Moshekwa Langa’s portraits are often macabre – slightly sinister – but also compassionate, and even humorous. They suggest inner psychological states, as much as outer appearances.
Langa has said: “I made drawings of people with their mouths wide open, which were then stuffed with these sticks, so it looked as if some had long cigars or would not be able to utter anything … I also used the motif of a kind of a halo. Sometimes the stick translated into a sack. So in a way I was addressing the things that people carry with them along their paths. However, this was not made explicit in the drawings and paintings…”
Langa’s description suggests that this is a rural figure (“carrying firewood”). Indeed Langa grew up in Limpopo, where the practice of old traditions and rituals were an influential part of his childhood experience. He has described how every one of the fourteen children in his house “went through the rituals” – except for him. The rituals scared him; but they also intrigued him. As an artist he has engaged with the complicated undercurrent of beliefs and fears beneath the surface appearance of things. He has said of the figures he has painted, “You can see them as a façade, or as front-windows none too clean.”
Talk About This
Remember: there is not only one single “correct” answer. Just look carefully, and allow the painting to suggest answers to you, and then respond with the thoughts that come to your mind.
What strikes you as interesting or significant about this artist’s own words? Do these words in any way change or add to the way you look at and understand the work? If so, how?
Can you describe the artist’s style? What strikes you as interesting about the way he uses line, colour, and tone? Look at the scratches into the paint surface. What do they express?
You have read, above, that Langa is interested in the “undercurrent of beliefs and fears beneath the surface appearance of things.” How does the painting, and the way he has painted it, express these undercurrents?
We have said a portrait is usually a likeness of a particular person. If that is the definition, do you think this is really a portrait? In other words, do you think this picture is of a specific person? What in the image supports your opinion?
Look back at all of the portraits of George Pemba, Ephraim Ngatane, Irma Stern, Terry Kurgan, Marlene Dumas and Moshekwa Langa. Can you identify which are realistic in style? Which use exaggeration to express feeling?