At the border post of western art:

the provisional “reaggregation” of Moshekwa Langa’s art into the South African canon

  • Mary Corrigall
Keywords: liminality, Moshekwa Langa, South African art




When Moshekwa Langa’s eponymous solo exhibition opened in Johannesburg in 1995, it was hailed as turning point in South African art as it appeared to mark the entry of the first black South African artist working within a neo-conceptualist rubric. Untrained and hailing from a rural locale, years earlier Langa’s art would most likely have been deemed unprogressive or “traditional”. Borrowing from Arnold van Gennep’s (cited by Turner 1969) notion of ‘reaggregation’ – the final phase of a rite of passage, where the subject transcends the liminal phase, in this article I explore the shifts that facilitated Langa’s provisional inclusion, while unpacking the manner in which his identity paradoxically served to ensure his liminal status. Olu Oguibe (2004) suggests that African artists can resist this position through acts of self-definition. Langa avoided this route; he was complicit in constructing his liminal identity. He challenged reaggregation via an ironic re-enaction of reintegration as a universalist subject in a photographic body of work that responded to the skewed reception of his 1995 exhibition.

Meditating on this landmark moment in South African art history, I demonstrate how terms and labels used to “elevate” or culturally position Langa’s art, such as the neo-conceptualist tag, were fundamental to his art being reaggregated by the predominately white artworld, although it was to some degree an uneasy fit. Other theoretical frameworks used to usher his work into the canon of the contemporary, such as a notion of African conceptualism, as proposed by Salah Hassan and Oguibe (2001) are explored. So, too, are the intricacies and flaws involved in “inclusionary” or corrective processes instigated by the same authorities that played a role in determining exclusionary paradigms.

Van Gennep and Victor Turner’s theory of liminality proves useful in mapping the mechanics of aggregation and the position of the liminal subject, but, as I demonstrate in this article, it cannot sufficiently contextualise imposed notions of liminality as ascribed to African artists by Eurocentric writers who privilege inclusion into occidental canons above others.