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November 25, 2022

Field Notes: Patricia Roig Canepa on Dineo Seshee Bopape, “Ocean! What if no change is your desperate mission?,” Ocean Space, Venice

Art & Education

Dineo Seshee Bopape, Lerato laka le a phela le a phela le a phela / my love is alive, is alive, is alive, 2021–22. Film still. “The Soul Expanding Ocean #3: Ocean! What if no change is your desperate mission?” is commissioned and produced by TBA21–Academy.

Dineo Seshee Bopape, “The Soul Expanding Ocean #3: Ocean! What if no change is your desperate mission?,” Ocean Space, Venice, April 9–October 2, 2022. Commissioned and produced by TBA21–Academy. Photo: Matteo De Fina.

Dineo Seshee Bopape, “The Soul Expanding Ocean #3: Ocean! What if no change is your desperate mission?,” Ocean Space, Venice, April 9–October 2, 2022. Commissioned and produced by TBA21–Academy. Photo: Matteo De Fina.

Dineo Seshee Bopape, Lerato laka le a phela le a phela le a phela / my love is alive, is alive, is alive, 2021–22. Film still. “The Soul Expanding Ocean #3: Ocean! What if no change is your desperate mission?” is commissioned and produced by TBA21–Academy.

Field Notes: The Soul Expanding Ocean #3: Dineo Seshee Bopape, “Ocean! What if no change is your desperate mission?,” Ocean Space, Venice
by Patricia Roig Canepa

It is through a song rather than a door that one enters the exhibition “Ocean! What if no change is your desperate mission?” by the South African artist Dineo Seshee Bopape at Ocean Space in Venice. Overlaid with chimes, percussive beats, and the sound of waves, a chant in SePedi, the artist’s mother tongue, can be heard all across the Campo San Lorenzo before one sets foot inside the deconsecrated church hosting the show. “Ocean! What if no change is you desperate mission?” is curated by Chus Martínez, and even though Bopape’s exhibition is not part of the official programming of the 59th Venice Biennale, it is unequivocally attuned to the invitation to dream, imagine, and conjure other ways of being and living in the world proposed in Cecilia Alemani’s central exhibition “The Milk of Dreams.”

Bopape has a long history of integrating song into her practice. In her video is i am sky (2013), Bopape sings the apartheid-era struggle song “Hamba Kahle Mkhonto” under open skies and surrounded by the birds and waters of San Francisco Bay, her response to the trial of African National Congress Youth League president Julius Malema for singing the struggle song “Ayasaba Amagwala, dubuli bhunu.” With similar political weight but in a more meditative tone, in Lerole: footnotes (The struggle of memory against forgetting) (2017), Bopape includes a recording of the quetzal, a bird that is believed to provoke its own death if held in captivity. In it she also registers the sound of bodies of water around and inside the African continent, and thus it is through sound that water seeps into the artist’s work. Writing about is i am sky, curator Portia Malatjie coined the term “singing a place into existence.” This idea, borrowed from Aboriginal Australian practices, conceives of song and singing in the landscape as means of summoning a sense of place that interrupts linear time and calling into the present ancestors and remote pasts. In a video on the Ocean Space website, Bopape explains that it was in a dream that she first heard the words “lerato laka le a phela le a phela le a phela” (“my love is alive is alive is alive”), and it is from these lyrics that the accompanying body of work on view at Ocean Space emerges. Bopape’s song in “Ocean! What if no change is your desperate mission?,” sung while submerged in water, can thus be understood as both a portal to dreams, where her lyrics spring forth, and the multiple afterlives that make up the ocean.

The artist’s practice marries analogue and digital worlds where soil, sand, rocks, glass, plastic, mirrors, feathers, branches, drawings, screens, film, sound, and song, among other materials and media, come together. Observers have often described these arrangements by Bopape and the relations between their elements as constellations, a term that embodies the multidirectional nature of these connections and categorically dismisses any sense of linearity. At Ocean Space, Bopape explores the intersection between history, memory, belonging, the aftermath of the slave trade, and the metaphysics of self and presence. However, unlike her earlier exhibitions and works, in “Ocean!” Bopape departs from questions of land and soil, which are woven into her experience of life as a South African in the post-apartheid era, and instead submerges herself in the sea. This shift locates the work in a more unstable and ungraspable territory, one that cannot be represented solely by presence of the water. Rather, Bopape is interested in the ocean’s becoming and its capacity to absorb and dissolve other bodies while seemingly never changing itself.

Read more of Patricia Roig Canepa’s Field Notes review on Art & Education.

Field Notes is a series of reviews from the next generation of art writers. Featuring texts on the 59th Venice Biennale and Documenta 15 contributed by students and recent graduates, Field Notes makes original connections between the work and the world and takes a closer look at what other observers might have missed.

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