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Relevance in retrospect through Levy Pooe’s ‘Mphe Mphe ya Lapisa’

By Tsholofelo Seleke

Visual artist Levy Pooe asks us to think again about the status quo of ordinary black South Africans.

It has been over a year since the pandemic in South Africa. Amongst other things, it has caused us to reflect and re-evaluate certain issues that exist, especially for the black individual. Mphe Mphe ya Lapisa, a solo exhibition by Levy Pooe, highlights some of the challenges we have faced as a country.

The exhibition took place at the Bag Factory in February of 2021 and was the result of Pooe winning the annual Cassier Welz Award presented by Bag Factory in partnership with Strauss & Co.

Pooe was born in Rustenburg. His introduction to the arts was brought on by his elder brother at a young age. He pursued art as he was interested in representation and perspective – which really spoke to the Cassier Welz award – and painting became his main medium. He paints colourful, eye-catching figures and scenarios that often reference cubism. Pooe depicts black figures engaged in everyday activities and considers his art to be a kind of social diary.

The walls of the space are grey, different to the white walls of the gallery spaces we have grown accustomed to. Even though Pooe is primarily a painter, there are other mediums on display, like drawings as well as linocuts.

What is enjoyable about Pooe’s work is that it carries a lot of relevance for the black individual. The title itself is in seTswana, forming part of the seTswana idiom: ‘Mphe Mphe ya lapisa, Motho o kgonwa ke saga gwe’, which loosely translates to ‘the act of asking is tiring, it is better to have your own’. Even the titles of some of the artworks are a form of informal street language, which opens up access and engagement for a wider public. The activities that the work references speak to leisure activities as well as the act of trying to earn an income.

E tseni R350 (2021) is a painting depicting the long queues and congestion for the unemployment grant. The figures are black individuals and speak to the high employment rate of the youth in South Africa. As post-apartheid youth we are still asking for jobs, fees to fall and opportunities from the government. The work can be interpreted as a question asking, ‘Have you received the R350?’ The style in which Pooe paints does not see him painting definitive faces. Cubism contains geometric forms that are made up of different views, much like the black identity, which is multifaceted but has a similar experience. The grant is a popular narrative within black households – and not just the unemployment grant but all manner of social welfare aiding families to meet their needs. The figures represent anyone and everyone.

Levy Pooe, E tseni R350 (2021)

Interestingly enough, the work right next to E tseni R350, asks another question but is set in another context. The youth of South Africa are no stranger to nightlife events. Often-times, it can highlight one’s socio-economic status. Kopa Ungfake Vip (2020), which means ‘can you place me in the VIP (area)?’ expresses this act of asking but also highlights the importance of one’s status – economically, whether you can afford high profile events or know of someone who can get you in. This is not exclusive to night life, but life in general. Wealth opens many doors – whether to the VIP section of a nightclub, or access to a good education. The painting even references the trending social media act of placing your alcohol beverage above your head when dancing.

Levy Pooe, Kopa Ungfake Vip (2020)

Pooe goes even further with the concept of asking in Thapelo (2021). A figure is seen praying, calling on a higher power for help. Financially, socially, academically, and even spirituality, we are constantly asking.

Mphe Mphe ya Lapisa represents a black narrative and speaks to a black audience through visuals and language. It highlights the need for more representation of the black individual. To look at two distinguished black painters in South Africa’s art archive, there is David Koloane and Gerard Sekoto. Sekoto painted activities which often depicted hardships of black people during the apartheid era. Family with Candle (1942) presents a family with a woman dishing up for a family by candlelight. It is a mundane act that is being depicted in the painting, and this resonates with Pooe’s artworks.

Levy Pooe, Kopa Thapelo (2021)

Sekoto’s work spoke more to life in the township whereas David Koloane’s works were commentary on life in the city. In the work A la Ponte (1990) we see the distinguished Ponte building in Johannesburg with multiple taxis in the foreground. Anyone who has been in Johannesburg CBD has a sense of the busy ‘hustle and bustle’ nature of the work. This is a representation of the black narrative as the majority of taxi commuters are black individuals.

Sekoto and Koloane’s influences are more visible with Pooe’s Phanda ko Jozi (2021), which translates to ‘hustle in Joburg’. The style of the work here is quite different from the rest of the artworks on show. The style can be seen to be highly influenced by the legends mentioned above. It is not just the referencing of the Ponte building from Koloane’s piece but Pooe can be seen using more of a free-hand technique. Phanda ko Jozi highlights the issue that not much has changed regarding experience and the narrative of the black body. We are still hustling and trying to make ends meet. Even after 21 years, Koloane’s work can be shown in the same exhibition and can be as relevant today. Even Sekoto’s work possesses a sense of timelessness due the unfortunate lack of socio-economic change for the majority of black South Africans.

Levy Pooe, Phanda ko Jozi (2021)

Pooe does reference an experience in the city, however, some of his work can be located more broadly. E tseni R350 speaks to the youth all over the country. It is not situated in a space but a socio-economic context. This is also applicable for Kopa Ungfake VIP.

Pooe winning the Cassier Welz award helps shed light on talented black artists. It also emphasises the importance of giving such artists exposure and opens dialogue regarding the inaccessibility of art to a black audience. Language and relevance are key in owning the art scene as black individuals. Mphe Mphe ya Lapisa is Pooe’s social diary but speaks to socio-economic concerns of the average black individual. The exhibition is also something of a timeline, to see whether some of the issues we were facing are still relevant. Hopefully in the next 20 years, the work from the exhibition will not only be suitable as a context but will serve more as an archive of a shift in the right direction for the black narrative.

Tsholofelo Seleke’s bubbly personality reflects the kind of colourful creative she is – one who does not shy away from anything imaginatively stimulating. Her work is centred around issues of language, access, collectivity and the black identity. She is a part of the artistic collective anticlockwise, which is about re-thinking and re-imagining certain narratives and experiences. She is currently completing a Masters in Fine Arts.

This review was published as part of the Creative Feel My Art Radar project which was made possible by the National Arts Council’s PESP programme.

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