Art, Politics & Society

How two African artists use their art to reclaim the African narrative

Two remarkable visual artists emerging from the African continent are Mohau Modisakeng and Mário Macilau. Both artists work in a variety of mediums but are most notable for their cinematography and fine-art photography respectively. Even though they come from differing circumstances, Modisakeng and Macilau share a commonality in their art as they both explore the representation of the black body as well as untold African narratives. 

South African-born artist Mohau Modisakeng comments on socio-political issues such as race, ideology, and social divergence. The effects of colonization are still largely felt in a seemingly post-colonial Africa, where the gap between the wealthy and impoverished is ever-widening. Modisakeng aims to expose the current consequential effects of colonialism on African society as a whole by retelling history through his own narrative. 

Modisakeng’s artwork Passage is a medium-length, three-channel projection that reframes the narrative of the slave trade and colonization, an event that resulted in the erasure of African histories and identities. Depicted in noir, the aesthetic of the piece is hauntingly beautiful. 3 subjects, dressed in funeral-like attire, lie facing upwards in separate white boats. Each of the passengers carries one personal possession with them on the grueling conceptual journey. As the piece continues, water begins to flood the boat and the passengers begin to display signs of resistance, followed by resignation. Each boat eventually sinks along with its passenger. Laden with symbolism, Passage is a moving retelling of history from a modern-day African perspective.

Mozambican-born visual artist Mário Macilau began his career in late adolescence, after trading his mother’s cell phone for a camera. Like Modisakeng, Macilau remarks on socio-political issues. However, he gravitates towards topics such as employment and class. Many of his projects document the harsh working conditions faced by laborers in Mozambique and Africa at large. 

Through his art, he exposes a kind of modern-day slavery, in which working conditions are perilous and wages are less than adequate. Forced labor and child labor affect the African continent significantly and it is yet to be eradicated, even though laws have been implemented against it. Macilau’s aims to expose these consequential inequalities and his subjects include, but are not limited to, street children, the elderly, and the impoverished. 

Mário Macilau, "Dreaming of Sunset"

Through his investigative, photographic series, Macilau tells the stories of the marginalized. He reclaims the dignity and a sense of personal history for his subjects who bear the brunt of an unstable economy. Macilau shoots mostly in black and white and makes use of tonal values as well as texture. It is as though you can physically feel what the subject feels.

Mário Macilau, "Showering"

Though the two artists differ on whose and what story they tell, both Modisakeng and Macilau employ the lens and the photographic image as a way to reclaim the stories of the Africans, past, present, and future.

Get Our Monthly Newsletter, Directly Into Your Inbox!

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form