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School Watch
November 2022

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

Patricia Roig Canepa

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, “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.

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, Prep Sketches (Mawatle), 2019–22, Chalk on paper, 23 × 31cm. “The Soul Expanding Ocean #3: Ocean! What if no change is your desperate mission?” is commissioned and produced by TBA21–Academy.

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.” [1]1
Portia Malatjie, “Nang’umfazomnyama: Race and Technology in Dineo Seshee Bopape’s is i am sky,” Afterall 48, no. 1 (2019): 8.
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. [2]2
“Dineo Seshee Bopape — Lerole: Footnotes (The Struggle of Memory against Forgetting)," C&, .
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.” [3]3
Malatjie, “Nang’umfazomnyama,” .
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. [4]4
See .
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.

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.

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. [5]5
See “Dineo Seshee Bopape: Lerato Le Le Golo (...La Go Hloka Bo Kantle)’, C&, , and Portia Malatjie, “A Constellation of Voids: Dineo Seshee Bopape’s Shrines to Nothingness,” in The strong we become, exh. cat. (Venice: South African Pavilion, 2019), .
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.

In the installation at Ocean Space the seventeen-minute three-channel video Lerato laka le a phela le a phela le a phela / my love is alive, is alive, is alive (2022) spans three large surfaces arranged in a semi-circle that partially encloses the viewers. The video portrays the ocean at close proximity, both above and under water, with nary a sign of the shore. Flowers and leaves skim the surface of the waves but also sink below them, disappearing into the ocean. Noting the limits to understanding water only as flows, cultural theorist Astrida Neimanis, proposes hydro-logics as a way of understanding how bodies of water relate to one another in processes of gestation, dissolution, communication, and differentiation. The term dissolution, or what Neimanis describes as “water’s capacity to wash away life in its current forms,” addresses the complex relations between the ocean and the afterlives of the enslaved people who were thrown overboard and with whom Bopape’s video is concerned. [6]6
Astrida Neimanis, ‘Water and Knowledge’, in Downstream: Reimagining Water, eds. Dorothy Christian and Rita Wong (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2017), 54.
Commissioned by TBA21–Academy and coproduced with Pirelli HangarBicocca, Lerato laka le a phela le a phela le a phela contains multiple places and times: it began in the Solomon Islands in 2019 during a research trip organized with the academy, took shape during a residency at the Alligator Head Foundation in Jamaica two years later, and was completed during a residency in the Chocó region of Colombia organized with Scattered Seeds. These displacements correspond with Bopape’s commitment to making her practice from conditions of submersion and close contact with the ocean, that is, not through thinking about the ocean, but rather, with the ocean. Throughout the film, Bopape’s swimming body remains outside the frame, but the partial presence of a hand registers her immersion in the ocean. Synchronized moments across the three screens interrupt the video installation’s asynchrony, which makes it impossible to take in the work at once and inscribes movement not only in the recorded ocean but in the act of looking. Hence, Lerato laka le a phela le a phela le a phela / my love is alive, is alive, is alive portrays the ocean in its multiplicity—benign and violent, holding and being held, medium and matter—and as a space of turbulence and metamorphosis.

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.

Across from the screens, and closing the circular installation, stand two sculptures. Dried clay cements to the floor irregular structures of wood branches tied together with rope and found plastics that form irregular, slightly curved grids. Inside their frames hang a mirror, masks, and a T-shirt with a photo of Bopape by the ocean, while at their bases are jars with water and sand. These elements conjure the material witnesses that accompany the otherwise virtual representation of water in the video. Not far from these sculptures stands a table full of hand-molded pieces of Jamaican red clay that the artist created by clenching her fists. Making tangible the void between her hands, these fossil-like artworks have appeared in different colors and materials in previous shows, but in this oceanic environment in Venice they figure not as hardened clay but as remembrance of the water that allowed their molding. Also addressing the complexities of presence and absence, are the augmented reality drawings, Ditšhegofatšo / timeless monuments (2022). Co-produced with Aorist, they are a first in Bopape’s oeuvre. These digital representations attempt to live in a reality parallel to the embodied one of Bopape’s video and signal in the most literal sense her work’s atemporality. Although the intentions are sincere, the colorful but pixelated shapes cannot uphold the promise they set up to deliver: accessed only via loaned tablets borrowed in exchange for viewers’ personal IDs, these artworks operate in a sphere too contained and too controlled for their atemporality to become meaningful.

To enter a place, one must also enter a time, but in dreams, as in the ocean, present, future and past overlap. In the sea, however, these temporal discontinuities are not metaphors but visceral material. In her book In the Wake, Black studies scholar Christina Sharpe relates the afterlives of slavery to the concept of residence time, a notion borrowed from fluid dynamics that refers to the length of time matter exists in water. Sharpe’s specific focus is on sodium, a major component of the human body that can live in water for as long as 260 million years. Residence time unsettles the boundary between past and present and activates the material residues of the Black lives thrown overboard and lost at sea during the slave trade. Although Bopape’s show does not engage with this particular notion, her poetics and Sharpe’s share a similar concern for the multiple temporalities of life. In this light, Bopape’s sung words “my love is alive, is alive, is alive” could be seen as reaffirming that fact, claiming aliveness, and expressing solidarity with the many Black lives that persist through their elements. The chant “Lerato laka le a phela le a phela le a phela” is as political as any of Bopape’s earlier singing.

In “Ocean! What if no change is your desperate mission?” Bopape approaches the sea from within and attends to its contradictions and hidden histories. The artist considers the ocean as something both within and outside the body and as something closely felt. Bopape is not interested in the aesthetic beauty of the ocean but rather is concerned with the ocean’s opacity: the stories it holds, its hidden metamorphoses, its past, its future, and its multiple unknowns. While the show cannot literally submerge us underwater, it does transport us to a place and time where the floor is not so solid nor the line between past and present, life and death so clear.

Patricia Roig Canepa is a researcher from Uruguay living in London. Her work weaves being a body of water with a theoretical exploration of water as movement and relation. She trained as an architect at the Architectural Association and is a recent graduate of the Advanced Practices program at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is a co-founding member of the art and research collective Residues of Wetness.

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