Mephaso for Marikana workers
By Leila Dougan
Khehla Chepape Makgato has dug deep into his creative talent to produce art works that remind people of the “historical injustice that was Marikana”.
We are all haunted by the facts and the images have been burned into our collective memory. The 34 striking miners who were gunned down on 16 August 2012 by those who dedicated their lives to ‘protect and serve’. Hunted and murdered by the South African police, the death of the low-wage miners shook the world and took us back to a time when state violence against the black population was the order of the day.
Khehla Chepape Makgato’s third solo exhibition is titled Mephaso: The Rituals and interprets the still fresh wounds of the killings. The exhibition is held amid the release of the Marikana report by President Jacob Zuma, and alongside the Marikana residents calling for the koppie, where the protesters gathered on that fateful day, to be declared a heritage site. Makgato’s artworks are being displayed at the Michaelis Art Library in Johannesburg.
“That was a historical injustice and I felt that I need to talk about it until someone hears. Until the government hears. Even if the government does not heed the call now, as long as I engage and involve the young people, they will grow up to their positions of leadership knowing that there was an incident that happened that shocked the world.”
The charcoal drawings and collages narrate his interpretation of the shocking events that took place three years ago. With the massacre forming a strong part of our national heritage, his work is a continuation of our public mourning for the protestors who paid the ultimate price, and is a personal tribute to the fallen workers.
“My main concern is to get people talking about it. I want to exhibit a decade of Marikana tackling it from different angles because if I do not become an active citizen and tell the stories about our country, somebody will come and tell these stories about us, while we fold our arms,” said Makgato.
“Biko once said you are not free until you can tell your own story; and so in the process of telling the Marikana story I’m yearning to be free and the more I tell this story the more free I become”.
Makgato has held two previous solo exhibitions; each one dedicated to the Marikana Massacre. The name of his current exhibition, Mephaso, translates to the traditional ceremony of laying souls to rest in Sepedi. His works visually references the customs that come with death, mourning, healing and memory.
“The use of the animals, especially goats, is very important,” he said. “Goats are used as mediums to communicate with the ancestors…to ask for blessings or prevent bad luck. If a person passes on away from their home, for instance, a ritual takes place where the goat will be carefully prepared to take the spirit of the departed soul to his final resting place, with his ancestors. Before this preparation, a knowledgeable elder will burn a traditional herb called ‘Meshinkwane’ or ‘Impepho,’ a herb used to communicate with the ancestors.”
Some of his charcoal drawings include the Buffalo Thorn tree, usually symbolic of the burial of a chief.
“When a chief dies and they bury him they plant the Buffalo Thorn tree on top of his grave to remind the generations after that a chief was buried there. There are so many beliefs around this tree. It has two thorns: one faces back, one faces forward. It is believed to be a direction from the past to the future. The one that is facing forward, indicates the future and the one facing backwards represents the history of the people”.
He dedicates the show to the “untold stories, the unheard voice and the voices of our African cultures and belief systems”.
Born in Kensington, Johannesburg, and raised in a village just outside Polokwane, Limpopo, Makgato studied printmaking at Artist Proof Studio in Newtown, Johannesburg in 2009. Since graduating in 2012 he’s participated in a range of community art projects and international exchange programmes.
The multi-talented artist also studied journalism, and is currently pursuing a degree in African art history, and theatre and drama practices through correspondence. However, his first love is art, a tough road for any young, black South African. 2008, saw him move to Johannesburg to pursue his art career with little resources or support from his family back home.
“My mother wanted me to go and work because she thought art would not do anything for me. I went for interviews and I got jobs, but I knew in my heart that I wanted to pursue art and literature”.
At the time he called his mother and brother telling them that he had found a job but rejected it, “I said that I’m not going back [to work] and my brother was very difficult about it. He said I should never turn to him when a situation gets tougher as I neglected the job he helped me to get and I agreed.”
During his first year of art school Makagato lived in Marlven and walked to and from art college in Newtown, which took him an hour and a half each way. “I was walking three hours a day and I didn’t have money to buy lunch. So everything was on my own. I would come back home at night and have something to eat. So it was those sacrifices that got me to where I am today.”
During his second year at art school he worked as a studio intern for David Krut Art Resources, which allowed him to “participate in printmaking projects with visiting artists”. This is around the time he met William Kentridge, who later become his mentor.
His first solo exhibition, titled Marikana: Truth, Probability and Paradox was paid for from his own pocket and looked at the concept of labour and migration. It sought to investigate and interrogate labour relations and inequality in South Africa. None of the galleries he approached showed interest in his work; and so he decided to curate his own art but could not afford to frame his work.
“I fought with a small gallery before I went solo and started doing everything on my own. That’s when I took up the responsibilty of being a curator. In my first show I didn’t even have frames. In my second solo show I used old frames to frame my work. I had no choice but to do it from my pocket with the little amount of money that I have. So it’s those things that we do to take back power. I took control over my own process.”
Makgato says that black artists have a double burden to bear. With the perception of their families and community on one hand, and the privileged, largely commercial galleries on the other; which he says are ‘hostile’ and at times are unwelcoming to young, emerging black artists.
“At the talks and panels they talk to you like you’re nothing and it’s because we allow it. As long as we allow them to treat us like this the longer they will continue to be arrogant and aggressive. But if we put a stop to it, this means we need to tell our own stories and curate our own shows and have a black owned art publication that covers all the art practitioners equally.”
The traditional gallery space has been a contentious issue, especially when it comes to who can and who cannot access the space. Makgato says that this influences whether black communities and audiences are able to access and enjoy the arts, and this influences whether they believe art to be a viable career path for their children.
“I have experienced art practitioners blaming black communities about not collecting art or going to art galleries. But we cannot drive crowds into galleries without being concerned about how we create something on paper that can make it easy for people to read and understand, which will ultimately drive them to the galleries.”
“They know what art is about but they cant access it. Most of our people don’t feel like they belong in that space. We are not thinking about our audience, we’re blaming them that they do not support the arts. Who goes to commercial galleries? Mostly art collectors and art practitioners. So it means that we’re doing art for privileged commercial galleries and we’re giving them the authority to dictate our message and our art.”
This is one of the reasons Makgato decided to hold his exhibition at a library in the centre of the bustling Johannesburg city as opposed to an art gallery, so that the public can interact with his art.
“Taking art to the public means taking it to the churches, or to the community halls, to the library. I also wanted to take our people to the library, even if they’re not going there to read, even if they’re going there to see my show, I’ve managed to drive them into the library. Next time they pass the library they’ll be familiar with it and they’ll remember my work. So next time they have time they can go in and walk around and take out books. My mission is to take people to the theatre, to the art gallery, to the museum, to the library, the very places that were denied to us”.
It’s been a tough journey for the young artist, and this is only the beginning.
“We’re coming from a black community background where studying art is frowned upon and this still persists because when you do art you’re regarded as someone who is lazy, someone who cannot think, you’re just wasting time. So as black art practitioners we have a lot of work to do to say art is a profession and you can make a living out of it.”
He repeated his earlier assertion: “My main objective is to have some of my time and energy focused on Marikana because that was a historical injustice and I felt that I need to talk about it until someone hears. Until the government hears. Even if the government does not heed the call now, as long as I engage and involve the young people who will be the leaders of tomorrow, they will grow up to their positions of leadership in their sectors knowing there was an incident that happened that shocked the world.”
Mephaso: The Rituals is showing at the Michaelis Art Library in Central Johannesburg (Corner Sauer and President Street) until the end of September