C&: When looking at your installations and videos, it always seems like you are in the middle of that impossible but great attempt to bring everything together on one plate. In a short biographical piece you even try to reference everything that happened in 1981, the year of your birth: from the Brixton riots to the launch of MTV, the death of Bob Marley, the first flight of the Boeing 767, an earthquake in China, Apartheid SA invading Angola…
Bopape: That’s true, I am quite interested in the fact that everything happens simultaniously, and that the center of it all is everywhere, depending on your position. To some people a thing looks blue from their perspective, to others it looks red. It is maybe the same in my installations: using things that are different from each other but that exist at the same time and in coexistence with each other. That can be a personal picture, a piece of fabric, or a wooden frame.
C&: Your installations are room-invading, very big. Do you follow a strict plan when working on them or do they grow during installation?
Bopape: It depends. Some of the work follows a loose plan with certain ingredients. The balance comes with mixing a long list of those ingredients. But if I follow a recipe it very often gets dumped along the way.
C&: Where do the ingredients come from?
Bopape: Most are bought or found on the street: fabric, glass, plastic, or tissue boxes from the One-Dollar store because it has a surreal print of the blue sky on it that might resurface somewhere else in the installation. Things that you get from the One Dollar store often speak to world culture and world politics in an interesting way. Or I might use a photo of my niece because she is wearing a shirt that is similar to the colour in another picture I am using. Sometimes it’s a material connection, it references a text, or sometimes a changing shade of the same colour, like the different blues in “the eclipse will not be visible to the naked eye”. And so it grows and grows.
C&: You had a beautiful show at bétonsalon in Paris alongside The Berwick Street Collective, and others. How was that?
Bopape: Paris was incredible, especially the way they engaged with the work! People look at it seriously, the opening was really quiet! I found that amazing. The openings in Amsterdam , Johannesburg or New York were more like parties with art in the room. Of course, people do engage with it but there is also the scene to engage with.
C&: You are a 2007 graduate of De Ateliers in Amsterdam and in 2010 completed an MFA at Columbia University in New York. Why this combination?
Bopape: I wanted to go and work outside of South Africa and was looking fo a program where I wouldn’t have to work to support myself during that time. Amsterdam was a good institution, and they had Marlene Dumas, Ceal Floyer, Steve McQueen, and others there. Unfortunately, by the time I finally arrived, McQueen was already leaving! But being theregave me access to other artists’ works – especially historical videos and projects that I may not have seen had I been at home. Also the access to better technology was important. I could experiment with good equipment, and the sudden questions that came up around video when using those new technologies were questions that I hadn’t encountered before.
C&: How was it to work with other artists from other parts of the world?
Bopape: That was a great experience. I think before going to Europe I’d never met an Eastern-European artist before! To suddenly experience the questions they were thinking about was very clarifying and interesting…
Bopape: Because suddenly you realize that you’ve been living in your world and think of it as the centre. Being surrounded by so many life stories from all over the world gave me a sense of: Wow, that all happened in all those places? How come I didn’t know about it?
C&: Then you went to New York…
Bopape: Whilst in Amsterdam, I’d taken a trip to New York and whilst there I came across the program at Columbia and felt that it could be a place where I could grow some more. The conversations I had during my Columbia interview were so different from the conversations and debates I had in Amsterdam.
C&: In what way?
Bopape: In Amsterdam the questions the professors asked often had to do with the politics of gender and race in my work. Those questions about my work had also been asked before at my university in South Africa and I wanted to break away from that. When I was doing the interview at Columbia, the questions were different, they were more art history-based, the professors were more interested in my relationship to other international contemporary artists. That was great, because they put me as an artist in a more general global context and it wasn’t just about talking about politics in my work… it expanded the politics.
C&: An African-British artist recently told me that during his time in art school he was interested in things like Russian politics, and a professor asked him why he didn’t concentrate on doing “authentic African art”. Did you ever get that kind of advice?
Bopape: Oh yes, once. When I was in art school I wanted to sell my paintings so I took them to that center where they sell paintings to tourists. But they didn’t want them because they weren’t “African” enough…
C&: Was that in Johannesburg?
Bopape: It was in Durban. I just went somewhere else and sold the paintings…
C&: Talking about selling: Would it be possible to reinstall your really complex installations in exactly the same way if a collector were to buy one?
Bopape: In many cases it’s impossible because it’s just too complicated, or the space is different. It reminds me a bit of saying something and then not being able to say it again in exactly the same way. Musicians are able to do it. somehow… each live rendition is always unique.
C&: There is always a lot of taping, wrapping, veiling and layering in your work. And even though your “rooms” look strange, surreal, finished, unfinished: They still look cosy and personal because it was you who put all those details together.
Bopape: I don’t know, I couldn’t live with my works, I can’t have them close to me. I don’t find it peaceful. It always seems to bother me. It’s just too close to me.
C&: The interesting thing is that your work seems very personal in this act of bringing together all those different objects. There is a lot of personal taste and decision-making involved. But on the other hand you are always in disguise, even in your videos where you appear, shaking your head, making different kinds of movements in the space…
Bopape: In a sense my work is very personal and in another sense not, as I always try to have some distance. When I am in my videos I want to do something to my appearance, to alter it, to have some distance to it and to feel removed. In a way I try to be there and not be there. And personal taste is always somehow a fiction…
C&: A bit like you initially said, it’s like being in the center and not being in the center as the center is never in one single place.
Bopape: I recently sat on a bus from Amsterdam to London next to a woman from Korea. She didn’t speak a word of English and I don’t speak any Korean so we ended up guessing about things we might have in common: ‘Do you know Macy Gray? Have you been to New York?’, so in fact just global topics that people all over the world have at least heard of: from the fall of the Berlin wall to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. When it comes to my installations, of course they seem fragile and very easy to erase, but they always try to concentrate all those experiences happening beside each other at least for a moment.
Dineo Seshee Bopape, born 1981, was the winner of the 2008 MTN New Contemporaries Award, and the recipient of a 2010 Columbia University Toby Fund Award.
She was included in the current show ‘The Progress of Love‘, a collaboration between The Menil Collection, Houston, the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, St Louis.