So complex are the fragile constellations of Dineo Seshee Bopape’s practice that her sculptures evade the easy didacticism of a casual description. But here goes: an egg-shaped form rests alongside a strip of compressed soil decorated with womb-healing herbs and minerals, casts of a uterus and curved lumps of clay rendered by a clenched fist.
I first encountered her work in 2015 while we were both on residency at Hospitalfield in Arbroath, Scotland. In conversation, she spoke about sonically mapping the continental rivers of Africa, before shifting focus to talk of “cosmological beliefs” and “voodoo priestesses”. The substance of Bopape’s practice is as various as her intellectual
interests and becomes even more magical as she begins to elaborate. Through her use or misuse of the language of Postconceptualism, Bopape’s work reveals something of the sculpture’s inherent porosity, forms might feel random but rarely accidental. For the past year or so, her work has grappled with questions of individual, collective and planetary sovereignty through a broader meditation on the Anthropocene. The outcome is a chorus of codependent forms bound by a sense of containment, displacement and the sociohistorical politics of land and landlessness. While they may not ‘represent’ the artist’s experience of growing up in Polokwane, South Africa, they appear to speak of a specific use of language and poetics both rooted in personal meaning.
The violent objects of collective memorytaken up in the Rhodes Must Fall protest movement’s call to ‘decolonise’ education across South Africa, resonates with Bopape’s ongoing interest in the reconfiguration of a history shorn of its ideological limitations. The trace of Afro-diasporic traditions can be seen in +/-1791 (monument to the haitian revolution 1791), presented at the Sharjah Biennial in 2017, a homage to Haiti's revolution against French colonial rule. This work seems to lay the ground for her contribution to the fourth edition of the Future Generation Art Prize, recently presented in Venice: slabs of soil are covered with feathers, wax, crystals, gold leaf (a reference to the gold rush that led to the founding of Johannesburg), shells and, again, the same fist-indented lumps of clay. Its spiritual aesthetics suggests a kind of ideological inversion of Land art, speaking to the landlessness of Africa’s indigenous majority as an ongoing sociopolitical trauma, and to the dispossession of land under colonial orders that led to precarious conditions of soil. Like the palm-clenched clay, her work mediates between the self and the object; it can be formed into something or simply disintegrate back to dust.
This article appears in the print edition of ArtReview, February, 2018 © Osei Bonsu, 2018.