Artist Khehla Chepape Makgato ‘s exhibition pays homage to 19th Century leader of a Basotho clan Queen Mantatisi of Batlokwa

By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor

When you visit the exhibition of Johannesburg based artist Khehla Chepape  Makgato , titled ACT 7: Nkwe Ke Apare Taucurrently running, coming down on Sunday, 27, March 2022 in Braamfontein, there are certain lements to the exhibition that are immediately noticeable.

The first thing that you will not fail to notice is how this exhibition is curated in a theatrical style, a sort of  visual drama that tells one of the most intriguing, but understudied kingdoms in South Africa. And there is a reason why the artist curated this exhibition in that format. A bit about that later.

Another thing you will also immediately pick is the fact that the women are at the centre of this narrative by way of visual representation.  This  however is not to suggest that the artist is trying to erase the presence of men of this Kingdom through this narrative, but rather to deliberately centre the role of women leaders in the Batlokwa nation, a Sesotho Kingdom that existed in what today is an area of Free State Province, situated between Harrismith and Lesotho. The Kingdom was existent in the 19th century.

Thirdly you will also notice the presence of a lone white man representing the role of colonialism in the Batlokwa narrative that the artist attempts to capture in a balanced way. The white man in question is Governor  Harrismth who in this exhibition is represented as a manipulative and condescending  colonizer to the young and impressionable King Lekonyela of the Batlokwa. This, the artist says he deduced from studying the correspondence between the two of them, by way of letters in the epistolary form that  he says seem to be pregnant with a colonial agenda.

Essentially in this Kingdom, a woman named Mantatisi  became a Queen after the death of her husband Mokotjo, after which she then played heroic roles in the lives of this nation, and yet not much is known as her role is almost ignored in historical narratives that have been published in South Africa. But before she ascended to the throne, she had to first fight  patriarchy pushed by her husband’s brother, who claimed incorrectly that he was the rightful owner of the vacant throne, and therefore he, instead of Mantatisi must  ascend to the throne. The effort however failed and Mantatise got to sit on the seat of power from 1813 to 1824, before handing over to her then old son Sekonyela.

All the drama in the nation’s struggle for existence and continuity is well captured by the artist in this multi-medium exhibition that includes monotype prints, water colour,  charcoal on paper and text.

“I curated the exhibition in a dramatic format because when I worked on the idea initially, I wanted it to be a play, but then changed and decided to make it a visual narrative of the Batlokwa nation. This is why this exhibition consists of seven Acts just like in a theatre format, all representing a particular aspect of this nation, whose history, particularly the role of Queen Mantatisi is understudied to the point of almost erasure. 

This is despite the fact that she ruled this nation for a decade when her husband died, and her son Sekonyela was still too young to take over the leadership of the Batlokwa. 

Nevertheless Mantatisi went on to achieve a distinction of taking her nation to war during Mfecane, commanding her army successfully protecting the land of her nation, for Mfecane was all about land,” the artist told CITYLIFE/ARTS in an interview as he took us through the exhibition.

But compiling this piece of historical narrative was not easy as it needed extensive research that Makgato did as part of his academic exercise at the University of the Witwarsrand where he has been studying since 2019.

However when the artist researched the history of this nation, particularly the period when Queen Manthatisi was the ascended the hot throne, he found a lot of gaps in the historical account, including the fact that not much is known about her life before she married into the Batlokwa Kingdon.

“Here I had to use my artistic license to reimagine Mantatisi’s life when she was still young and single. In this process I had to tap into my short stories that I wrote about her kingdom. These are the 10 stories from which, some aspects of this exhibition are drawn, including adding a sister in her life called Makana. This forms part of Act 1,” Makgato says.

However a lot of the non-fiction narrative in this exhibition comes from archival material from the University of the Witwatersrand, where the artist excavated a lot of useful information about Queen Mantatisi as part of his Masters, Degree in visual art studies, of which this exhibition is a part of.

And so what the artist has come up with here to constitute this exhibition is made up mainly of archival information, and imaginative reimagining of Queen Mantatisi’s life where gaps exist to create a narrative that is discernable and coherent, If not impressively decent.

 To enjoy this exhibition, one needs to understand the historical narrative about this under reported Kingdom of the Basotho, and in many ways, the artist has managed to retrieve this almost forgotten story and put it out in the public domain, through this important visual narrative . The visual narrative is backed up by text, mainly written in the Sesotho language.

To put together the exhibition, the artists has been assistedby a number of people, including his long time mentor and friend Anne Gordon,  Wits  first year BA students  Tshegofatso Letwaba, Itumeleng Mtshali and Khetho Mkhaliphi. The supervisor of  Maskgato’s study is Rangoato Hlasane and the gallery manager is Reshma Chhiba.

ACT 7: Nkwe Ke Apare Tau, Makgato’s 13th solo exhibition is @TPO .Projects  Gallery, on Jan Smuts Avenue,  Braamfontein, opposite Wits University, and will come down on Sunday, March 27, 2022.

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