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New on View in Crystal Bridges at 10: Meleko Mokgosi’s Untitled 

Self-portrait of man with grey beard wearing glasses hanging on wall with exhibition labels beside it in Crystal Bridges at 10
Meleko Mokgosi, Untitled, 2016, oil on canvas, 14 × 11 × 1 in. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2020.15. Seen in Crystal Bridges at 10.

The museum’s newest temporary exhibition Crystal Bridges at 10 is a celebration of the museum’s collection and community. In addition to displaying crowd-favorite artworks in new ways, the exhibition also features a number of works that have never before been on view at Crystal Bridges. One of these “new-on-view” works is a new acquisition to the collection, an Untitled self-portrait by artist Meleko Mokgosi. In this blog, Havner Curatorial Intern Stella Gonzalez takes a deeper dive into this self-portrait and its place in Mokgosi’s larger body of work.

Most known for his grand, multi-figure portraits and critical annotations of museum texts, Mokgosi’s Untitled differentiates itself from the rest of the artist’s body of work through the subject and size of the painting. Staring straight ahead, Mokgosi’s self-portrait creates a sense of intimacy through its tight frame, minimal background, and negative space. His stoic expression is further emphasized by the strength in his gaze, one that is unwavering and is only subtly interrupted by the glare of his glasses.

This painting is a part of a broader project called Democratic Intuition (2013–2019) which seeks to explore the nuances of democracy in South Africa, a nation that is currently dealing with the transition to self-governance, and the United States, a nation that has been presented as some sort of democratic ideal. The inclusion of a self-portrait within this series emphasizes the connections between the two nations— Mokgosi currently resides in New York—and how self-actualization is essential to the democratic experience. For example, Exordium (2015) in the series depicts the systemic conditions that the Zulu people of South Africa experience when there are a lack of intellectual and economic opportunities. It is a monumental, multi-panel work with lots of imagery and bold color that shows off a more typical style for Mokgosi. In contrast, Untitled finds its powers within its aesthetic simplicity.

Mokgosi creates portraits with complex themes to be looked at, and even though Untitled seems to be a deceptively simple self-portrait, its context within Mokgosi’s broader project signifies a moment in which the artist takes the opportunity to look back and reflect that gaze he initially invites. Ideas about society and complex social critique must start with the individual, and sometimes the self can get easily lost when there is a push for big, social change. In essence, Untitled keeps the project grounded through the familiar form of a self-portrait.

Though the use of a long-lasting tradition like self-portraits may not be seen as a radical act, the subject matter and context of this work bring forth extremely important questions about life as a Black artist. Crystal Bridges at 10 not only seeks to celebrate the accomplishments of the museum’s past, but to set a precedent for the decade to come. Untitled alludes to the future curatorial intentions of the museum of making thoughtful acquisitions that speak to and connect with a wider and more diverse audience.

See Mokgosi’s Untitled self-portrait in Crystal Bridges at 10, open now through September 27. Get tickets here.


Written by Stella Gonzalez, Havner curatorial intern, Crystal Bridges.