To Whom It May Concern
STEVENSON, Cape Town
04.02.2015 – 11.04.2015
I have always liked Kemang Wa Lehulere’s work. A lot. At the same time, I can never shake the feeling that there’s something about it that I’m not quite “getting”. I’ve never been sure if this indecipherability is something intentionally embedded in the work or if it’s just me. As the flow of (well-deserved) accolades for Wa Lehulere’s work continue to pour in – the 2015 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Art being the most recent – it certainly feels like I’m just behind the curve here. With this in mind, I arrived at ‘To Whom It May Concern’ determined to rectify this, to finally pin down just what it is that makes Wa Lehulere’s work so elusive, so appealing.
Kemang Wa Lehulere is particularly good at inspiring the viewer to go into CSI-mode, inciting the urge to meticulously scan the scene of the art for clues that might tie the whole thing together. Wa Lehulere creates an impression of a definite greater plan by constantly referring to scenes in his work (Scene 29, Scene 38, Scene 1 etc). These scenes are presented with scant regard for chronology and there is a non-linear narrative progression between works. And like all good crime scenes, Wa Lehulere’s scenes are frequently returned to.
This impression of a crime scene is furthered by two series of polaroids. Resembling forensic photographs, the internal narrative of the images is ruptured by the obvious absence of a few entries, testified to by conspicuous gaps and sticky Prestik residue. The sense of incompletion this creates is remarkably visually frustrating. Mirroring the FOMO that informs my feelings towards his work as a whole, this marks the first clue that Wa Lehulere intended this prickly sense of un-resolution to be a source of engagement with his work.
The polaroids are one of many references to previous showings with Stevenson – in particular in the group exhibition ‘Chroma’ at the end of last year. Through virtue of their titling, The World of Nat Nakasa I-III (2013), these photographs introduced the late writer/journalist as a haunting presence within the world of Wa Lehulere’s work. By depicting a series of ceramic dogs, they also imply some form of connection between Nakasa and these dogs. Clearly a believer in ‘Chekhov’s gun’, Wa Lehulere extends this antecedent connection into the current exhibition by peppering the ceramic pooches throughout the exhibition space. Their omnipresence in the current exhibition provides a vessel for the spectre of Nakasa to feature prominently by proxy.
The exhibition’s other primary framing device is Mieko Shiomi’s Spatial Poem No 3 (Falling Event) (1966) which provides a conceptual link to Nakasa’s death (falling from a high-rise New York building). The poem is alluded to in the titles of a number of the ink on paper drawings, falling event 1-12 (2014 – 2015), and one of the sculptures, Dear Chieko Shiomi (2015). Shiomi’s instructions to that particular poem read:
The phenomenon of a fall is actually a segment of a movement toward the centre of the earth. This very moment countless objects are falling. Let’s take part in this centripetal event.
From a shattered ceramic dog to a video of falling water, chalk drawings of a dog-bone avalanche, references to the roots of grass spreading downwards, to the implied link to Nakasa, there are numerous (obscure) references to movements towards the centre of the earth in ‘To Whom It May Concern’. The act of digging is another one.
There is a reason that digging and excavation have been such pervasive motifs in Wa Lehulere’s work, they sum up exactly the role of the viewer in bringing meaning to the work. Specific objects are imbued with referents and presented as surfaces to be scratched at. The idea seems to be that sometimes through digging one unexpectedly unveils a metaphorical skeleton. Other times, the endeavour is largely fruitless if equipped with inappropriate tools. This is a point that the diggers in Homeless Song 2 (2015), and earlier work Ukuguqula iBatyi 3 (2012), really bring across.
As Wa Lehulere’s work develops through each exhibition it becomes clear that the resistance to fixity is intentional, it is the bait through which the artist lures the viewer further into his web of questions. What makes the work particularly interesting is that while complex and veering on abstract, it is not devoid of direct meaning. There are specific answers that the artist is chasing after and he is as much a participant in the searching for answers as the viewer.
While this is not the appropriate place to go into lengthy speculation about these various symbols, ‘To Whom It May Concern’ is a nifty key to deciphering Wa Lehulere’s process, if not his work. With his Standard Bank Young Artist exhibition due to be unveiled in Grahamstown in June, the timing is perfect.
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN is at Stevenson Cape Town 22 January – 28 February 2015