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Meleko Mokgosi
b. 1981, Gaborone, Botswana
Lives and works in New York, New York

I feel that when some photographic detail … is taken out of its original context and is fractured ... it acquires a plastic quality it did not have.[1]

I find myself adjusting color to the grays of the black and white photograph.[2]

- Romare Bearden

[1] “Plastic” surprisingly captures both the characteristics and process of montage. Plasticity, according to Catherine Malabou, suggests irreversible malleability, and it can also “explode to create itself anew.” As Bearden says, decontextualizing and fracturing a photographic detail literally explodes—shatters/fragments—the photographic medium and content, and creates it anew.

[2] “Gray” is peculiar because of its affiliation with black and white, as well as with cliché—“Things are not always black and white, but shades of gray.” Yet can we always take this cliché at face value, can we accept gray without questioning its own gray area? Gray, of course, is always visual. In the sentence above, we can assume that Bearden is referring to gray as both a color and a concept that puts into doubt the privilege assigned to the black and white photograph—i.e., “truth,” nostalgia, analog, etc.—the “gray area” in photography. In painting, gray comes from subtractive mixing. Its value has more to do with contrast than hue or saturation. And contrast emphasizes modeling and volume as fundamental elements in a composition, with the aim of attaining “realistic” rendering within perspectival representation. Metaphorically, gray is an in-between. It offers difference from an overdetermining binary. Thus gray is a stand-in for a “middle ground,” ambiguity, and standardized practicality. No doubt, using gray in this way gives it positive value, a way of side-stepping the polarizing attributes of black AND white. Yet one thing is for sure—gray is always followed by black and white. To follow does not simply mean to precede or imitate, but also implies an amount of anticipation. All three colors anticipate each other. Gray exists solely because black and white exist. So to posit gray is to already refer to two other colors—presence through absence. In some way, gray is catachritic: “proper” because it works when the available literal terms are inadequate (recall the cliché), and “improper” because it imposes the field of vision to any circumstance in need of a “middle ground.” As such, one can sometimes be duped into another binary (visible/hidden), namely that one is unable to “see” something due to a lack of faculty to uncover it. This, Jacques Lacan would say, is as vapid a binary as black and white, or man and woman.

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