Hard rock, soft worlds

Ko ga Lowe at Guns & Rain


By Thulile Gamedze


Ko ga Lowe is always before, and always just beneath → 


The phrase, a shortened form of “go tswa ko ga Lowe,” or “ever since the place/ time of Lowe” is a way of gesturing towards something like ‘at the beginning…’ It references the Lowe cave, near Rasesa – just outside of Gaborone, Botswana – and is said to be the place from which Matsieng, servant of keeper-of-the-cave Lowe, emerged and gave birth to humankind. 


As a speaker, to begin with “Go tswa ko ga Lowe”, is to perform a kind of rock-reading of time, to re-set to the starting point, returning all to clean slate. In turn, the phrase requires the listening audience’s suspension of disbelief, their mental cleansing of a closed landscape of before emergence, onto which they can layer whatever story or claim (or rock opera) arrives after. A white cube, a black box, an empty cave… 


But Thebe Phetogo’s paintings do not really offer clean slate. Instead, they float before green and blue screens – infinite-potential surfaces – whose effect is to muddy the very idea of ‘the beginning’. In this way, the green scenes of Ko ga Lowe could be said to allude to every possible point of origin; uncompressed data-heavy projects that float forever in editing-mode. 


And it is not only the green-screened backdrops; there’s something equally malleable about the paintings’ subjects too. A blackbody begets a blackbody begets a blackbody is oriented, like all but one of the project’s works, in portrait, and shows a figure with baby-filled womb pictured in profile and sitting on a rock. The head is turned dramatically towards the viewer, revealing a face burdened by the heaviest of scowls (more on faces soon). The arm closest to us seems even stretchier than it looks – and the hand of the other is familiarly protective, laid upon pregnant belly, rubbing maybe, or just knowing the floating other body inside. The repeated ‘begetting’ in the title seems to be a fractal allusion, as in something that is infinitely recurring on a proportionate scale inward or downward: a never ending chain of blackbodies’ ‘begetting’ → begetting → begetting each other. A cave scene, bordered at the top by a row of large teeth, and called Go tswa ko ga Lowe, continues the fractal-feel, giving us the sense that we are zooming in, in, in, confronted over and over by the same insides of each mouth or every womb, forever…


As is familiar in Phetogo’s approach, the paintings of Ko ga Lowe seem less concerned with specific content than they are with diagramming broader systems, which push at the relation between here and us, and the possibilities of other time-space, and other-selves. The bodies in the works, often in partially applied minstrel-esque rendering, indicate their engagement in a bizarre and gradual process of becoming ‘black’. 


However, Phetogo’s ‘blackbody’ is cumbersome, borrowing rhetorically from the benign physics definition (where ‘blackbodies’ are non-reflective, radiation-absorbent surfaces) whilst depicting the figures according to a white supremacist representative climax of racial blackness in the western world [1]. As a result, they slip around and between this two-fold ontology, as rogues, scholars and pilgrims, attempting to imagine themselves outside of a black system, even as their undifferentiated green skin is forced into a single matrix – race – symbolised through the wild grimace-smile of historical blackfacing. 


Simultaneous to these symbols of earthly wreckage, a small and separate time zone plays out in Phetogo’s work. I learned the other day that Thebe, like video game-makers and animated film directors, habitually plants ‘easter eggs’ in his exhibitions – small clues that make reference to the closed-open system of his own painting universe, pointing backwards and forwards in time. (I liked that.) At one stage interested in the literary notion of ‘retroactive continuity’, Phetogo’s approach to building discourse has always been speculative, his treatments of ‘the past’ and future borrowing from, but also at times disobeying and manipulating accepted histories [2]. But more than this, the interventions of Ko ga Lowe, whilst somewhat abstract, seem to employ the playful character of ‘retcon’, in their green screen’s suggestion of the presence of infinite potential worlds and narrative versions of ‘origin’. In addition, landscape painter, pedagogue and Sophiatown-local John Koenekeefe Mohl (or Motlhankana), alive from 1903 until 1985, makes two interesting – future – appearances in this show, now. 


Olu Oguibe says of the practitioner’s refusal to adhere to the colonial desire for ‘native art’: “By painting landscapes Mohl thus transgressed beyond the frame of imperial fiction and expectation of the native” [3]. Within Mohl’s aesthetic (political) commitment to painting land, in particular, we find a gesture beyond or outside of ‘the times’; an alternative temporal signature that disrupted the limiting possibilities then drawn around ‘native’ art production. The foregrounded figure in Masupatsela emerges distantly from a cave, and is unmistakably alike in silhouette to the Miners off shifts at Sunset Migel. The Setswana ‘Masupatsela’, contains both linguistic translation – ‘way-finder’, ‘guides of the road/ way’, or ‘pioneers – and newer historical meaning, referring to a generation of political exiles from South Africa, who left following the 1976 Soweto Uprisings [4]. These bigger sets of events sit in interesting parallel with Mohl’s personal career history, which included its own kind of Botswana-exchange, which could very well be linked to Mohl’s second cameo [5]. 


This is in the single painting of landscape-orientation – a strange little work of clumsy colour fields, that feels insistently in-process. Here, the artist remakes the 1954 Serowe, Botswana, adding a timestamp to his own version’s title (Serowe: 1993), which is the year of Phetogo’s birth. This Serowe is more vague and impressionistic, Mohl’s carefully depicted and gloriously lit riverside village, collapsed into fields of purple, blue and black, and dotted with awkward blobs. Once again, Phetogo acts as a reckless undoer, searching for the belly of black landscape representation, by moving across decades and spaces with speed and uninhibited approximation. 


The contoured mountain-cave of Cave Rock Opera, composed of layers in many hues, and a sky of lines and cracks, is a huge rock song, showing both the oldest place in the world, and an unrendered, yet-to-become green figure, who stands before the sound wall. Moving real quick between soft malleability and hard rock, history and its green screen opposite, this operatic moment illustrates the spirit of Ko ga Lowe, a chaos template for all beginnings.


[Visit Thebe’s page on Guns & Rain]


[1] ‘Blackbody: physics’, Brittanica Encyclopedia.

[2] Retroactive Continuity: “a term that started as comic industry-specific jargon for a process which has existed in various other forms of storytelling and beyond, which is akin to historical revisionism.” Thebe Phetogo, 2020. BOGASATSWANA: rebuilding the boat while sailing, Faculty of Humanities, Michaelis School of Fine Art, Cape Town. 

[3] Olu Oguibe, 2002, ‘Appropriation as nationalism in modern African art’, Third Text 16:3, 251

[4] Where Thebe’s intended allusion is to the original meaning of the word, perhaps the history of political solidarity and refuge/ organising space offered to South Africa by Botswana, could be read in here too. (Zosa De Sas Kropiwnicki, 2017, Exile Identity, Agency and Belonging in South Africa: The Masupatsela Generation, Cham, Switzerland: Springer Nature.)  It seems important to note that regardless of these kinds of histories of solidarity, contemporary South Africa has consistently failed to repay any of the Pan-African-shaped debt it owes for its liberation, and has instead protected xenophobia through both its foreign policy, and its socio-political life. 

[5] Mohl was commissioned in 1948 by the then ‘Bechuanaland’ government and Kgosi Tshekedi Khama, to paint historically important sites.


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