Young visual artist Keneilwe Mokoena explores the complexity of metaphysics through art

By Edward Tsumele

At the time of writing, If you went to Gallery Fanon right now in Maboneng, at the entrance, as you sanitize, you would see on the walls in front of you, beautiful paintings hanging there. And these paintings are from a previous group exhibition, simply titled Untitled, featuring the works of some of the most exciting, mainly emerging artists in the country.

 But as you go further into this building, that used to be called, Museum of Africa Design, and which now is under new ownership, and is called Anthill, housing quite interesting arts projects, Gallery Fanon, The  Project Space, and in the near future a mainly pan African artists Residency programme,  among other planed projects, you will see more artworks on the walls. There are also alluring sculptures in this space.

However a ll these artworks are from the previous exhibition, that officially opened the Anthill building as an arts hub, more than six weeks ago. The group exhibition was housed at the entrance and the foyer of the building. However at the entrance to Gallery Fanon, more paintings and sculptures were the works of visual artist Sifiso Mkhabela, whose more works, comprising of a few more sculptures, sketches and many paintings, were part of his first ever solo exhibition entitled which officially launched gallery Fanon, in Maboneng. These were still there at the time of writing.

However Gallery Fanon itself, right now, hosts a new exhibition called Untitled 1.0, Assemblages of Unknown Realities of a State of Mind, a solo exhibition by young artist, Keneilwe Mokoena.  This body of work delves into the mystery of the universe and how everything else on this earth is inter-connected and does not live in isolation to the other elements that are part of this universe.

Just like Makhabela, who also had a solo show that in fact opened the gallery officially, only a few weeks ago, Mokoena, is a graduate in fine art from Tshwane University of Technology.

Her art practice is predicated in exploring the universe and how the universe comprises of mysteries, several elements, such as organic matter and inorganic matter for example, making a whole. She does this seemingly hard work by way of collages and drawing figurative features, mainly, but not exclusively using found objects and her own portrait.

Speaking to this young artist in an interview, it was hard not to resist the temptation to conclude that  her art practice, like many other artists, expressing themselves through abstract art, she is somehow an idealist, looking for a world that perhaps only exists in her imagination, and maybe in the future, but not right now.

But again, when you engage her more, you are also left with no doubt, but a clear  understanding that, you may not necessarily believe in her seemingly idealized world, that she seems to yearn for, but her level of conviction in that world, without doubt shared by many.

“As human beings, there are always spaces that we do not occupy, that are left empty. But again, it is the exploration of those spaces that offers us an opportunity to understand ourselves better. I have come to realize that life is interconnected. For example, bacteria has always been regarded by many of us as something that is not good for us, but the reality is we need bacteria in our lives. I like to examine microscopic organisms, things that are not visible in order to understand the interconnectedness of life,” she told me in an interview.

Artwork 1
Keneilwe Mokoena
Mixed media Collage
29 X 42 cm

And maybe as a way of demonstrating her commitment of trying to understand the complexity of life, she told me in this interview ahead of the opening of , Untitled 1.0, Assemblages of Unknown Realities of a State of Mind, which opened on November 21, and will run till January 7, 2021, that in 2017, she worked with a microbiologist at Wits on a project for the RMB Joburg Art Fair where she was part of the Talent Unlocked programme.

“In that project, I had bacteria that formed part of my body examined, and out of which, I  recreated art works, representing those bacteria,” she said.

Essentially, through this exhibition, Mokoena explores her fascination with spiritual connection to the physics and mysteries of the natural world.

 She grapples with the meaning and significance of colours, shapes, and dimensions; and deals with the paradox of acknowledging that there are realities that exist within and around us that cannot be known. This body of work is a continuation of her drawing practice. In many of her digital and multimedia collages, Mokoena combines her self-portrait with found images. Her earlier drawings, intricate and detailed, were presented separately and individually.

“Before, my abstract work used to be more organized, but more and more as I practice, it tends to become more disorganized. In a way, it is my development as a person who now understands that there is a duality in life, of being organized and chaos for example. Life is a balance, and this idea of the binary of good and bad, sometimes gets distorted and even blurred in real life. There was for example, a time when I went through severe depression in my life. Now I understand that life is made up of several elements, and all these elements are part of the universe,” she said.

Her process for her 2020 collages combines her drawing practice. Some collages feature drawings that she creates specifically to be part of those works. She focuses on the shapes that she cuts, the colours of the ink she uses to stain the paper, the thickness of the paper. She is less reliant on found images, and with the freedom to “create the paper” for the collages, she has imagined and visually realised surreal environments, ranging from the vaguely familiar to the completely unknown. There are intriguing contrasts and commonalities that flow throughout the collection that forms part of this exhibition.. There are gentler works, depicting realities that are vaguely familiar. Intricate drawings, organic shapes, dynamic lines, and dispersed words of poetry are layered to create environments resembling underwater realms or small ecosystems; worlds that breathe and live in harmony. Then there are some collages depicting unknown realities. Detached shapes, geometric and organic, occupy the same space, drifting amongst each other.

Artwork 2
Keneilwe Mokoena
Mixed Media Collage
59.4 X 42 cm

So for those who would like to explore this complicated world that Mokoena has first formed in her imagination, and then practically created a physical representation of this metaphysical world, you need to give yourself some time to visit , Untitled 1.0, Assemblages of Unknown Realities of a State of Mind. At first, you may be duped by these beautiful, almost playful colours and think well, the subject matter is light. But If you give yourself enough time to focus on this body of work by this young artist, you will realise that the subject matter she is trying to deal with, is perhaps at the core of the natural human instinct of trying to understand who you really are.

This is an exhibition worth visiting this festive season, and for those who would like to collect art by a young artist who deals with existential issues, of challenges and opportunities in life, it is worth making time for, Untitled 1.0, Assemblages of Unknown Realities of a State of Mind. You might fall in love with this body of work and collect one or two, after all the prices are tempting, even for those hard in cash during these difficult times.

And by the way, next month, Mokoena will have another exhibition in the US, and this time around, she will be focusing on digital art. If she is not making art, Mokoena  is busy doing curatorial duties, attached to The Project Space, which is within the Anthill Premises where she works full-time In fact ,Untitled 1.0, Assemblages of Unknown Realities of a State of Mind, is brought by Gallery Fanon and The Project Space.

.Untitled 1.0, Assemblages of Unknown Realities of a State of Mind is on at Gallery Fanon in Maboneng, East of Johannesburg,  till January 7, 2021.

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