Kemang Wa Lehulere, History Will Break Your Heart

Alice Inggs

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Kemang Wa Lehulere—just named Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year” for 2017—is not driven by a nostalgic impulse; rather, the artist’s critical examination of history is an indictment of the ways it is repeated.

History Will Break Your Heart, the artist's first touring exhibition after his 2015 Standard Bank Young Artist win for Visual Art, Wa Lehulere works away at the veneer of a polished national history, revealing both its mechanisms and its missing parts.

In a self-described “protest against forgetting,” Wa Lehulere exhibits a conceptual conversation between himself and marginalised black South African artists Gladys Mgudlandlu (c. 1920s–1979) and Ernest Mancoba (1904–2002), and writer RRR Dhlomo (1906–1971). A previous exhibition,
To Whom It May Concern, focused on exiled South African writer Nat Nakasa (1937–1965).

Using collaboration, reinterpretation, re-presentation, and quotation as artistic mediums, and dealing with events of recent history and those receding in collective memory, Wa Lehulere attempts to de-abstract history, reintroducing the personal narrative, while revealing the disconnection between national history and national subject.

The significance of threading the life stories and works of deceased artists such as Mgudlandlu, Mancoba, Dhlomo, and Nakasa through his exhibitions is twofold: to ask how sanctioned history has affected the individual, especially those who have been marginalised; and to demonstrate a continuum between past and present.

In all Wa Lehulere's work there is a keenly felt understanding of history as operating at a micro level. In this way, his art parallels the literary trend of nonfiction writing in South Africa. If read together, microhistories and personal narratives form a more comprehensive idea of the country than the single overarching narratives of nation created first by the apartheid government to divide and control, and later by the democratic government to unify. Neither took the complexity of the individual South African subject into account. For Wa Lehulere, personal and political narratives may be indivisible, but the individual remains paramount.

In the series “Does this mirror have a memory,” from
History Will Break Your Heart, Wa Lehulere asks his aunt, who visited self-taught artist Gladys Mgudlandlu's house as a child, to draw Mgudlandlu’s paintings from memory. These ephemeral chalk representations are juxtaposed with actual works by Mgudlandlu, purchased at auction by Wa Lehulere. Here, he seems to be saying, we are all connected. My history is your history. We have a responsibility to each other, to remember, and to re-establish the connections between us.

Wa Lehulere uses multiple materials and modes of expression: chalk, film, paint, found and repurposed objects, the artist’s own body, elements of performance. Perhaps this is the way history is constructed: via the chalkboard in school, pieced together from various sources, torn away from the individual, performed by society.

Excavation is another mode of artistic expression used by the artist. In
The Bird Lady in Nine Layers of Time, a film included in History Will Break Your Heart, Wa Lehulere documents the chipping away of paint and plaster to uncover murals painted by Mgudlandlu in Gugulethu, a township in South Africa. The discovery is not only a revelation, but a reminder of how black artists were historically sidelined and, in time, forgotten.

The exhibition centrepiece, “Another Homeless Song (For RRR Dhlomo),” obliquely references "The Dog Killers,” a short story written by pioneering but mostly-forgotten author RRR Dhlomo that Wa Lehulere remembers from childhood. Dhlomo’s story becomes an alternate way of framing and understanding the artwork, which is itself a response to the 2012 massacre of striking mineworkers by the South African Police Service at Marikana.

In this context, inanimate objects become dialogic. Wa Lehulere shows the possibility of multiple narratives being contained within objects, which when exhibited together tell another story. The gumboots from “Another Homeless Song (For RRR Dhlomo),” for example, are metonymic for mineworkers and the history of mining and labour in South Africa. Positioned alongside ceramic dogs and in relation to Dhlomo’s “The Dog Killers,” the narrative becomes one of violence, connecting it to the Marikana massacre. Wa Lehulere works to make these multiple strands of individual and national history visible and show their interconnectedness.

The strength in Wa Lehulere’s body of work lies in the questions it raises about the act of writing history, the fallibility of memory, and the nonviability of linear time. How many stories are contained within all of us? How many of these stories are being erased, overwritten, or simply forgotten? How do we tell these stories?
Who should tell these stories? And, most importantly, where is the common ground between personal memory and authorised history?

In this interview, Wa Lehulere talks about history, time, the function of the artist, and the importance of the author as social being.

In what ways has history broken your heart?

I wouldn’t say that history has broken my heart personally, more that the title of the show speaks to a broader and more general kind of history of South Africa, and history of the world. It relates to Ernest Mancoba’s experiences in early twentieth-century South Africa, as well as his experiences in Europe with the outbreak of world war, him being arrested and sent to a concentration camp and the fact that he was marginalised out of European art history as his involvement in CoBrA [Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam abstract artists’ collective] was minimalised if not marginalised completely. I think the title speaks to marginalised histories, personal narratives—and those things will break your heart.

Your work has been described elsewhere as “collaborations with the dead.” How did your dead—Mgudlandlu, Mancoba, and Dhlomo—first speak to you? What does your work say about them and what are they saying through your work?

It took me a while to understand Mgudlandlu’s work in terms of a painter. [The establishment] never really responded to her work as a painter very enthusiastically. However, the discovery that there might be a possible mural in Gugulethu—through conversation with my aunt—really got me excited because it’s something that was linked to my work. There were parallels between the possibility of a mural that’s no longer there, or could be rediscovered, and my wall drawings generally, or my chalkboard drawings.

With Dhlomo, I’d read his work growing up. I was quite fascinated by specifically “The Dog Killers,” but when Marikana happened [2012 massacre of striking mineworkers by South African police], it immediately reminded me of Dhlomo’s text. With Mancoba, I’ve appreciated his work for a while; it’s really important both in South Africa and on the continent and within the European avant-garde as well, but really what struck me was the interview that he did with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, which I had read before, but it was different listening to him speak in his own words, and that really touched me and got me excited about the possibility of working with the footage.

I think what my work says about Mgudlandlu, Mancoba, and Dhlomo is pretty self-explanatory in a sense that I’m interested in how historical events, moments, can help us deal with questions of the present, but also in how history repeats itself in many ways. If Mgudlandlu made paintings in the sixties and these were never appreciated, and they were covered or partially destroyed, which is what I suspect, then think about the kind of value that is placed on black artists and it becomes a huge question because, if it had been a white artist who had painted these things, they would have been well documented and preserved but, because a black woman painting in the sixties—of course, I mean it was apartheid but still—it speaks a lot to not only the time but now the kind of research that is happening in South Africa, where the interests lie, and also the research that is not happening, both academically and by artists and art historians at large.

How has growing up moving between different languages, cultures, and city spaces affected your practice?

I think accessibility is definitely the most important thing for any artist. What has affected me the most in terms of my practice is being able to see what other artists are doing, just being able to travel, to have conversations with other artists, to understand what they’re doing and their thought processes. I wouldn’t say it has anything particular to do with language or any particular kind of city space or urban space or non-city space; it’s more about accessibility and seeing things in the flesh rather than online or in books all the time.

What is the significance of using chalk in your work?

The chalk is significant in that materially it is something most people relate to in a number of ways, at least anyone who went to school, and people of a particular generation. There is an element of pedagogy involved—involved in the material itself—and there is the question of what kind of material is it, what does it do, what does it not do. It communicates, it writes, it does not last though, it disappears. Its lifespan is limited, it’s very ephemeral, and so is memory. Using chalk for me speaks to history—history as written, history as revised, history as to be revised and should be revised—the idea of a palimpsest as something that is written, erased, and rewritten and constantly rewritten. . . . If, like James Joyce wrote, “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” then history is something that is constantly under construction and the work speaks to that not only in terms of the chalk now, per se, but also with the choice of the school desks that are repurposed—to use an art term . . . “repurposed” . . . it’s the first time I’ve used that term—so I use the old school desks that I break apart and reconstruct into other things.

Does history belong to the dead and the past, or to the living and the present/future? Where do you see history located in time?

There’s a poet whose name I can’t recall who said that “death is a question that belongs to the living, not the dead,” so I wouldn’t say history belongs to the dead or to the past, but it belongs to the present and to the future . . . “He who denies you your history denies you not only your past time, present time, but your future time as well.” History belongs in these three spheres of time, at least in terms of how we generally stratify time between the past, or present, and the future. I look at time as something elastic, that the future can be in the present or the past and vice versa.

There is a strong archaeological imperative in your work. Is it the process of looking, or the final discovery, that interests you?

I’m more interested in the process than the actual discovery. There are three projects I can mention off the top of my head that speak broadly and more succinctly to your question. The first would be the digging performance I did in Gugulethu in 2008, where I discovered the skeleton of a cow. I wasn’t intending to find anything when I was digging; it was meant more as an archaeological gesture, a gesture of searching, a meditative and contemplative kind of gesture towards time and archaeology, going beneath the surface literally and metaphorically. The second would be the project on Nat Nakasa [To Whom It May Concern]; this resulted in me eventually going back to his grave for a second visit after first having gone to read poetry; for the second, final visit, I cut a piece of grass from his grave and took it from the US to the Netherlands. And then the third would be the project on Gladys Mgudlandu’s mural, which has only been partially uncovered, a really tiny fragment. I am at odds with myself over whether to finish it or to just leave it. The process was interesting and exciting, having to engage with various people and the challenges that came about, and I feel like the final discovery, yes, would be great to unveil the mural for the community around which the mural is located but also the South African art world as well, but I don’t know; for me the process is more exciting. There’s an [Angolan] artist, Nástio Mosquito, who said in his manifesto: “Enjoy the process, but you better deliver.” [laughs]

How do you reconcile the position of being sole curator, essentially the author of the particular history exhibited in your show, with the democratic message of your work?

I wouldn’t say I am in a position of sole curator for my show; I don’t see myself as a curator but rather as an artist, a creative practitioner who blurs the boundaries between what is considered standard, and various positions people take or give themselves or are given. For the longest time I didn’t consider myself as an artist, not because of some juvenile rebellious kind of thing that “Oh, ja, I make art but I’m not an artist,” but I really didn’t consider myself an artist for many, many years and it’s only this year that I kind of thought to myself, “Fuck, well, I’m actually an artist.”

I’m interested in blurring the boundaries between what is considered making art, what is art, what an artist is, can be or should be, has been, will be, in the same way that I find and look at time as elastic, that is, not something that can be stratified between the past, present, and future in the same way that we might think that history is a question that belongs to the past, in that kind of same way that I approach materials and general questions around life I approach my practice with, so I could be an art historian, I could be a curator, I could be everything, but as an artist I could be doing all of those roles or dabbling in various kinds of functions and practices and methodologies within the framework of still remaining an artist, which I’m still struggling to come to terms with.

Your work highlights the people behind the art objects. How do you interpret the connection between the artist and the artwork?

I think the people behind the artworks [in History Will Break Your Heart], people who have been affected personally by history, by colonialism, by apartheid—these are experiences that have shaped the kind of work that they do. It’s a really hard question [to answer] without sounding too theoretical or philosophical, but I’m of the belief that one cannot divorce the artwork from the maker. We are all social beings and the work that we make is influenced by society, communities, and the political context in which we live; whether we choose to be political or apolitical is political in itself, is to choose a position, and to choose a position is to take sides, so it’s important to bring to the fore these people in the exhibition because they’re black, primarily I would say, because they’re black and unapologetic about it because South African history, world history, has marginalised black people way beyond disbelief. So part of my project, of course with integrity and conceptual rigour, is to revoke or re-invoke, or bring to the fore these various people and their work in various ways with various strategies.

Who or what do you make art for?

I make art for myself, for my family, for my friends, for my community. I make art for anyone who is interested in art, I make art for people who are not yet interested in art, I make art hopefully for the children I don’t have, the grandchildren I don’t have. I make art for people who are curious about the world, I make art for people . . . yeah . . . I make art for people.