Black tyres and white shoelaces. School suitcases and porcelain dogs. Desks and chairs, salvaged from a demolished school on the Cape Flats, sold for firewood and scrap. These are a few of Kemang Wa Lehulere’s favourite raw materials to revamp. Education – the signs thereof – has been a focal point since 2007 when the artist was a member of Gugulective. Like Paulo Freire, he knows that ‘there’s no such thing as neutral education’, it either brings about ‘conformity or freedom’. However, if the latter is hard to come by, it is because few want it. Conformity rules, irrespective of the political position taken. Fatalism runs deep. It is easier to conform than free oneself. Wa Lehulere knows this. Unlike Freire, however, his is no ‘critical pedagogy’. Instead he performs the dilemma of education – What is it for?
Stefan Collini asked the same question, his answer: ‘The forming of future scholars and scientists is not just an instrumental necessity for universities, but intrinsic to their character. Educating someone to pursue the open-ended search for deeper understanding has to be a kind of preparation for autonomy’. However, nothing of the sort is likely in universities and schools in which instrumentality – knowledge and agency as a blunt instrument – rules. The ‘open-ended search for a deeper understanding’ and ‘autonomy’ has become a mockery. Contra Freire and Collini, there is little likelihood that education ‘makes it possible for the students to become themselves’. Why not? Because education matters naught? Because debasement, miscarriage and corruption, is commonplace, and schools and universities have been stripped of infrastructure and reason?
What Wa Lehulere does is perform a problem. Disassembled and repurposed, his objects function more as tropes than things. While their original iteration – as desk or suitcase, say – remains visible, his new-fangled objects are turned into lo-tech transformers, things which become other things. A laminate cardboard school suitcase is retrofitted with a crutch made from a hacked school desk. The base of a chair is fitted with a boom box. Off-cuts of demolished desks gouged with a compass, scored in ink, become totemic runes. A combine of chair, tyre, cord, slats, suggest otherworldly creatures. Everything morphs. Nothing is what it was. Neither, however, is it something new. Instead, Wa Lehulere’s sculptures and installations confound.
In July’s People the South African Nobel Laureate, Nadine Gordimer, gets to the crux. She quotes the Italian Marxist-anarchist, Antonio Gramsci: ‘The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms’. This view distinguishes Wa Lehulere’s incursion. He never loses sight of the perversity built into education. Because we remain in an interregnum, despite decades of so-called democracy – our systems pathogenic, our ideals fraudulent – it follows that what he makes and presents would contain error. Wa Lehulere is no terraformer – his alterations do not support life – instead, they ask why life, or human betterment, remains insupportable, why education fails us.
What do we make of a combine comprising a metal chair, crutches, tyre, and cord tied to a cast of a hand with a pointed finger? Or the recombination of the same elements turned into a barrow? Why place a speaker in the base of a chair? To suppose these reconfigurations absurd is to miss the mark. Though indebted to Dada and Arte Povera, Wa Lehulere asks us to think upon morbidity and why, in South Africa, it persists. He performs sickness, reveals sickness as performance. The Rhodes Must Fall movement is but a symptom of a greater pathogen – Empire. Spurred by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who called for a decolonization of the mind, this movement has, paradoxically, destroyed education, held it hostage, compelled accountability while annihilating the means – through dialogue – to do so. Those in power are also party to this problem. This because oppression is systemic, institutional, and, in the case of South African education, well-nigh impossible to vault given the depths of human disregard built into it. The decolonial project is on-going, its failures glaring. We remain in a sickened and sickening interregnum.
In an op-ed in the Daily Maverick, Adam Habib challenged the romance of war and violence, which he saw as ‘the building blocks for a new post-apartheid fascist political project’. It is its ‘extra-legal character’ that concerned him, the destruction of systems be they educational, political, or economic, which he argues to be symptomatic of state capture. Spurred by ‘nativist ideas, crude racism and violence’, reactionary movements – in the case of that op-ed the EFF – it favours extremism and intolerance. In this regard, we are far from Freire or Collini’s vision of a society and culture in search of freedom and autonomy.
If, as Wa Lehulere notes, ‘artists should stay away from political parties altogether’, it is because their worlds must be non-aligned. Marcel Duchamp echoes this view. ‘I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.’ Open-endedness and open-mindedness are vital. But then, the art world too is politically invested and corrupt. Nonetheless, Wa Lehulere has chosen disinvestment-as-investment. In refusing to encode what he makes and does, he fosters discussion. His assemblages are generative. Snagged in the impasse of education, he also overrides its strangled state.
In his studio on Voortrekker Road I witnessed this inspired alteration, three members of his group of nine disassembling school desks, another, an architect, making a digital render of a floor plan and design for a solo show in Switzerland. Given that the artist has only been installed in his new studio for three weeks, the body of work in various stages of completion was staggering in scale. A month remained before the works for Switzerland and Sweden would be crated and dispatched.
I am reminded of the Dadaist Tristan Tzara’s remark that ‘Thought is made in the mouth. Art a state of encounter’. Art is not an idea in the head, but its physical property – an articulation and disarticulation of an Idea – which in Wa Lehulere’s case is profoundly associated with the miscarriage and failure of education in South Africa. Without education a country is unsustainable and ungovernable. But the question remains: What education?
In his little-known collection of lectures – Anti-Education – Friedrich Nietzsche challenges democratisation, flatly stating that ‘All education begins with the exact opposite of what everyone praises so highly today as “academic freedom”’. ‘The individual must learn to delight in having his own goals and views of his own, so that he can walk without crutches later’. Collini and Freire share this view. However, dogma has come in the way of an ‘open-ended search for deeper understanding’.
If crutches are epistemic in Wa Lehulere’s art it is because they expose co-dependence and weakness, a failure to assume the rights of freedom and education. That his crutches are made from school desks aggravates this failing. What is lost is what Wa Lehulere’s holds most dear – liberty which a freed mind affords. With three solo shows in December and January, Wa Lehulere is a busy man. But it is what he is busy doing that matters most. Against ignorance, hatred, disregard, and damaging neglect, he asks us to reassess a constitutive error. Knowing that we stand on a precipice – the project of knowledge squandered, self-determination blighted, our faux leaders punting truths that ‘do not come from books’, our libraries burnt, history mothballed in the name of moral prurience and propaganda – Wa Lehulere has chosen a counter-intuitive strategy. He finds himself inside morbidity and asks that we save ourselves – even though it may be too late.
Retrofitting a school suitcase with a crutch is alarming. The monstrous anthem with its double negative – WE DON’T NEED NO EDUCATION – is no answer, and neither is bad education as a crutch. What is needed is liberty and open-mindedness. Only by refusing to use our ‘children as weapons’, will this liberty be attained. MJ Mngadi’s plea in Home is Nowhere deserves attention. First published in isiZulu in 1996, Mngadi’s novel is a blistering account of the ‘splintered … backbone of black people’s lives’. ‘When something wrong happens to the backbone, the next step is incapacitation’. This is Wa Lehulere’s crux and crutch.