The portrait you should never have seen

Tshenolo Ray Gare continues to court controversy even miles away from Botswana, in Australia, where he is now based. The renowned multi award winning visual artist, who left the country in wake of the controversial murder of John Kalafatis, is said to be causing Botswana’s High Commissioner in Australia, Molosiwa Selepeng, sleepless nights. 

And never one to keep quiet about his escapades, Gare has confided in this publication about his “mistreatment” at the hands of Botswana’s Envoy to Australia, whom he accused of “hiding” his portrait of Botswana’s presidents from display during last year’s Independence Day celebrations. Gare says the 2m X 2m painting titled ‘Four Generations,’ was his own way of contributing to the country’s 47th Independence celebrations but that he was taken aback when after consulting and agreeing with Selepeng, the Ambassador contrived a plan with some of the Embassy’s workers to hide his portrait of the presidents from display. Selepeng allegedly kept the paining out ostensibly because he felt it was “political” and “belittled” two of the other presidents. The portrait shows all the country’s presidents from Sir Seretse Khama to Sir Ketumile Masire, Festus Mogae and the current president Ian Khama in front of the Parliament building with a grey dove in flight right in front of the four men. The source of trouble seems to have been Selepeng’s interpretation of the painting, which shows the founding president Sir Seretse Khama and the current president Ian Khama larger than the other two former presidents Masire and Mogae.

In an emotive letter to Selepeng, Gare wrote: “I would like to inform you that I was not happy with your decision to hide my paintings away in another room and refuse for them to be displayed. Furthermore, and more importantly, it would have been polite to consult the artist about any philosophy in the painting, before wrongly concluding for yourself a complete misconception on the artwork’s topic.” He added in the letter that he didn’t intend to “provoke any politics or politricks,” in the artwork but rather to “respectfully” acknowledge the contributions of “our past and current Presidents – nothing more, nothing less.” He described Selepeng’s decision, as “intimidating and disrespectful,” as it was not for him to “judge me or the artwork,” saying this indicated “fear or insecurity on behalf of what an audience might think of the work.” However, the Ambassador stood his ground and defended his decision. In a correspondence to Gare, he acknowledged the “right of an artist” to produce whatever piece of work he or she fancies, but qualified that, such art work or art “may not be exhibited at an Art Gallery or High Commission premises without the consent of the venue owner.”

Selepeng wrote, “We at the High Commission took the view that your portrayal of the four presidents painting was unsuitable for display at the Mission premises, as it purported to belittle former presidents Sir Ketumile Masire and former president Festus G. Mogae.” Gare had told Selepeng that it was, “For you to observe as an audience in conjunction with the title of the painting and the accompanying statement that was to go with the painting, not to make mistaken assumptions and then to say aggressively, ‘the former President, his head is bigger than the others’” and then went on to advise the High Commissioner to in future speak with the artist about the work “before you come to any wrongful assumptions or conclusions.” To this Selepeng hit back: “You should accept that we are also entitled to out interpretation of your art work and to decide whether it is appropriate to display it in the Mission premises,” before signing off with an advice to Gare to be “more positive about the views of other people to your art work.”

It will appear that Selepeng had hit on a raw nerve, as Gare wrote back to clarify that: “Artwork is an open bowl and is therefore open to interpretations, but not limited to only yours,” he reminded the Ambassador that part of an artist’s development is criticism, and that as an artist, he “accepts criticism of all forms. What I don’t accept is your undiplomatic approach to the situation. It would be an injustice to any artist not to be consulted directly about their work before any conclusions or decisions are made; this situation should have been made transparent to the artist. Your failure to acknowledge my voluntary community service in the form of my painting was unacceptable,” he wrote. But perhaps not willing to drag the conversations any longer, the High Commissioner wrote that the ‘this conversation is over.’ Gare is still bitter about the experience as he feels hard done by, as his work could not reach out to its intended audience. However, by a twist of fate, Botswana Guardian has a copy of that painting for you to be the judge.

Last modified on Wednesday, 20 August 2014 16:06

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