PICTURED: Carlton Wilkinson, “Reaching Out,” from the series African Male Museum, silver gelatin, 1992. Courtesy of the artist.

by Emily Dodi 

Every piece of art holds more than what we see painted on a canvas or captured on film. Whatever the medium, the message carries the weight and measure of a lifetime. Everything that has come before in an artist’s life is laid out before us. It might not be readily visible in the brush strokes or in the shadows of a photograph, but it’s there. 

One must consider the context in which art was created in order to fully see it. Where the artist is coming from will determine where the art will take us.

The works of Meleko Mokgosi and Carlton Wilkinson, on display at California Lutheran University, are wonderful examples of this. They hold a magnitude of beauty and power, not just because they are fine works of art but because of the meaning they possess. The works reflect our history back to us. They show us our blind spots. They celebrate humanity just as they confront us with the ugliness that humans are capable of. They illuminate the past and, if we pay attention, they light a better way forward.  

Meleko Mokgosi: Acts of Resistance, on view at the William Rolland Gallery of Fine Art from Jan. 22 through April 9, is a collection of large-scale paintings and drawings. A Brooklyn-based artist and an associate professor of art at Yale University, Mokgosi was born in Francistown, Botswana. Curator Rachel Schmid explains that “Mokgosi is interested in the narrative of post-colonial theory.” On the surface, the subjects of his work might not seem like activists or revolutionaries, but they are. “The heart of his work is power dynamics,” says Schmid. “Who has it and how is it being wielded?”

Schmid points out a painting entitled “Pax Kaffraria Graase Mans.” In it, Schmid says, “Black domestic workers are caring for a white child on a front porch. Mokgosi explained that there is a lot of nuance around front porches . . . Who is able to be seen on the front porch?” This, of course, is referring to the apartheid-era rule requiring domestic workers to use the back entrance of their white employers’ homes. When seen from this perspective, the painting takes on a whole new significance. 

Mokgosi’s detailed drawings of Africanis and Boerboel dogs may seem straightforward enough, but then consider that these breeds were bred as guard dogs to protect white landowners in South Africa. “The dogs were essentially created to preserve colonial estates,” explains Schmid. 

In “Walls of Casbah II,” Mokgosi focuses on actual museum labels used in the exhibit Walls of Algiers: Narratives of the City (Getty Center, 2009). By writing notes in the margins and crossing out passages on the labels, Mokgosi calls out language that perpetuates power dynamics and cultural biases. As explained on Mokgosi’s website, the work “addresses the problematic reinscription of colonial discourses.” These “presumably neutral educational descriptors” are anything but. Schmid adds that “on their face value [the museum labels] are very innocuous but seeing how Mokgosi brings out the language, we see how [colonialism] is still perpetuated.”

Mokgosi calls on us to look for a deeper, more nuanced meaning in the images around us. So too does photographer Carlton Wilkinson. On view in the Kwan Fong Gallery from Jan. 10 through Feb. 29, Spiritual Bodies: Photography by Carlton Wilkinson combines two previous exhibits of his work, African Male Museum and On the Altar of Liberty

Schmid explains that the idea for African Male Museum began when Wilkinson was growing up in Nashville. From when he was a child, Wilkinson noticed that there were not a lot of black male nudes in Western art and that all the statues in public spaces were of white men. When the black male body was depicted in art, Wilkinson often found it to be seen as hyper-sexual, aggressive or dangerous. So, as Schmid explains, in the 1980s, Wilkinson decided to reimagine how artists and art viewers see the black male by spinning the idea of what a powerful black body is.

In “Son to Son Eye to Eye,” a father gently holds his young child, while lovers tenderly embrace in “Together.” Wilkinson’s photography shows an intimacy and a gentleness that is paired with tremendous strength. Wilkinson’s usage of light is also meant to turn convention on its head. “Lighting has been geared towards white skin tones,” explains Schmid, who adds that Wilkinson once noted that “it’s hard to find yourself reflected back at you.” In response, Wilkinson beautifully captures different skin tones within the same photograph.

The works included in On the Altar of Liberty were taken while Wilkinson was on a pilgrimage through the American South documenting churches that played a part in pivotal moments of the Civil Rights Movement. As part of his MFA studies at UCLA, Wilkinson interviewed pastors and parishioners with firsthand accounts as part of an oral narrative to capture, in his words, “the black collective memory.” 

The photographs are stark and dramatic. One especially powerful image is of the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four black girls were murdered when the church was bombed in 1963. Another photograph, entitled “Mount Zion,” shows three crosses that represent the civil rights workers who were murdered by a sheriff and the KKK in Mississippi in 1964. Cemeteries in the South were segregated at the time, so the men — two of whom were white and one of whom was black — could not be buried together. The crosses, however, stand side by side, enabling the men to be honored together. 

Taken at face value, the works of Meleko Mokgosi and Carlton Wilkinson warrant attention and make for a memorable visit to the galleries. Taken in context, however, they are more than art that deserves to be seen. They are a way for us to see ourselves.

Meleko Mokgosi: Acts of Resistance, Jan. 22-April 9 at the William Rolland Gallery of Fine Art; Spiritual Bodies: Photography by Carlton Wilkinson, Jan. 10-Feb. 29 at the Kwan Fong Gallery. California Lutheran University, 160 Overton Court, Thousand Oaks. For more information, call 805-493-3697 or visit rollandgallery.callutheran.edu.