09.06.2016 – 15.07.2016
With Kemang Wa Lehulere you are never just reviewing a particular exhibition because his exhibitions and projects seem to bleed into each other with no definite end point. When I first began thinking about the idea of reviewing his latest solo show ‘The Knife Eats at Home’ at Stevenson Johannesburg, I was reluctant and concerned about simply describing what I could recognize, or to historicize it to some art historical standard I did not even know. As a South African that grew up in a similar/parallel world and time, many of the motifs employed in this exhibition resonate with me (tires, those particular school shoes, chalk board etc.).
‘The Knife Eats at Home’ lives in my imagination in two related ways. On the one hand, it is in his deployment of an idea of ‘archive’ on his own terms, free from the overcrowded notion of archive occupied by many contemporary artists. On the other hand, it is also the individual works’ ability to historicize key moments in South African history and simultaneously inscribe the diversity of concerns animating South African and some diaspora artists; ideas like a fascination with outer space as well as other scientific and occult tendencies. These concepts are often excluded in discussions of such artists’ works, pigeon-holed instead into conversations about politics of the gaze or some form of self representation discourse that only lives within an economy of filling a gap in the Euro-American archive and history. Even when Afrofuturism is cited, it is still weighed down with its aspect of self-representation.
With regards to the works’ ability to historicize, I was greatly excited by the aeroplane works. As a child, I would insist on calling them spitfires; not the Supermarine spitfire characteristic of the Second World War, but as short hand for the super sonic fighter jets that seemed to frequently crisscross my home town, spurring a burst of paper planes at school. In a walkabout talk, Kemang spoke about the idea that while South Africa’s 1976 youth were resisting Bantu education, the Russians were venturing into outer space, perhaps indicating a break South Africa made with the rest of the world in terms of occupying itself with other urgent ideas of the time.
He also pointed out that the paper plane was a worldwide phenomenon, something that one forgets when they isolate themself in a cocoon of personal memories that lulls them into forgetting that they are not the only ones doing something at any point in history. After all, we are – and always have been – a part of the world. I am reminded of South Africa’s connectedness to the world even during those turbulent times in our now flattened history around the June 16 1976 moment (quickly being locked down in the present through its reenactment in the #Fall movement griping the South African universities).
Personally, I find Kemang’s deployment of what at times looks like exemplary discourse exciting: that ability to create space to access certain conversations without becoming too technical. Kemang is an actor who occupies many positions without taking custody of them (he has no obligation to defend that position), a trait which is tricky to exercise within an art context obsessed with archives and making political statements. The idea of the creation of an archive – central to this exhibition and at play in the wider Kemang Wa Lehulere project – reminds me to keep thinking about the idea of archive; not in the fashion of filling the gap, including stories of those marginalized by history in another’s history, but an actual autonomous creation that facilitates one’s own conversations and history.
In a letter published in Kemang’s 2015 Standard Bank Young Artist publication Kemang Wa Lehulere, Kwezi Gule, wrote about the recurrence of the music stand and other things in Kemang’s exhibitions and performance. In this moment I was reminded of Kemang’s work as a long-term project, where similar motifs are explored over and over in different ways. This exhibition is both the work itself and the context for discussing it. Always in relation to other contexts, but centered in its own context. It asks of me to move beyond naming and start to conceive what is unfolding and plays out across the wider exhibitions and projects Kemang is engaged in.
‘The Knife Eats at Home’ challenges me to forgo subverting or reforming the inherited archive (colonial or otherwise) towards creating my own archive that may facilitate my own conversations while being aware that the idea of archive is central to the project of history. Kemang Wa Lehulere is exploring beyond this idea of archive, he is creating for himself useful metaphors, ever expanding his own archive. He is, to kill the cliché, making history.