Deutsche Bank KunstHalle
Wandering along the Unter den Linden the day I arrived in Berlin, I happened upon a Kemang Wa Lehulere’s Artist of the Year exhibition at the Studio of Deutsche Bank KunstHalle. The Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year is an international award that has had acclaimed artists sharing the accolade, including Wangechi Mutu and Imran Qureshi.
Wa Lehulere has had a strong sense of direction in his works since art school. With ways of perceiving and multiple interpretations of histories and memory present in his work from the start, he has been consistently concerned with the events of the past and the ways they intersect with the present. His deeply layered works are explorations of current situations by looking through the artefacts of the past.
This exhibition, titled ‘Bird Song,’ is underscored by his exploration of works by South African artist Gladys Mgudlandlu (1917–79) placed on the walls alongside Wa Lehulere’s. There are great articles written, discussing her life, work and history alongside Kemang Wa Lehulere’s parallels, artworks, responses and perceptions such as the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition (available at Stevenson or Clarke’s Books), a piece by Sean O’Toole in Deutsche Bank’s ArtMag and Elza Miles’ account of Mgudlandlu.
There are two consecutive videos that play in the first room of the exhibition, Homeless Song 5, 2017 and The Bird Lady in Nine Layers of Time, 2015.
The first, Homeless Song 5, deals with the land expropriation and forced resettlement of Luyolo Village near Simon’s Town. In the video, collaborator Ilze Wolff is filmed walking through the skeletal structures of what were once residential spaces. Here black residents were violently forced to move to Gugulethu. Wa Lehulere is also filmed, with American sign language projected onto his bare back in sequence, saying, “I have a song, I want you to know.” It is an experience watching the journey of Wolff through this charged space, a hike through fields and crumbling structures. The visuals switch into negative, and then again to positive, visually stimulating an eerie feeling, and an unsettling aesthetic. The title is ambiguous, with many possible interpretations relating to relocation, homelessness, ideas around what constitutes ‘home’ and belonging. There are many allusions to music and song throughout the exhibition, combined here with sign language it hints of deafness and accessibility, in the literal and metaphorical sense.
In the next film, we see the inside of a home, with someone peeling away layers of paint and plaster in a rectangular shape, gradually exposing a piece of a hidden mural, buried by new inhabitants over time, all but removed from physical space and memory. Eventually, a bird with a red beak and a yellow wing on what seems to be a blue skyscape is revealed. Symbolically freed, this bird is the centre of gravity in this exhibition, appearing again printed on the wall near the entrance of the Kunsthalle. The mural is in the former home of Mgudlandlu in Gugulethu, where she painted birds and landscapes on her walls. Remembered from her childhood, Wa Lehulere’s aunt told him of these hidden treasures on the walls of the home, and he went to excavate them, like archaeological artefacts.
Wa Lehulere asked his aunt to draw what she remembered of the mural on chalkboard with chalk, a reconstruction of that which was mostly forgotten and only present in the vague memory of a childhood experience. In Does This Mirror have a Memory, 2015, the artist reworked these chalkboard sketches, making marks and erasing areas, dealing with the fallible and transient nature of memory, and the inevitably subjective recounting of histories. These chalkboards and other drawings are curated in dialogue with the expressionist works of Gladys Mgudlandlu in the Birds of a Feather, 2017 series. This mixing of artists and times creates a conversation between the past and the present, and between the objective historical, the tangible artefact, and the action of memory —intangible and vague— like recounting a dream.
Song and music is a constant theme throughout the exhibition, present in the titles and in some of the works. It’s interesting, the combination between music, the heard, and sign language, the communication for those who do not hear. The underlying thematic is that of struggle, resistance, a fight for freedom and equality, of black identity and the oppressive spaces of forced suppression of identity. Music and hair are key to forming and asserting identities during these struggles for black communities globally. In his work Lefu La Ntate, 2017, music notes incompletely constructed by gluing hair clippings onto paper pays homage to these symbols of overcoming and fighting mechanisms of suppression and collective conditioning. These themes relate to his sculptural installations too: birdhouses and crutches formed from old school desks, a space where much of this ideological conditioning for control happens.
The birdhouses in My Apologies to Time, 2017, are a case in point. Such spaces created for birds to live, not cages, yet restrictive, domesticated, and controlled. Birds represent many things symbolically, but their freedom of movement is key in this exhibition. A taxidermied parrot —a wild bird that when caged mimics human language and behaviour, and becomes utterly domesticated and dependant on its human. Robbed of its freedom, it is still a bird, but it sings a song it is taught to sing, and its freedom is diminished, even though it is not in a cage; even though it still has wings, they are clipped by its context. This stationary, taxidermied animal, sitting on a tree stump, on an old school desk among the birdhouses, is a representative for the brain-washing and ideological strictures imposed en masse.
The work Broken Wing, 2016, follows a similar theoretical trajectory. Hanging from the ceiling are crutches made from broken down school desks, with Xhosa bibles clamped between moulds of Wa Lehulere’s (perfectly lovely) teeth. This is in reference to the oppression of people through the mechanism of enforcing religious institutions on previously secular peoples, just one way in which the Xhosa people of South Africa were oppressed and controlled by colonial and Apartheid governments. The crutches and prostheses in his work suggest the loss of things, injury and suppression of injury, attempts to avoid acknowledging loss or damage. The avoidance of reparation and admitting fault is implicit in this work. Constructed in such a way that it looks like a skeleton wing from an old aeroplane, but mimicking the structure of a feather, or a bird’s wing, it continues the flight narrative, alluding to loss of mobility and freedom.
The end of this room is a large wall painted black, Every Song, 2017, where Wa Lehulere has drawn images of hands creating words in British sign language, and then chiselled into the wall to mimic the method of exposure used to discover the mural by Mgudlandlu. Here the removal of layers is not emphasised but the act of mark making, and creating something that will be covered and forgotten is enacted. A work that refers to future loss of memory, the shavings from the wall are left to lie underneath the work, emphasizing the ephemeral nature of this work, about to be swept away and discarded.
This exhibition felt in some ways like a retrospective of Wa Lehulere, even though he is young and in the early part of his career, you gather the great sense of accomplishment and his depth of knowledge. There is an overwhelming sense of work that has happened here, both in the artist’s exploration of his personal history, and memory, but that of the community in which he grew up, and the marks that have been made on the collective memory of this space. Kemang Wa Lehulere tackles these themes, a deep concern for many people, with elegance and eloquence in his execution. It is little wonder he has been this year’s recipient for such a prestigious award.