The three parts to Meleko Mokgosi's absorbing show at Honor Fraser are formally distinct, all falling under a broad umbrella of concern with post-colonialism and misrepresentation across the continental, cultural divide.
A pair of multi-panel works pointedly argue their case against the way African art has been primitivized by conventional Western art history, considered good enough for the masters of European modernism to steal from but not valued for its own sake, for its own formal and cultural sophistication.
Mokgosi has printed an enlarged museum wall label (accompanying either a work of African art or a piece by Matisse, Picasso or Sheeler) onto each linen panel, then annotated it by hand in charcoal, taking terms and assumptions to task with fierce intellectual rigor and palpable exasperation. The works are compelling to read and flame with purpose.
At the opposite extreme are three panoramic charcoal drawings of dogs, whose political subtext is sub indeed. The show's press release identifies the breeds as particular to the region, and the renderings as teasing out deeper aspects of the legacies of colonialism. Without the contextual scaffold, the drawings are merely canine group portraits, but gorgeous ones, muscular in their range of resolution and modes of description.
Somewhere in the middle of the didactic spectrum falls a set of large, panoramic history paintings, whose political charge can be sensed more than decoded. The paintings string together domestic and ceremonial scenes from southern Africa in horizontal groupings, like adjoined photographs or film stills.
Mokgosi, born and raised in Botswana, earned his master's at UCLA in 2011 and now lives in Brooklyn. Earlier installments of "Pax Kaffraria," this eight-chapter project, were featured in the Hammer Museum's "Made in L.A. 2012" exhibition, for which he received the best-of-show Mohn Award. These vivid glimpses smolder with subtle, subversive intent.