School desks, worn by students’ elbows and carved with graffiti, have long featured in Kemang Wa Lehulere’s work. There are two in Dear Chieko Shiomi (2015), for example. The wooden lids have been removed from their hinges and attached to a waist-high steel frame. Standing behind this construction are nine porcelain Alsatian dogs, each also around a metre tall. Apart from colouring (three are grey and the rest blonde), these mass-produced ornaments are identical. A tenth hound (blonde) stands on the far side of the desk-construction, as if addressing her canine class. Desks appear in My Apologies to Time (2017) too. Here a taxidermied African grey parrot is perched atop one, birds being another feature of the artist’s work. This desk, missing two of its legs, is attached to another metal frame, larger this time, onto which four birdhouses have also been secured. And now Wa Lehulere plans to create a wall of these desktops: an imposing freestanding structure to be shown as part of his forthcoming exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery in London. Inside the upturned desks will sit a series of plaster casts of hands making gestures found in international sign language. Another new work will comprise a desk, a dog and a music stand, this last also a recurring object in the South African artist’s work. There will be chalk-on-blackboard drawings, a medium that Wa Lehulere has used since graduating from Wits University’s fine arts course in 2011 (which taught European narratives of art; Wa Lehulere doesn’t say it, but Joseph Beuys’s and Lutz Bacher’s use of blackboards will not have escaped him). A series of as-yet-untitled sculptures made from metal piping will also feature, including one in which short lengths of pipe and a pair of old wooden crutches have been attached to the edge of a tyre, forming a kind of handle, the result resembling a toy Wa Lehulere and his friends used to fashion as kids.
That the artist returns to motifs of childhood and education is perhaps understandable given his biography. Born in 1984 to a white Irish father and black South African mother, Wa Lehulere was the product of a union considered illegal under the apartheid regime. Both had died by the time he was twelve, when the boy went to live with an aunt. His primary school headmaster told him he’d never make it past eighth grade, and though he was encouraged by a teacher in secondary school, he felt out of place on the art course at the predominantly white Wits. Unsurprisingly then, as we sit in his busy studio, in a small industrial park in the Goodwood area of Cape Town, the significance that the artist attaches to the objects we discuss shifts back and forth between the personal and political. As Wa Lehulere’s studio manager prepares a communal lunch in the office, and the sound of hammering filters through from the workshop next door, the conversation veers this way and that, from a book-exchange project Wa Lehulere set up a few years back to how the artist’s assemblages might speak of South Africa’s ugly history and current political situation. All of this is peppered with stories: how a friend or family member helped him with a particular work, the sources for the works’ narratives, how objects entered his artmaking not on an academic or theoretical vector, at least not initially, but through a memory of growing up in Gugulethu, a township close to Cape Town’s airport, where many of the artist’s family and friends still live.
While Wa Lehulere returns repeatedly to particular objects, the meaning attached to them is in constant flux: dark puns develop as they double up their reference points; meanings accumulate as the objects move from being triggers of personal memory to those for a collective remembering
The desks, for example, were dumped outside the artist’s old primary school during renovations, and Wa Lehulere says that he thinks of the graffiti as messages written to the future. Yet cutting through such romance is the artist’s confirmation that when he started using these objects in 2015, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign – in which students rallied against the statue to Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town, spurring a wider movement to ‘decolonise’ education – was also on his mind. Graffiti and muralmaking have long been of interest to the artist as vernacular modes of artmaking in South Africa, as media apart from the academic (and mostly European) narratives of modern and contemporary art. The tyre-and-crutches work recalls both happy days messing around on the streets of Gugulethu and the way that suspected police informants were executed by ‘necklacing’ – the placing and subsequent torching of a petrol-soaked tyre around the victim’s body – during the apartheid years. The ornamental dogs are emblems of cute domesticity and aspirations of the working class, but Alsatians are also ingrained in every black South African’s mind as weapons of the racist state. While Wa Lehulere returns repeatedly to particular objects, the meaning attached to them is in constant flux: dark puns develop as they double up their reference points; meanings accumulate as the objects move from being triggers of personal memory to those for a collective remembering. On speaking of a particular work, Wa Lehulere might reference a literary or historical figure – from the Japanese Fluxus artist Mieko (Chieko) Shiomi, for example, to South African essayist Nat Nakasa – but these inspirations remain opaque in the end-object. What is clearer is how much the artist’s personal experience is poured into the work. I ask Wa Lehulere about the plaster hands that will feature in the new desk work. He tells me that they are cast from his aunt, explaining a bit about her personality and how, during South Africa’s student uprisings of 1976, she was shot by police. She survived, but the trauma was such that she has refused to speak about the event since. This work, in a way, is the artist’s method of challenging that trauma, both public and private, without speaking of it directly.
The next day Wa Lehulere suggests we visit Gugulethu. In 2006 Wa Lehulere and several friends from the area started Gugulective, an art group featuring artists, musicians, writers, DJs, rappers and poets who met in Kwa-Malmli’s, a local shebeen, tapping into the historic connection between informal drinking spots in South African and radical black politics. There they staged discussion groups, readings, parties and exhibitions for the local community. These events addressed the social problems apparent in South Africa’s post-apartheid political landscape, particularly questions of how free the black population is in a country rife with economic inequality. In 2007 for example, for a project titled Indaba Ludabi (a Xhosa expression translating roughly as ‘the news is the war’), members of the collective produced leaflets in the style of those commonly handed out by witchdoctors, replacing the descriptions of faith healing with political messages. One read, ‘White supremacy is a creator of our catastrophic lives. Land distribution: No more shacks’. The shebeen is now closed, and the group has disbanded (though Wa Lehulere still works with many of those who took part), yet the building retains the mural of the journalists of Drum, a magazine that emerged during the 1950s to chronicle township life, that Gugulective had painted in the courtyard. It is not this that we were here to see however. On the day before our visit, Wa Lehulere had spoken of his fascination with another artist who had grown up in Gugulethu, Gladys Mgudlandlu, who died in 1979, in her early sixties. Wa Lehulere’s interest had been piqued when, a few years back, a neighbour from the township gave him a book about Mgudlandlu’s landscape painting. On being shown the book, Wa Lehulere’s aunt said that she had visited the artist’s house as a child, while running errands for Wa Lehulere’s grandmother. His aunt went on to say she could remember that Mgudlandlu had painted murals throughout her home. Investigating further, Wa Lehulere located the property a few streets away from his own childhood street. It was this squat house, hastily built during the establishment of Gugulethu during the 1960s, after the Group Areas Act forcibly removed black South Africans from the centre of Cape Town, that Wa Lehulere wanted to show me. In 2015, unable to trace the owner, the artist created a work in which he exhibited chalk drawings – simple and illustrative – by his aunt based on her vague memories of the wall paintings, alongside prints by Mgudlandlu that Wa Lehulere had managed to acquire at auction. That memory is Wa Lehulere’s primary resource in his art, both in terms of personal nostalgia and references composted in the making process, is perhaps understandable. Wa Lehulere’s work acknowledges the importance that remembering has played in a country that established its current degree of democratic normalcy through the truth and reconciliation process of the late 1990s.
In 2010 he cofounded the Center for Historical Reenactments with the curators Gabi Ngcobo (the curator of the current Berlin Biennale) and Sohrab Mohebbi (now associate curator at the Sculpture Center, New York), inaugurating the initiative with an exhibition and series of discussions held at 80 Albert Street in Johannesburg, the site of the former Pass Office, which issued ID cards, complete with racial categories, during apartheid. A project space in Johannesburg followed, through which the Center for Historical Reenactments explored the agency of historical legacies, and how art might have a hand in the act of revealing traumas and teasing out lost narratives. These earlier collective actions have a strong bearing on his present studio work.
Last year Wa Lahulere managed to at last track down the current occupier of Mgudlandlu’s former home – a former fighter with the MK, the old militant wing of the ANC – and ask him to let the artist excavate the wall and uncover sections of mural. Permission was granted on the condition that Wa Lahulere only dug into the wall where the man had hung pictures, or where a TV and mirror stood. When we arrive the owner is out, but a builder, currently extending the tiny, bare abode, lets us in. A single bed fills the bedroom, old mags lie on the living toom table, the TV plays a daytime soap. Wa Lahulere walks over to a framed print to the left of the sofa and unhooks it from the nail upon which it hangs. Behind is a delicate, faint painting of a bird, the first thing the artist discovered after scraping away at the layers of paint and plaster that had built up over time. Wa Lahulere tells me that birds fascinated Mgudlandlu. Elsewhere, behind the mirror, part of a landscape can be found. As we drive back into town, past the tin-roofed slums that have since extended the edges of this township, more often populated by refugees from elsewhere on the continent, I ask Wa Lahulere if, as an artist living in 1960s South Africa, Mgudlandlu ever made work about the political circumstances. Wa Lahulere shakes his head. He says, however, that while it might not have been the artist’s intention, he sees her landscapes as inherently political: for him they talk of who might own that land.
Back at the studio, Wa Lahulere shows me the final work he’s making for the London show: a series of birdboxes that will hang in a line on the gallery’s wall, each structure missing two walls and thus exposing the shelter’s interior. As with so much of what Wa Lahulere does, there is a generosity to the work: the houses act as easy symbols of homemaking, while their would-be occupants reference freedom. Yet, as is Wa Lahulere’s frequent modus operandi, the directness hides many narratives, from the story of Mgudlandlu to the history of South Africa’s townships.
An exhibition of work by Kemang Wa Lehulere is on view at Marian Goodman Gallery, London, through 20 October
From the September 2018 issue of ArtReview