Botswana-Based Artist Thebe Phetogo Paints With Shoe Polish to Subvert the History of Blackface

In Thebe Phetogo’s paintings, acid-green backdrops offset spectral black figures that become all the more unsettling once you find out what they are made of: Phetogo renders them partially with shoe polish, the material once used by actors to put on blackface. Phetogo says it’s that shoe polish that makes his figures “come out a certain way” and guides the disarming, disquieting beauty of his work. At the heart of this is a question: what does it mean to place blackness on a figure?

For Phetogo, the inquiry is a step removed from figuration or portraiture in the way it asks what it means to participate in an ongoing conversation that has been growing in volume. A Portrait of the Subject Position at Onset (2020), a painting that depicts his own face smudged with beetle-like daubs of shoe polish, features in “When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting,” a milestone exhibition currently on view at Cape Town’s Zeitz MOCAA. Among other things, the show aspires toward “an internal evaluation of collective self-representation.”

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As a painter from Botswana operating within a Western-dominated discourse, Phetogo takes a bold approach to a style that might feel uncomfortable but serves, he says, as “an acknowledgment that all is not right.” But this is not all Phetogo’s paintings are about. He likes to travel through wormholes, such as in his “blackbody” series (2019–ongoing) that borrows its title from a physics term referring to a hypothetical perfect entity that absorbs all incident electromagnetic radiation.

A painting of two green-and-black figures, one wearing a sort of backpack that supports the other, against a blue background.
Thebe Phetogo: Material Need and Practical Effects, Painting 1, 2021.

The double entendre around blackbody helps establish Phetogo’s interest in subverting expectations—as he does with his figures, which are immediately striking but far from idealized—while slowly building his self-referential network of ideas.

Phetogo’s speculative approach continues in a new body of work titled “Propositions for the Origin of a blackbody,” in which he leans further into figurative abstractions. Proposition 5 – Zombie Figuration, Painting 2 (2022), which hangs beside his self-portrait in the Zeitz show, depicts a body turned inside-out with eyes on an otherwise featureless face, staring blankly ahead. Such work raises an intriguing question: Is it the subject of the portrait that classifies as the zombie, or the ghosts of figuration itself? 


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