South Africa recurs as both reference and source in the work of Moshekwa Langa (b.1975). Langa grew up in Bakenberg, a small village in the northernmost province of Limpopo. His first solo exhibition was in 1995 at the now defunct Rembrandt van Rijn Art Gallery in Johannesburg. Two years later, he left the country, taking up a year-long residency at the Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten in Amsterdam, where he remained until 2007. Langa then returned to South Africa, living in Johannesburg until 2013, before moving back to Amsterdam. Between 2017 and 2020 the artist relocated to Paris, until the COVID-19 pandemic forced him back to the Dutch capital. Against this backdrop of movement and relocation, questions of home and the possibility of returning have pervaded Langa’s output. Although his work encompasses almost every medium – painting, drawing, installation, photography and video – his methodology remains consistent. He sources materials from his immediate surroundings and transforms them through various processes, sometimes slowly over the course of several years. Given that such items often refer to a specific locale, there is a pervasive sense of place in the artist’s practice, and yet, at the same time, he cannot be pinned down.
Langa’s itineracy began before he left South Africa. At the age of eleven his family moved from Bakenberg to KwaMhlanga, the capital of the short-lived apartheid ‘homeland’ state of KwaNdebele, which was created in 1981 for the Ndebele people outside the city of Pretoria. Under apartheid, the Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act of 1970 made every Black South African a citizen of one the ‘homelands’ – or bantustans – which were organised on the basis of ethnic and linguistic groupings defined by white ethnographers. Bantustans were considered independent by the apartheid regime but were not recognised internationally. Located in rural areas, they forcibly removed Black South Africans from city centres and denied them citizenship. As a teenager, Langa left KwaMhlanga to attend a mixed-race co-educational boarding school in Pretoria founded on the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925).1 In the mid-1990s he moved to Johannesburg, before leaving for Amsterdam.
Langa’s biography often acts as a starting point for his work, and his hometown of Bakenberg features prominently throughout FIG.1. During the apartheid era, Bakenberg was not listed on official government maps, suggesting that Langa’s birthplace – and therefore the artist himself – did not exist. In the mid to late 1990s, he began making collages with these maps, when they had been rendered useless by the end of apartheid and the abolition of homelands.2 Langa attached them to flimsy black garbage bags with brown packing tape, sometimes partially covering them with pieces of paper FIG.2 FIG.3. He then inscribed the maps with his own scribbles and descriptions, evoking the arbitrary nature of line making and the uselessness of maps as a way to locate oneself. At this time, Langa, only twenty years old, had just emerged onto the South African art scene.3 As a young, Black conceptual artist, he was hailed as a ‘wunderkind’ emblematic of the ‘New South Africa’.4 Informed by the spatial politics of apartheid, the local press often reduced Langa’s identity to that of a rural, untrained artist, even if his biography complicated such a narrative.5
After leaving South Africa, Langa encountered similar stereotypes and the projection of certain expectations onto his work. When he first presented his work The Mountains of My Youth – A Novel FIG.4, a floor-based installation comprising cones of thread placed on red linoleum with white strips of fax-paper, the artist was told that it was not ‘African’ enough.6 The 1990s had witnessed the globalisation of the art world and its expansion beyond a Eurocentric matrix. The construct of ‘contemporary African art’ emerged at this time, and African artists were often expected to perform an exotic otherness in their work premised on Western notions of the continent and its people.7 Challenging these ideas of fixity, Langa’s Suburban Metro Lines FIG.5 spotlights the artist’s transiency between South Africa and the Netherlands. The work consists of a map of sub-Saharan Africa stuck onto garbage bags and overlaid with colourful tape that evokes Amsterdam’s metro system. Squares of grey tape are placed on top, seemingly signifying various metro stops, or perhaps the artist’s own coordinates. Langa’s collages propose a fluid sense of identity and complex subjectivity that traverse multiple spaces.
In Langa’s work, Bakenberg operates as both a psychic location and a point of dislocation.8 Take, for example, the seven-minute video Martha FIG.6, which captures Langa’s childhood friend Martha Mbiza sprinting down a dirt road FIG.7 in Bakenberg and raising her arm as though hailing a bus or taxi. Langa, filming on a handheld camera, sprints alongside and sometimes behind her; their combined shallow breathing and laughter are audible. In the video, Martha is dressed in a pink shirt and skirt, wears a long silver necklace and carries a black leather handbag FIG.8; there is a sense that she dressed up for the occasion, evoking a childhood game. Through these associations with adolescence, Langa returns to a memory of Bakenberg rather than the place itself. In comparison to him, Martha has lived much of her life in the village.9 Their dynamic in the video suggests that Martha exemplifies some kind of rootedness that the artist cannot attain but is forever chasing. After leaving Bakenberg, Langa could only ever return as an outsider, with experiences of elsewhere that set him apart. As though to emphasise the contrast between them, Martha does not go anywhere in the video, only around the block and back.
At the same time, Langa offers another way of locating himself beyond geographical means. His ‘word towers’ FIG.9 – works on paper filled with abstract colourful clouds of text, giving them their colloquial name – offer a narration of the artist’s life. They chart Langa’s encounters, intimacies and associations with the people and places that constitute him. Home for Langa is a creation of the mind. Another work with a similar effect is a 2008 large-scale drawing, the title of which, What is a Home Without a Mother FIG.10, appears across two pages of paper. The text is written on one piece of paper as ‘W H A T / I S A H / O M E / W I T H’ and continues onto the other as ‘O U T / A M O / T H E / R?’. The first set of letters is overlaid with the silhouettes of red houses, while on the second they appear on top of a primary-coloured grid filled in with Langa’s overlapping scribbles of pencil. The latter suggests a map, but simultaneously the impossibility of locating oneself in time and space without a mother.
The prevalence of writing that assesses Langa’s work in the context of South Africa is perhaps understandable given the artist’s references to the country. However, Langa challenges an easy and seamless relationship between artists and their origins, typically projected onto those from the Global South.10 To this end, there is another often overlooked thread in the artist’s practice: his life in Amsterdam. Langa’s work frequently looks towards South Africa from the Netherlands. His feelings of being deracinated from Bakenberg, and South Africa more generally, are to some extent amplified by an exclusion from Dutch society and the country’s art scene.11 It is one thing to leave a city or country, but another to not necessarily arrive somewhere else.
There is a kinship between the Netherlands and South Africa due to the Dutch colonisation of the Cape between 1652 and 1806 and a linguistic similarity between Afrikaans and Dutch.12 However, Dutch ties with white South Africa did not prompt a shared sense of responsibility for the systemic racism set in motion by colonisation and culminating in apartheid.13 When the artist moved to Amsterdam, Langa encountered Dutch colleagues who knew very little of their country’s history with South Africa. He explored this lack of knowledge and the connections between the two countries in Far Away from Any Scenery He Knew or Understood FIG.11, which is part of a series of self-portrait photographs centred around the artist’s body. In the image, Langa’s naked upper body is seen against a white wall, which calls to mind the non-space of the white cube. Bearing in mind its title, the work evokes Langa’s supposed displacement as a South African artist in Amsterdam – an ironic gesture given the Dutch colonisation and the marks that it left on the country’s landscape, including the name of Bakenberg.
Dutch colonial memories are most often conceptualised through Ann Laura Stoler’s notion of ‘colonial aphasia’, referring to a loss of access to and active dissociation from certain memories.14 The term describes both a lack of language in a culture to address specific issues and, most importantly, a difficulty comprehending what is being spoken. Myths of Dutch identity prevent genealogies of empire from entering the collective psyche.15 The Netherlands prides itself on its tolerance, the principle of which originates in the Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648) and the Dutch Golden Age. After years of bloodshed between Protestants and Catholics, the Republic of the United Netherlands advocated tolerance. According to school textbooks, this preference for tolerance allowed the Dutch to become leaders in world trade and attract such philosophers as René Descartes and Baruch Spinoza. Today the country takes pride in being the first to legalise same-sex marriage and its liberal views on sex work and soft drugs. But these ideas of tolerance further provoke Stoler’s notion of ‘colonial aphasia’ whereby there is an absence of a language to address anything that strays from such a narrative.
Given the country’s silence around its colonial activities, Langa has often felt that his Blackness is a problem in Amsterdam, where Dutchness is equated with whiteness and Christianity.16 As he asks rhetorically: ‘what can you do about a problem like Moshekwa?’.17 Since first moving to the city in 1997, Langa’s career has been largely conducted overseas, with several exhibitions at institutions and galleries in the United States, Europe and South Africa, including the Renaissance Society, Chicago (1999); the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati (2003); Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen, Dusseldorf (2004); Modern Art Oxford (2007); and Kunsthalle Bern (2011).18 Langa’s work was not exhibited or collected by any major Dutch institution until 2022 when he had a solo exhibition, titled Omweg, at KM21, The Hague, which was curated by Yasmijn Jarram FIG.12. In Moonscape FIG.13, one of the more recent works included in the exhibition, Langa smeared and lacquered burnt firewood and charcoal collected in South Africa onto blue washed paper. The series transforms a once-known landscape into an otherworldly moonscape, emphasising the artist’s everyday distance from it.
Langa often compares himself to the South African artist Marlene Dumas (b.1953), who has been based in Amsterdam since 1976.19 The two became friends in the mid-1990s and began a correspondence that continues today.20 Dumas has supported Langa’s career at various points, including assisting him with accommodation and studio space in Amsterdam.21 In 2002 Langa held a residency at the South African National Gallery, Cape Town, as part of Fresh, a one-month programme for emerging artists that was funded by a gift from Dumas.22 A white woman of Afrikaans descent, Dumas has been exhibited and collected by major Dutch institutions since the early days of her career.
In 2006 Dumas completed an oil painting of Langa titled Moshekwa FIG.14, which is based on a ‘wanted’ poster that Langa created as part of an artists’ print workshop organised by the Triangle Network in Martinique and subsequently gifted to Dumas. The original image of Langa was taken by the Trinidadian photographer Marlon Griffith (b.1976) the morning after the artist had an altercation with some locals. In Moshekwa, Dumas depicts Langa in her typical loose, watery palette. He looks out towards the viewer against a background of sea green. Langa is given shape through the shades of a bruise, keeping the memory of the incident at the forefront: a cloud of purple collects on his forehead, while blue brushstrokes drip from the artist’s nose onto his upper lip. Dumas’s colours bleed into one another and their contours seem to shift on the surface of the work. Moshekwa was exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum as part of Dumas’s solo exhibition, Marlene Dumas – The Image as Burden (6th September 2014–3rd January 2015). While the Stedelijk has collected Dumas’s work, the museum owns nothing by Langa despite him being active in the city since 1997. The Stedelijk has recently implemented an acquisition policy designed to diversify the museum’s collection beyond its current abysmal statistics of over ninety per cent white male artists and only four per cent female artists.23 In this context, Dumas’s depiction of Langa’s bruising takes on further meaning in terms of the artist’s own experiences of exclusion in the Netherlands. Langa’s spectral appearance paradoxically refers to an absence of a language through which to explain his presence in the former colonial metropole.
Much of Langa’s recent work is a product of the artist’s Amsterdam studio, as though to ground himself in the city. Langa often tears off small pieces of the black plastic sheet that protects the floor and adds them into his works, which he paints over and covers with varnish. In April 2023 Langa exhibited an untitled installation FIG.15 as part of the group exhibition The Faithful Friend: The Lover Friend’s Love for the Beloved in Amsterdam, curated by Ferdinand van Dieten and Iris Kensmil. The installation comprises a large piece of canvas, which is suspended from the ceiling so that both sides are visible. Having been used by the artist as a cloth to dab excess paint, the material is saturated with shades of blue – from cerulean to aquamarine – and wrinkled from the absorption of liquids, as well as being excessively handled and shoved into storage. The creases on the cloth create a kind of topography of the ocean with its differing depths. The ocean carries a specific currency within Black Studies, where, apropos Hortense Spillers and Édouard Glissant, the Middle Passage remade African people into Caribbean, Afro-Brazilian and African American people in the New World.24 However, Langa’s installation appears to pause upon the ocean: a suspension in mid-air, lacking a final destination.
As institutions in the Netherlands, such as the Stedelijk, and elsewhere grapple to expand their collections, there is much to be learned from Langa’s body of work. As previously discussed, European identities have struggled to accommodate their colonial activities and the arrival of migrants from former colonies. These narrow confines of identity simultaneously recur in current approaches to decolonisation. Edward Said argued that, while imperialism consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale, its worst and most paradoxical gift was to allow people to believe that they were only one thing.25 European and North American institutions today capitalise on artists’ origins to demonstrate their decolonial agendas, obscuring the complexity of these artists’ lives and the issues addressed in their work. By contrast, Langa rejects this sense of fixity. His work develops a fluid sense of identity and a complex subjectivity that refuse to serve someone else’s agenda.