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Der Greif X MPB: Behind the Image with Thero Makepe


On November 27th, we hosted a live Instagram event called "Der Greif X MPB: Behind the Image" featuring artist Thero Makepe. Makepe was selected for our Guest Room exhibition titled "Empathy," which was curated by Damarice Amao and Matthias Pfaller. The winning image from Makepe's collection is from the project "Fly Machine/Mogaka," which explores the intersection between collective and personal memory, as well as the boundaries between reality and imagination. This body of work is inspired by the tragic death of Major Cliff Manyuni, a pilot in the Botswana Defence Force (BDF). Major Manyuni lost his life while redirecting a malfunctioning fighter jet away from densely populated areas in Gaborone, ultimately saving many lives. "Fly Machine/Mogaka" serves as a memorial and tribute to Major Manyuni, highlighting the immense sacrifice he made for the well-being of his people. Makepe's artistic practice focuses on slowing down time to allow viewers to reflect on and appreciate the profound sacrifice made by this individual for the greater good.

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Der Greif: Can you tell us what this scholarship means for you?

This scholarship is a great honor, and I am very grateful to receive this award. I have been following Der Grief for a long time, and it is a dream of mine to be recognized on this platform by Damarice Amao and Matthias Pfaller, alongside other talented photographers. It's great validation for me at this stage in my career, and it gives me a lot of confidence to continue with my photographic projects. Materially, it will assist me in purchasing better equipment for future projects and enhancing my mobility as an artist.

Der Greif: What kind of gear do you work with?

I currently own a Canon 6D Mark II with a 24-105mm lens and a 50mm fixed camera lens. I work with a DSLR because of its affordability and accessibility. I also use a speedlight when photographing at night. Occasionally, I use 35mm disposable film cameras.

Der Greif: Can you tell us the story behind your winning Guest Room image?

The images I submitted for this Guest Room are part of a photobook project titled "Fly Machine/Mogaka." The project is a photographic retelling of a tragic event. On April 27th, 2018, Cliff Manyuni, a Botswana Defence Force (BDF) pilot, lost his life in a fighter jet crash. Initially, the local media reported that the pilot had experienced a severe malfunction in his fighter jet and was told to eject from the aircraft. However, he made the decision to steer his fighter jet away from crashing in a highly populated area in Gaborone and directed the plane towards a nearby golf course. He was sacrificing his life but saving countless lives.

In 2018, I created a double-sided photobook that retold this story. One side contains carefully constructed images using a miniature set of a toy fighter jet flying in the sky before experiencing an unexpected malfunction and eventually meeting its demise. The other side features documentary-style images of Gaborone, of the places and scenes the pilot would have been seeing or flying over before losing control of his aircraft and his untimely death.

"Fly machine" is a colloquial phrase used by Batswana to describe any object of aviation, be it a jet, plane, or helicopter. "Mogaka" is a Setswana translation of the word "hero." I wanted to reflect on what it means to be a hero and for Batswana people to continue to remember this intense sacrifice. It remains a mystery as to whether the cause of the crash was due to a fault in the fighter jet or a fault with the pilot himself.

I also wanted to explore the gray area between collective and personal memory as well as reality and imagination. Upon hearing this tragic news, I was immediately struck with a harsh reminder of my mortality and how quickly life can diminish. This work serves as a memorial and tribute to a man who sacrificed his life in a moment that required lightning-quick decision-making. I want to slow time down to allow the viewer to ponder and appreciate the ultimate sacrifice made by this person for the greater good of his people.

Der Greif: Can you expand on the themes that your photography explores?

Death and memorialization are central themes in my work. As I was coming of age as a young person, my mortality is something I've thought about a lot over the past few years. In Botswana, death is quite a taboo topic, and the historical narrative of Botswana is one of peace and stability. Botswana has never had a civil war or violent internal conflict. Before this tragic event, I had never heard someone being called a 'hero' in Botswana.

To an extent, because of the peace and stability we've enjoyed in Botswana, there's also a negative effect that we can be politically docile. There's a self-critical phrase Batswana use that says, "Batswana ba lebala ka pele," meaning "Batswana forget quickly." This is usually used in response to political scandals or corruption, but I think more generally, the status quo of most things is to move on quickly. So, a lot tends to go unsaid. We bottle up our emotions and subconsciously block ourselves from expressing ourselves. I would like for my art to be a conduit for people to contemplate morbid and uncomfortable moments or memories and, from there, encourage discourse to forge a pathway towards true healing.

Der Greif: Who are some photographers that inspire your work?

Since 2018, I have been highly inspired by Lebogang Khanye, Gregory Halpern, and Deana Lawson. More recently, I have been closely looking at Zora J. Murff, Ron Jude, and Akinbode Akinbiyi.

Der Greif: What are you working on right now?

Since 2020, I have been working on a photobook project titled "We Didn't Choose to be Born Here". This photobook will tell the narrative of my family's history between South Africa and Botswana and the effects of Apartheid and post-coloniality had on us. Using both visual and written material, the work addresses the psychological effects that migration and conflict had on different members of my family, such as identity crises, depression, and trauma. The book contains constructed portraits of my family based on memories and feelings, as well as documentary images and re-enactments retracing the steps of my ancestors.

Additionally, the book utilizes archival material such as newspaper articles, documentary screenshots, and family photos to add realism. Furthermore, I've been working on a larger and more long-term project titled "The Powers that Be". I've been exploring different parts of the world that interest me, in one way or another, to question what that phrase means for each particular place. What are the different systems of power that govern and control people? So far, I've created two separate 'volumes' of this work in the Okavango Delta in Botswana and Namibia, and another in Paris, France. I see it as an ongoing body of work that will take me several years to 'complete'.

Lastly, I'm a member of The Botswana Pavilion, a collective of young artists from Botswana concerned with advancing Botswana's creative development and artistic archive. And since 2022, I've been a board member of the Artist Residency Centre (ARC) in Gaborone. Through both organizations, I've been part of an artist-driven community that has been hosting exhibitions, workshops, and residencies to help grow the local art scene in Botswana.

Der Greif: What is the biggest challenge you have faced in photography?

I’ve really struggled with portraiture in the past because I was nervous about photographing people. My biggest fear when taking someone’s portrait was feeling like I was wasting someone’s time. I would often rush myself when taking someone’s portrait, resulting in a poorly constructed image compositionally. Ultimately, it was an issue of confidence and self-belief, which I’m overcoming by continuing to photograph more and more and learning to be patient with myself and others. As well as reading more about photography and watching interviews of photographers I like and their journeys as artists and how they’ve improved.

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