Dineo Seshee Bopape’s ‘Emotional Landscape’ Questions Memory and History

Dineo Seshee Bopape’s exhibition in Milan invites visitors to take part into a collective ritual that engages with powerful socio-political notions of memory, narration and representation.

Dineo Seshee Bopape, in front of “Lerole: footnotes (The struggle of memory against forgetting).” Courtesy of Pirelli HangarBicocca. Lorenzo Palmieri

As we enter Pirelli HangarBicocca, we are greeted by a musical chorus and the aroma of fresh herbs, which immediately transport us into a metaphysical time and place. It is a collective multimedia participatory ritual staged by the South African-born artist Dineo Seshee Bopape, who invites us to engage with historical events, reconnect with memories of her ancestors, and reflect on the African diaspora through a few recurring natural elements in her artistic practice: water and soil.

The exhibition, titled “Born in the first light of the morning [moswara’marapo],” and curated by Lucia Aspesi and Fiammetta Griccioli, is the first Italian solo show devoted to the work of Ms. Bopape.

“Since the very beginning of the exhibition, Ms. Bopape’s works invite visitors into an emotional landscape,” commented Ms. Griccioli. “Soil and water, both symbolically and physically, are fundamental elements in our life and they give life to the artworks through the exhibition, from video to installations. Light is also central to the exhibition design and determines the conditions of the show as the artist brought the light into the museum space, allowing us to reconnect with nature and the physical dimension.”

For her, water embodies the history of slavery and how her identity was constructed through it, and the soil becomes an element of reconciliation with the invaded and colonized past.

Soil and water are recurring elements throughout the show, they are the materials that constitute most of the exhibited works, including the two monumental structures “And- In. The Light Of This._____” and “Mothabeng,” visually and symbolically reminiscent of a womb.

Dineo Seshee Bopape
Dineo Seshee Bopape “Born in the first light of the morning [moswara’marapo]”, exhibition view at Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, 2022. Photo by Agostino Osio. Courtesy the artist and Pirelli HangarBicocca.

In these archetypal architectures, clay and healing herbs, such as sage and lavender, suggest their ritual and healing functions. The mixture of earth and plant scents is an invitation to meditate and rebuild the human relationship with soil. In “Mothabeng,” a new work specially conceived for the exhibition at Pirelli HangarBicocca, the artist included a soundtrack made of sounds recorded in a marble quarry in the Tuscan Apennines, an unexpected element incorporated after Ms. Bopape saw Milan’s Duomo.

“During my first visit to Milan, we went to the Duomo and I was fascinated by the element that’s on the outside, the marble and where it was from. Immediately I was driven into the mountain and the memory of mountains,” commented Ms. Bopape. “So we went to the Carrara area and looked at the marble of the quarries. There was a question of what the mountain experience was of all these actions upon it and within it and also its relationship to other mountains in the world as well.”

In this environment, the sounds produced by the natural elements of the mountain reverberate allowing viewers to embark on a journey into the depths of the earth and inspiring new ways of connecting and communicating with non-human organisms and entities, and with the reality around us.

This step of the process was made possible by a collaboration with Fondazione Henraux, a private organization based in Querceta, Tuscany, that forges connections with public and private organizations to encourage working with marble in a variety of visual arts fields.

Dineo Seshee Bopape “lerato laka le a phela le a phela le a phela / My love is alive, is alive, is alive”, 2022. Installation view at Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, 2022. Commissioned by TBA21–Academy and co-produced with Pirelli HangarBicocca. Courtesy the artist and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan. Photo by Agostino Osio.

The collaboration with Fondazione Henraux also motivated an iteration of the work “(Serithi) The rest, as they used to say, is story,” projected on the floor for the very first time. “In this artwork, a video shows the shadow of the artist’s body on a shoreline; the images are projected onto a surface of marble dust, creating an environmental connection to the sand,” said Edoardo Bonaspetti, the Artistic Director of Fondazione Henraux, in an email. “The dust layer has incredible reflective properties that give the work a sculptural dimension.”

Water is the main element in “lerato laka le a phela le a phela le a phela / my love is alive, is alive, is alive,” commissioned by TBA21–Academy and co-produced with Pirelli HangarBicocca. The video-installation, filmed between Jamaica, Colombia, the Caribbean, the Atlantic Ocean, along the shores of West Virginia, and the Mississippi river, tells a story of travel. It is the Atlantic story seen through a ritual and ceremonial perspective to engage with the understanding of the fluid dimension of the body, and the history of peoples’ movements.

Concomitantly with water and soil, artificial elements also find their way into Ms. Bopape’s works, particularly in “Lerole: footnotes (The struggle of memory against forgetting).”

This imposing installation consists of separate piles of unfired earth bricks arranged in geometric constellations that create a sculptural landscape. It also comprises the space around the forms and a series of natural elements such as clay, charcoal, ceramics, pigments, gold leaf, and various medicinal herbs.

Bones, woods, herbs and mystical powders together with man-made bricks evoke the different sediments of history that are also embodied by wooden plaques each of which tells of an episode of Africa’s history. 

Dineo Seshee Bopape, “Lerole: footnotes (The struggle of memory against forgetting)”, 2017 (detail). Installation view at Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, 2022. Courtesy the artist, Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut/Hamburg and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan. Photo by Agostino Osio.

The skeleton and bones that contain the traces of humans return to the soil, and the rocks are the skeleton that holds up the world. The history of the world is in the rocks, a history that for Ms. Bopape is not linear but is an overlapping of stories that create a mix, as it happens with rocks and the history of our planet.

Solidifyed earth elements were molded inside her fist—a physical trace of an ephemeral moment.  For the artist, they are the symbol of black power and they commemorate the life of Robert Sobukwe, a South African political dissident long imprisoned on Robben Island during the Apartheid years and the founder of the Pan-Africanist Congress, and countless other freedom fighters imprisoned during the South African Apartheid. It is said that whenever a political prisoner arrived to Robben Island, Sobukwe collected sand from the yard, lifted it into the air and then dropped it as a ceremonial welcome, a sign of recognition to his comrades, to the sovereignty of his land, and to his people.

In this work, the sounds are both from sea and sounds of the Kestrel bird which for the Maya and Aztecs was a symbol of freedom because if caught, it commits suicide. She uses this as imagery for the history of Apartheid and her country but also for the African diaspora and how the history of Africa is linked to other continents, as it forever changed after the dark age of colonization.

Ms. Bopape always links her personal history with the ancestral history of African peoples, for her, they are intertwined, connected by the land. Her spiritual landscape is an act of re-appropriation of the territory, narrative and memory, indelibly marked by European invasions. It is also a way to rethink memory and its historical political function through a “purification” of the soil. The soil is the place of memory, of the ancestors, and it enables us to reconnect with our history.

Dineo Seshee Bopape “Born in the first light of the morning [moswara’marapo]” is on view through 29 January at the Pirelli HangarBicocca.

Jessica Capretti is a frequent contributor to Milano Art Guide since 2021. She graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Milan and has worked on several projects including “L’Arc de Triomphe Wrapped” by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, in Paris. She lives and works in Milan.