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Index Drawing (you give me the creeps)
Moshekwa Langa
Artwork 2004
Installation photograph that shows Moshekwa Langa’s framed mixed-media work ‘Index Drawing (you give me the creeps)’ mounted on a white wall.
Artwork: Moshekwa Langa, Index Drawing (you give me the creeps) (2004). Mixed media on paper. 140 x 100 cm. Courtesy of private collection.
Artist Moshekwa Langa Title Index Drawing (you give me the creeps) Date 2004 Materials Mixed media on paper Dimensions 140 x 100 cm Credit Private collection

Langa’s text-based works (many of them composed of shorthand notes the artist had taken in Amsterdam and Brussels when first adrift from his birth country) came to be called Word Towers, each work, Untitled, followed by a Roman numeral. This work was among that number, officially known as Untitled XV (Word Tower) in correspondence with the artist’s gallery at that time. In preparation for the exhibition You to Me, Me to You at A4, Langa took the opportunity to bestow upon this work its rightful name – Index Drawing (you give me the creeps).

Excerpt from a conversation with Moshekwa Langa (M.L.), Josh Ginsburg (J.G.), Sara de Beer (S.d.B.), and Francisco Berzunza (F.B.) held online in preparation for You to Me, Me to You, 24 July 2023:

M.L. In Amsterdam, at the Rijks Academy, I met people doing lots of things that didn’t mean telling a concrete story. I was asking myself, what am I supposed to do here – in this arts school, a place of higher learning? I didn’t know how to start to address the things that were fascinating to me. Everything became fair game – how I constructed myself as a youth, a man, a foreigner. Shorthand became the material for me to make sense of my world. I really began to articulate my excitement, frustrations, and angers, and made a series of works using texts. Later, these became what were called the ‘word towers’. 

One of the first ones I have is ‘creepy’, painted with nail polish. I was recording everything interesting to me, in shorthand, “This, I must not forget. This, I must not forget.” The things I mustn’t forget became motivations. It grew very organically. 

There were too many stimuli at once and everything was slippery. I needed something to ground myself. I supposed I realised I was forgetting a lot of people’s names. My memory was all that I had. 

A new place was very exciting, but offered less of a feeling of belonging. I was discovering myself. What made me the person that I am, the one sitting right here? I had the sense of everything slipping away from me. I was a young man at the beginning of my adulthood. And as I was getting more and more into Dutch (I was becoming myself in a foreign place, clearly where I did not belong, but where else did I belong? Finding myself right here, now, in these moments, I was separating from my school years – from boarding school, from farm life, from Yeoville, but I was not yet grounded in the Netherlands. That feeling of slipperiness was pronounced even then. It became louder with each setting sun, with each rising moon.) I was also finding my way among these versions of English I was encountering: from London, from Istanbul, from the Netherlands. To add to this, I found I could understand people in the Netherlands because of my time spent within a majorly Afrikaans setting in Mooiplaats, in Donkerhoek, near Cullinan, near Pretoria, on the way to Witbank, with mountains, and what I suppose were farmlands, with the smell of pig farming, with the smell of sulphur periodically drifting through, things that I had not been used to before… I thought of the languages in which I was proficient, of Northern Sotho Sepedi, in which I had to gain the singular and the plural. And I thought, I can use the same way of learning to gain a new footing in this place. 

(the mnemonic for singular and plurals in Sepedi)
(‘n’ remains the same in both forms)
(‘go’ remains the same in both forms) 

I was to later make a series of works inspired by the recognition that in German in particular there is a masculine and feminine form in formal language use, to that end. I made a work titled schauspielerin, which was a text and a form of abstract drips made with nail polish and, probably, Tippex. So content and musings were very important to me, so too was visualisation, and the work was made up of a mashup of thought brought into a visual sphere. What endures, in this case, is a striated form of a long-winded process. Maybe I was struggling with being coherent and disintegrating. What are you doing, how can this be understood? What is it? Why make it? Is it important? If it can be explained, then why make it? These were the things that needled me at that time, and still do at this time. So, the debris on the floodplains. 

Writing everyone’s names down in the works was calming. I could know how I could relate to everyone, whether negative or positive, when I wrote their names down. I wrote extensive notes and could not make a singular sense of them chronologically. They were all important to me, all of them, how to make sense of this litany of information. Do I start from the beginning, but what is the beginning? Is it when my parents met, or when I was born, or when I have clear recollections? 

The most practical way to think about how I came to this jumble, was through reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. If this was an acceptable art form, I thought, this is the art form I would like to involve myself with. 

Is it better to be named or not named? I grew up in a place where the streets have no names. I lived in a place that was without names but in which it was easy to find one’s way around. I knew how to navigate by knowing the place, knowing who lived where and what went where. The town I was born in, Bakenberg, wasn’t named on any maps. It was probably a dark spot in the history of demarcations in one of the previous South Africas, before I was aware. I did not suffer from not having street names, how I and everyone navigated the terrain was sufficient. It was a big place, but also a small place. 

But you could ask anyone where things were, and find your way. Then, when I came to the Netherlands, this required never asking anyone for anything because everything was already written down. This was challenging, it caused distress, two incompatible systems operating on the same hard drive. They melded eventually. 

The more I started to write I realised that to every name, I had a strong attachment (but then I always did because I retained those particular names, fight, fondness, peculiar, strange and unusual, or just ordinary, positively or negatively) – and that these names exposed other people. A normal inventory was actually an extremely revealing form of self-portraiture. This gave me something to struggle with in my waking hours, this meant I had declared all people who might not necessarily want to be known, to know me. I was implicated and implicating others in dark shadows, in happiness and in sadness, in joy and in dark thoughts and all else that might fall between. 

Asked for an adjective to describe his practice, Moshekwa Langa replies with fugitive. In medium, his work is disparate; in sensibility, inconstant and changeable. He moves across such mediums as installation, drawing, video and sculpture with easy fluency, his materials as various as string, paper bags, oil paint, words, photographs, and found images. Like an anthropologist recording his surroundings in obscure maps, Langa’s practice is an exercise in visual note-taking. It is perhaps fugitive in that the artist’s attention is transitory, each work an index of a moment soon passed. In a text accompanying the exhibition Ellipsis (2016), the artist’s wandering mind is made evident: “Something broke in the description,” he writes, “and I am just leaving it here for the moment and I will open another topic because I am talking about many different things… There is a break because I get distracted – maybe it was sunny and then it started raining, and then suddenly, I do not know, something else happened.” His work is a gesture of time-keeping, a record of things come and gone. Langa’s maps may be illegible, unfinished, without compass, but they pose a curious visual question: how might one transcribe a life in all its routine complexity?