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Moshekwa Langa’s triumphant return

It is rare thing when an exhibition makes the hairs on your arms stand on end. It is also a surprise that Moshekwa Langa’s work would have this impact. Since the hype around his entry into the art world in the late nineties, which was followed by some international buzz, he has not exactly been leading the pack. His last exhibition at the Goodman Gallery in Joburg in 2013 was disappointing with a lot of old work on show and there was no focus. At the time it seemed that Langa was doing what he had come to do best: avoid being pigeonholed.

Ellipsis, his new exhibition, which opened at Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town last week, is in complete contrast. It does not present the work of an artist who is holding on to what he has done before and grappling to move forward, but one in his prime who has finally made the work he was meant to make all along. The collection of new abstract works in mixed media that define this show reveal Langa to be revelling and evolving his abstract vocabulary.

He always leaned towards abstraction; intuitive line making whether with threads or other found materials and he allowed the materials to guide him in a way but now he seems to be doing but with more refinement. His art no longer appears to be the product of chaos, or appear chaotic; the works are cleanly rendered, though they are the result of an assemblage of painting, busy hand-drawn lines, torn pieces of paper and masking tape. These were always his preferred materials, but in these new abstract works they don’t evoke a makeshift or survivalist vocabulary, a short-circuiting of traditional forms of art. Rather the origins and everydayness of these materials is overwritten by the pleasing abstract compositions and function as art materials rather than as substitutes or evoking a visual or aesthetic discombobulating sensation. In this way he transforms the ordinary. The masking tape does still carry some political import; in particular, a heightened sense of erasure. This is echoed through some of the titles of the works, which refer to pre-colonial names of places or traditional clans in South Africa. These beautiful abstracted compositions are maybe veneers or transcendence of colonisation, psychic and physical.

Langa’s triumphant return can probably be attributed to all sorts of things, like experience, time, and his obvious talent coming into full bloom. It might also have something to do with the abstraction turn in South African art, which has finally given him the freedom to really immerse himself in this form of art. The conceptualist label that was pinned to his art by commentators here in the beginning of his career was always an odd fit. At the time the local art world was so hungry for a conceptualist artist who was black. This may have suffocated his expression or potential. Ellipsis reveals him to be an adept abstract artist, who is keenly visually attuned. Some cynical observers might suggest he has simply adapted to the times, that he is an art chameleon, but the strength of the art at this exhibition in no way suggests imitation. Langa has found his voice and it is a joy to observe him sing. - first published in The Times

Ellipses by Moshekwa Langa runs until 28 May at the Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town


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