Blessing Ngobeni Art Prize winning artist Boitumelo Motau’s exhibition On Inserted Bodies examines the inherited histories of Johannesburg

By Bongiwe Phakathi

We are welcomed to the North West University  (NWU) Botanical Gardens by an inviting paved path flanked by greenery, mostly planted in fertile soil and a few nestled in pots, leading up to the gallery. Cool white walls and warm yellow light with a slight blue tint coming from the bulbs lead us into artist Boitumelo Motau’s reckonings with Johannesburg.

We were confronted by mistrustful eyes on charcoal figures and unfriendly scenes of a type of construction, an arrangement of figures and data on canvas pinned against black mounting boards framed in brown. Very familiar scenes of people and things, faces dressed in fatigue and good faith, sunshine yellow boards with red text and bright red taxis – there is waiting and working, loud and silent layers, extroverted and introverted at the same time.

It is the day of the exhibition walkabout and the artist, Boitumelo Motau, shepherds us through the work. Inserted Bodies examines the inherited histories of Johannesburg using photographic archives from collections of photographs that date back as far as 1886 and works from present-day experiences. It builds on the ever-so-familiar narrative of a continuous cycle.

His charcoal and pastels draw the bodies and colour the environments depicted, which reminds me of a charcoal sketch titled ‘Train Congestion’ by Keith Sondiyazi, in the same way, a text from Santu Mofokeng’s ‘Invoice’ (Defintion: a bill, a statement, an account) which reads: “our body is the memory of our ancestors’’ reminds us to re-mind ourselves and our existence as a collective. To recall and celebrate the resilience of the bodies that have battled and the bodies that continue to battle inherited histories and traumas. To restore forgotten memories and narratives and generate new meanings from present-day life in Johannesburg. To re-member ourselves as a collective that made and still makes this body that is Johannesburg.

The work highlights a cycle of events, the moving of people and things with a narrative of generations, past and living, moving from places we call home to a city where most live in survival mode. To take pre-existing material and place it against a backdrop of current-day modes of existence in this city. The exhibition makes for an engaging way of building new ways of knowledge construction and adds to the archives concerning migration, by force.

“When I speak about history, I am specifically speaking about the stories of the people that migrated to Johannesburg, looking back to the gold rush to black men and women forced to leave their families to work in Johannesburg as miners and domestic workers and in recent years where a diverse group and Africans have migrated to Johannesburg seeking better opportunities,” states Motau.

Motau is the recipient award winner for The Blessing Ngobeni Art Prize which is aimed at assisting young and emerging visual artists to launch their careers. The Award provided Motau with a 12-week studio residency at Ellis House in Johannesburg.

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