Kemang Wa Lehulere is this years Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Arts, with his inaugural exhibition, History will Break your Heart, now on at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown and touring the country thereafter.
Following close behind his recent solo exhibition at Stevenson, To Whom It May Concern Kemang Wa Lehulere continues his crucial exploration of marginalized South African artists of the recent past. In History Will Break Your Heart, Wa Lehulere has shifted his focus from writer Nat Nakasa to the work of artists Ernest Mancoba, Gladys Mgudlandlu, and for good measure, a homage to writer Rolfes Robert Reginald Dhlomo.
The 1820 Settlers Monument leering over Grahamstown is again the setting for this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist exhibition. This concrete Leviathan, complete with its ships masts signalling the arrival of the first British immigrants to the Cape, is an especially apt venue for grappling with works which, in Wa Lehulere’s words, are ‘trying to rewrite history’.
The gallery, with its familiar institutional grey carpet blocks and 1970’s apartheid architecture of doom, situates two video works at diagonally opposite ends of the space. Where, if not far away, is my place? is comprised of footage of Ernest Mancoba, interviewed before his death by Instagram addict and curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist. Mancoba, seen by many as South Africa’s first professional black modern artist, left South Africa in 1938 to escape the rise of apartheid, never to return. This footage is interspersed with images of Mancoba’s abstract paintings from his time in Denmark as co founder of avant garde group CoBrA, a history he has largely been written out of. Mancoba’s longing and searching for meaning, connection and the recognition of his peers, in South Africa and abroad, is heart wrenching to watch and is distilled in Wa Lehulere’s installation of an untitled Mancoba lithograph and a wooden sculpture with feathers entitled: Does the Mirror have a Memory (Ernest Mancoba).
The second video, The Bird Lady in Nine Layers of Time, is a work in progress about the rediscovery of Gladys Mgudlandlu’s wall murals which Wa Lehulere’s aunt, Sophia Lehulere, remembered seeing in 1971 during childhood visits to Mgudlandlu’s house in Gugulethu. The title refers to Mgudlandlu, the bird lady, a nickname stemming from her knowledge of the Eastern Cape bird life often seen in her work, as well as the seven layers of paint and two layers of plaster that an art restorer, commissioned by Wa Lehulere, had to dig through to discover Mgudlandlu’s paintings. One is left wanting to see more of this exciting find, which is of real art historical significance, and hopefully Wa Lehulere will take this project it to its full fruition in the future.
Aunt Sophia, having no artistic education, collaborated with Lehulere to reconstruct the yet uncovered paintings from memory using his now signature white chalk on black board. This process becomes an act of remembering that is fascinating to watch in the video and the final drawings – captivatingly familiar– line the walls of the gallery along with a selection of Mgudlandlu’s paintings that Wa Lehulere acquired.
Two works dominate the centre of the space, Another Homeless Song (for RRR Dhlomo) 1 and 2, in which Lehulere again uses the elements of deconstructed school desks and mass produced porcelain dogs, here painted gold, along with gold-soled gumboots and small faceless busts made of clay. R.R.R. Dhlomo’s first novella, An African Tragedy, was the first work of fiction by a black South African to appear in book form. The installation, inspired by Dhlomo’s short story The Dog Killers which deals with the life of mine workers during apartheid, is the most visually arresting works in the exhibition. By acting as a conduit tying together the history and narrative of Mancoba’s longing for acceptance, and Mgudlandlu fierce artistic autonomy, one feels Lehulere wants to impart a deserved acknowledgment and modernity to this history.
History Will Break Your Heart is a crushing success. The continued re-examination of the still incomplete canon of artists who have not received the recognition they deserve remains urgent and this exhibition furthers the importance of Wa Lehulere’s work at this time. The perspicacious manner in which Lehulere converses with present and past, questioning memory and history, prompts us, like digging through the layers of Gladys Mgudlandlu’s walls in Gugulethu, to participate in excavating all the layers of our history.