and the others died because we just didn’t bother to see them.
Meleko Mokgosi’s “Democratic Intuition.” Saturdays, 11am to 6pm, until Spring 2020 at The School I Jack Shainman Gallery, 25 Broad Street, Kinderhook, New York.