Review | Mapping Catastrophes: Pebofatso Mokoena’s ‘Internal Probes’
I went to go and see Pebofatso Mokoena’s show earlier this year, before we all got locked indoors. I was feeling particularly grey that day and Mokoena’s works energised my mind and mood for a good while after I viewed them. A few weeks later, I attempted to unpack some of the artist’s show in this review, first published on ArtThrob.
One could spend hours poring through the works in Pebofatso Mokoena’s Internal Probes. The artist’s mixed-media works are detailed and frenetic collections of people, places, topographies, tributes, and tragedies, all marked down, yet barely contained within their respective frames.
Exhibited as a solo show at Johannesburg’s David Krut Gallery, Internal Probes comprises silkscreens; large-scale paintings; and drawn, collaged, and editioned works. The large paintings hang at the front entrance on a double-sided canvas — large enough to section off one half of the gallery — and are deceptively simple works. On one side, a softly-coloured swipe of paint — a ‘swoosh’ — snakes its way on and off of the canvas while the reverse side features bursts of oranges and reds on white. The paintings are the first things you see of the exhibition, and could be viewed as primers for the remaining works on show — slow, simple motifs or movements that, when repeated en-masse, find their meaning among one another.
The rest of the works on show take up the walls behind these two paintings and come as a surprise. A throng of small marks, patterns, shapes, texts, and abstractions bustle around inside each frame, standing out in vivid contrast to the sparse paintings. Potential chaos is tempered, however, by cool, contemplative blacks and blues which provide the basis for all of the show’s prints, collages, and drawings. Set against these thematic hues are the many small stories and inquiries that make up Mokoena’s works.
Broadly speaking, the works in ‘Internal Probes’ attempt to reckon with patterns of data; consumption; transportation; systems of organisation and information; and the shaky infrastructure that supports it all. Figures, faces, words, names, carefully-drawn lines, planetary orbits, isolated images, and rogue markings jostle up against one another, collapse, and settle into moments of quiet contemplation amidst the commotion. These rich moments of silence or isolation in Mokoena’s works are not to be overlooked. If we are to engage with each piece as its own journey through time, space, and process, then these still, open pieces of canvas and solitary figures could be shifts in direction, areas left unexplored, or passages of time long forgotten. They could also be moments of respite or reflection, like the single yellow dot resting behind a barrier of ink in the corner of Zonal Marking.
Throughout it all, Mokoena employs a series of recurring visual and textual elements. An over-populated vessel viewed from above, for example, is an enduring motif in these works. Described as ‘a slave ship, turned spaceship’ in the exhibition’s framing text, the vessel communicates Mokoena’s own interest in historical and contemporary information systems, and how people are organised inside of those systems. In the case of the vessel, it is the logistics (and audacity) of packing as many people as possible into a single space that Mokoena works to convey. This interest is also found in repeated references to the 2001 Ellis Park Stadium Disaster — an event that saw the death of 43 people after a stampede broke out in the overcapacity stadium — as well as the 1781 Zong slave ship massacre, when 130 African slaves were murdered by British sailors who later tried to claim insurance on their deaths.
Mokoena’s repeated reference to these tragedies presents us with the issue of human lives represented as statistics: How do we pay tribute to faceless figures? How do cold analytics accurately account for the enormity of human catastrophe? Physically marking them down may be one way of reckoning with this problem.
Paying tribute and bearing witness to people and processes alike is another enduring element in these works. The works of David Koloane and Franz Kafka are referenced throughout, while short notes such as ‘Kentridge Vibes Maybe’ and ‘An Era of Errors’ sit quietly on the sides of works. Mokoena’s use of text is a crucial part of his practice. Text and language, and their incorporation into his visual worlds, serve as markers of progress and process. ‘1. Screenprint them 2. Swoosh’ is written in neat penmanship on the top of a work, while ‘pink white, cool white’ are potential colour choices jotted down in pencil. In ‘Bees’, a feverish and deeply stirring amalgamation of statistics, historic tragedies, and human lives, the words ‘A world of mark-making catastrophes’ rest atop the torrential scene.
Importantly, this dense layering of thoughts, doubts, playful encounters, examinations, and free-spirited improvisations in the artists’ work are all made visible to the viewer. These are Mokoena’s ‘Internal Probes’ — a material collection of repetitive and reflexive actions casting a curious and critical gaze across history and our movements and actions throughout it. The crucial density that characterises so much of Mokoena’s work, then, could be viewed as one’s own movements through the world, or as an attempt at mapping out the collective lives, places, statistics, movements and choices that have built up to this point — a world of mark-making catastrophes.