Born in Polokwane in northeastern South Africa, Dineo Seshee Bopape is considered one of the most interesting exponents of contemporary South African art. In 2022, Ocean Space in Venice and Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan explored Bopape’s unconventional aesthetic language. Using a diverse range of materials, including wood, earth and brick, along with found objects, video and sound, the artist probes socio-political themes and the heavy legacy of African slavery and diaspora.
Part of The Soul Expanding Ocean exhibition cycle curated by Chus Martínez at Ocean Space, Bopape’s exhibition Ocean! What if no change is your desperate mission?, featured a semicircular structure built with wood and stones recovered from the ocean, and a three-channel video projection of beautiful and poetic aquatic shots inspired by the idea of a “ghost ship” of slaves sunk in the ocean. The projection was accompanied by a melodic and hypnotic song, born of a dream that the artist experienced during her trip to the Solomon Islands.
At HangarBicocca, Bopape presented “Born in the first light of the morning [moswara’marapo]” a comprehensive retrospective racing the fundamental stages of her work through a series of installations, wall drawings and video projections.
Dineo Seshee Bopape: Film still, 2021 – 2022. “The Soul Expanding Ocean #3: Dineo Seshee Bopape” is commissioned and produced by TBA21–Academy.
Which images and impressions of the Solomon Islands, southern America, West Africa and Jamaica lingered the most in your mind? How do you relate these images to the Atlantic Middle Passage, the slave trade?
Dineo Seshee Bopape: Let me start from the Middle Passage. When we were at the Salomon Islands, there was one image in particular that kept coming to me again and again. It was a famous photograph of a man called Peter, mistakingly known as Gordon, who had been enslaved in Louisiana. The picture shows his back lacerated with raised scars from beatings.
The waves and the water ripples reminded me of the ripples on his skin. Also, a couple of people I encountered in the Salomon asked me about a song that I remembered. The first coming to mind was Slave (by South African reggae musician Lucky Dube n.d.t.). I thought that all this was a message from the waters that urged me to do more research on the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Then I travelled to Richmond, Virginia, visiting some old plantations and historical sites, related directly or non directly to slavery. Going along the slave trails the images that stuck up were those of plants, rocks, soil and waters. They could have been the same that enslaved people had crossed. It made me think of what soil and water remember of the past centuries. Similar thoughts came up in West Africa, about the ghosts of the past that linger in certain areas across centuries.
In Jamaica, the ocean waters, rivers and lakes were gorgeous. These images of beauty also stayed with me and so did the stories of runaways, of people who drowned, and those of the local community, the way in which people interacted with the water, such as a group of elderly people washing each other backs every morning on the beach.
Dineo Seshee Bopape, veduta dell’installazione, Ocean Space Venezia | Courtesy Ocean Space, Photo Matteo De Fina.
Lerato laka le a phela le a phela le a phela / my love is alive, is alive, is alive (2022) the centerpiece of the exhibitions at Ocean Space and HangarBicocca, seems to play on a double register, alternating poetic images with more disquieting ones. This feeling enhanced via the alternation of a melodic, mystical chant and a threatening drum roll.
Dineo Seshee Bopape: I wouldn’t say double but multiple register, in the sense that there are several threads coming in. When I was at the Salomon Islands it was the longest time I spent on water, and I was wondering how people had managed for weeks in the Atlantic and the thoughts that had crossed their minds, perhaps the mystery and the wonder of the waters’ mystic body, the sounds, and the horror as well.
The word ‘magic’ often comes up in relation to your work. What is your opinion about the relation between art and the idea of magic?
Dineo Seshee Bopape: it depends on what is meant by magic. Magic is a sense of wonder. For me, in the process of art making wondrous thing happens: taking something out of the ordinary to process something else, or perhaps process something familiar in a new way.
If magic is instead meant as illusion, that would be tricky.
Dineo Seshee Bopape: “Born in the first light of the morning [moswara’marapo]”, veduta della mostra, Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano, 2022 | Courtesy l’artista e Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano. Foto Agostino Osio.
In your installations, you often use materials and parts of previous work in new configurations, as if you were recomposing a language. Can you explain?
Dineo Seshee Bopape: I guess sometimes some images or some stories are not done yet, they have not completed their process all the way, so they need more ways to be told. That’s how I would think of it.
Does your mode of presentation perhaps also relate to what has been defined the African “intangible culture” – the rich African cultural legacy of tales, folklore, music, oral tradition and material techniques?
Dineo Seshee Bopape: yes, this relates to the different timelines that occur within the work, in its making, reception and lifespan and where it happens, whether in memory or in real time, in the past time or in the future, or in a photograph as a ghost of what had been.
Thinking about the ancestral passage of the work, the work is living as an entity in itself, animated by other spirits : the spirit of the place where it’s exhibited, the spirit of everything which is comprised within the work itself, and of its past incarnations.
Dineo Seshee Bopape: Mabu,mubu,mmu, sa ke lerole, (sa lerole ke), 2022 (particolare) Veduta dell’installazione, Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano, 2022 | Courtesy l’artista e Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano Foto Agostino Osio
Is art a form of healing for you?
Dineo Seshee Bopape: for me yes, completely. It’s a form of processing difficult things, like the history of the slave trade, how I’m involved, what it has to do with me being South African. And also, how it has affected other people’s lives, and how it affects the present. It’s like wanting to identify a poison in the body when going to doctor, trying to identify its source.
Art making is a way to unpack ghosts within myself, things I haven’t come to terms with: being southern African and going to Europe; being black and black being related to all the other black people in the world; what that specific story has to do with the cradle of humankind; the ongoing slave trade that is happening in the East Coast of Africa; unbalanced economic situations, George Floyd’s death, miners getting shot in South Africa, and all these things in relationship to each other. I’m trying to understand the present and the past.
Dineo Seshee Bopape’s portrait | Courtesy Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan. Photo Lorenzo Palmieri
In your installations, you often include your landmark small sculptures, casts obtained by squeezing clay in clenched fists. You explained that they symbolize resistance and agency, and were inspired by Robert Sobukwe, the dissident and founder Pan Africanist congress who is said to have saluted new political prisoners grabbing a handful of soil, fist raised, when in solitary confinement on Robben Island. Can you tell me about these pieces?
Dineo Seshee Bopape: They relate to the memory of Robert Sobukwe and also to the story of Vivian Maier. Maier was a nanny and secret photographer, whose work was discovered upon her death. She took thousands of pictures of people and things, and many were of her shadow or of traces [of her body]. Some were never developed or printed so that she never saw them. Somehow in this process she was being the only witness of herself.
[The clay imprints are born out of] a combination of the idea of what happens to a trace, if it remains or disappears. In the process of making a fist, fingers wrapped around a void, the idea is whether the fist holds a vacuum or perhaps something else. In particular, these sculptures relate to Robert Sobukwe grabbing soil in his palm, and raising his fist, solidifying that soil, that intention.
Dineo Seshee Bopape: Lerole: footnotes (The struggle of memory against forgetting), 2017 (particolare)Veduta dell’installazione, Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano 2022 | Courtesy l’artista, Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut/Amburgo e Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano Foto Agostino Osio
Both Ocean Space in Venice and HangarBicocca in Milan are very distinctive spaces, one a deconsecrated church, the other a monumental industrial architecture. How did you relate to these spaces?
Dineo Seshee Bopape: Ocean Space was really hard. Every space always has its challenges. With Ocean Space the challenge was that it’s an historical space with a Christian history, sacred to the city. There are rules about touching the walls, there is an altar and people are buried inside, so interacting with all these energies, with the history of Christianity in the world, in South Africa, in my family, and the slave trade as well, drove part of the process.
At HangarBicocca, it’s interesting how in the process of going back and forth visiting the site, finding out about the family and its history, I found out that one member of the Pirelli family translated a book by Franz Fanon in Italian. This gave some comfort in making work in a cathedral of labour and Fanon’s relationship to labour practices, of Marxism, that was an interesting avenue to explore.
Veduta della mostra, Ocean Space, Venezia | Courtesy Ocean Space Venezia, photo Matteo De Fina