Yvette Greslé introduces Kemang Wa Lehulere’s exhibition
Recorded conversations or interviews with artists are an important aspect of my research on South African contemporary art. I focus on how artists grapple with history and memory through the particularities of their practice. This conversation with Kemang Wa Lehulere, which forms part of my research archive, took place on 23 September 2015 at the Gasworks in London where Wa Lehulere’s solo exhibition Sincerely yours, was then taking place (24 September-8 November 2015).
The exhibition imagined an encounter between the artist and the South African intellectual Sol Plaatje (1976-1932). Plaatje was the first secretary-general of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), which was formed in 1912 and became the African National Congress (ANC). The Land Act (1913), which anticipated apartheid, restricted the rights of African people to freely occupy and own land and was opposed by the SANNC. Plaatje, together with a deputation, travelled to England to appeal it without success, and he remained there until 1917 writing, lecturing and working as a language assistant at London University. Plaatje wrote three books while in England including Native Life in South Africa (1917) which focuses on the Land Act, its impact and the resistance to it.
In Wa Lehulere’s exhibition, at the Gasworks in London, I look into worn, old-fashioned suitcases and see green grass and earth. I feel the uneasy sensations of displacement, exile, migration and the desire to belong. I experience the disorientation of dreams, and their associated re-arrangement of the relations between objects, places and human and non-human animals. Mass produced porcelain dogs, guard the suitcases of lawn or perhaps they are waiting for something or someone. It is not clear whether this waiting, which I imagine allegorically, is marked by benevolence or threat. I imagine historical, social and political waiting. Who is waiting and what for? Wa Lehulere transforms the statues, which function, in my imagination, as theatrical props, through paint, visual juxtapositions or performance. One was smashed to pieces in a live performance. The head of another is separated from its body, it lies on its side, watched by three others, their bodies intact.
South African historical and archival practices, formulated in resistance to the apartheid state, seek out and document histories and narratives omitted from grand narratives and official accounts. Historical processes and methods are continuously subject to contestation. A major philosophical and ethical question, threaded across South African historical work and visual production, relates to the politics and ethics of representation: who speaks for whom; how does this speaking take place; where does it take place and for whom? I speak as a historical, social and political subject classified white in apartheid South Africa. This informs my relationship to the present, and my conversations and social and intellectual encounters with subjects whose histories are differently constituted. I am prompted to engage actively in history as living matter that affects and touches me in ways that are not necessarily predictable and that always produce questions and emotions of an existential nature.
At the Gasworks, London, in 2015, Wa Lehulere and I spoke about the forms that education took in apartheid South Africa. This dialogue was initiated by the old-fashioned, wooden school desks disassembled and re-arranged into new configurations within the exhibition space. The surfaces of the desks carry the traces of the anonymous learners who once sat at them (names, dates, messages and images are scratched into the wood). Structures that invoke blackboards are suspended on the walls of the gallery. These are inscribed with images, musical notation, and lettering in white chalk, some of it smudged out. In one of Wa Lehulere’s wall installations, a chalked falling man is an ephemeral memorial to the South African journalist and writer Nathaniel “Nat” Ndazana Nakasa (1937-1965); exiled from South Africa in 1964, he fell to his death from a high-rise building in 1965. In 2013 Wa Lehulere visited Nakasa’s grave in Ferncliff cemetery in New York, staging a private performance there. Nakasa’s remains were repatriated to South Africa in August 2014. Fragments, given material form in Wa Lehulere’s work, speak to unfinished stories and experiences that may be private, unseen, unvoiced and unwritten.
At this historical and political juncture in South Africa, as students demonstrate for free and decolonised education in universities across the country, this conversation with Wa Lehulere, has particular significance. It speaks to the particular capacities of art to elicit knowledge about the meaning and memory of apartheid, its sustained project of racial violence, and its brutality made ordinary and banal. It brings the political capacities of memory into the contemporary moment as South African students, particularly those with an immediate historical and cross-generational relationship to racism and violence, articulate the limitations of democracy in the decades after the official transition from apartheid in 1994.
Through conversation with Wa Lehulere, I was invited into a personal space of memory and resistance. It taught me about the presence of individual agency in historical conditions of extreme violence. It also taught me about the creative possibilities and personal transformations possible in the feelings and sensations that live on in historical and political anger.
In conversation with Wa Lehulere
Yvette Greslé: What is the impetus for your interest in the idea of history?
Kemang Wa Lehulere: I like this phrase from James Joyce’s Ulysses: “History … is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”. History can be a nightmare but there can also be pleasant histories. I don’t think all history should be devastating and traumatic and about violence. There can also be histories of love. These are things that I’m beginning to think about in terms of going forward with my work. Initially, my interest in history came from personal experiences. One of my aunts had this obsession with recording events with VHS cassettes and she still has all these recordings – a huge amount of tapes. She recorded things on the news that she deemed historical. For lack of a better word she was creating an archive with VHS tapes. Of course, as a kid, I saw her doing this and sometimes I would be involved in the act of recording. She would sometimes leave me responsible for the recordings, and I would change the tapes when they finished, and press record. At the time, I was a teenager. I didn’t understand what it was she was doing conceptually. Over time, I went to high school and we only had two years of history, which made me terribly sad. In fact, I considered changing schools because my high school only did history in what is now grade 8 and grade 9. I wanted to continue but I couldn’t. I had to go out and find history myself but this wasn’t part of a curriculum. I had these questions: “Why stop history? What kind of school is this?”
YG: What do you think made you so compelled by history, and the desire to engage it?
KWL: Partly my aunt and her recordings. For example, I remember that when Oliver Tambo died my aunt made it a point to record the funeral event, which was broadcast on TV. She recorded this and Mandela coming out of Robben Island. She recorded these events and also fragments from the news. This was before the Internet and the storing of information online in an accessible way. There was this constant process of recording. I had a neighbour who was a dancer and watched all these political films. He’s older than me probably by ten years or more. He lives here in England. He is a choreographer now. When I was about nine or ten I would go and sit with him at his house and watch these films. The films had a big impact on me and, as a kid, I had all these questions.
I would go to my mother and ask her questions about race politics and race history – “Why this? Why that?” – Kemang Wa Lehulere
YG: The references to the classroom speak to me of the relationship between apartheid, education and how histories were written and taught. Your childhood was during the 1980s and early 1990s (you were born in Cape Town 1984). I was born in Johannesburg in 1970. The 1980s was a time of amplified state violence: There were two periods of States of Emergency. The first was declared on 20 July 1985 in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and then Cape Town. It was renewed on 12 June 1986 and implemented nationally.
KWL: I began my life during the States of Emergency. Then Mandela came out of prison and there was also the fall of the Berlin Wall. These are things that my aunt recorded, which included important global news events. There was always this awareness. At times, she would record over movies that she had bought (recording over these with news events). I remember that sometimes the name of the movie would still be on the tape and we’d put it in thinking we’d be watching a movie. But then there was this important political speech happening. Of course, we’d get upset because we were young and just wanted to watch a movie. But it was something that was always there.
When I was in high school I began challenging the educational curriculum
I had a friend who was listening to radical hip hop music. He gave me a cassette tape and I thought: “Oh my god you’ve kind of hit the spot”. I began asking why we should learn these subjects. What is the importance of these things for the future and for everyday life? I questioned why we should have to study Shakespeare in South Africa in the late ‘90s in high school. I asked why we were not being taught black writers. I had these conversations with my English teacher, for example, because we were reading The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. She started taking books out of the library for me. She selected books like Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I read Achebe’s The African Trilogy with my friend who was into hip hop. This teacher created a syllabus for us outside the official school curriculum. Every week we would discuss what we had read in the books. Either he would read it first or I would read it first, and then we would discuss things with the English teacher. These were things we weren’t writing about. We weren’t being tested about them as part of the school curriculum.
I developed an interest in reading and also an awareness of curriculum and inclusion and exclusion. There was quite a gap between me finishing high school and going to university. But by the time I went to university I’d got to read some philosophy and political literature, both fiction and non-fiction. I came into university highly aware and conscious. At the time I was really very angry. People considered me very radical, extremely radical. Going into the university I was very aware of the curriculum and the syllabus. I was constantly challenging why it had to be very Eurocentric. There was not much African Art History being taught. There was not much being taught about African thinkers and not only African thinkers but also Latin American or even Asian or Eastern European thinkers. I was asking why it had to be specifically Western orientated, European or American. These are things I was constantly aware of.
From a personal standpoint, I grew up with the knowledge that my youngest aunt was a survivor of the assault on students by the apartheid state. She was shot in the head in 1976 and she survived. I was constantly aware of the Sam Nzima photograph of Hector Pieterson that was used to speak about 1976 and the student uprisings. It was not inclusive of students who had participated more broadly and who were also victims (by victims I mean students who were murdered but also those who survived). I had a real interest in observation and conversations with my mother. In fact, when an old friend of mine who was a leftist political activist, and is now in the politics department at Wits, found out that my older brother’s name was Tsietsi he was like “Fuck. Your mother named your older brother Tsietsi after Tsietsi Mashinini”. Tsietsi Mashinini was considered the mastermind behind the student uprisings in 1976. Of course, the fact that this guy’s name was Tsietsi and my older brother’s name was Tsietsi fascinated me. When I discovered this narrative I wanted to know everything about him. I had this kind of revolutionary outlook and even a romantic sensibility around this revolutionary ethic or activist attitude. These are things I was always aware of. Of course, at first, I didn’t have the ability to conceptualise and speak about them in the way that I can now. Now, I have read and engaged in discussions about these things.
My fascination with history has to do with the kinds of dynamics involved in the process of writing history but also the kinds of choices people make to keep silent about certain things. This silence may be intentional whether through perceived threats from the outside, or self-censorship, or shame or pride. It can also be about people’s desire to just keep things to themselves. My youngest aunt Sophia told me a story once about this guy who in matric was so intelligent that the apartheid government thought he had cheated on his exam. So they forced him to re-write the exam alone and they observed him. They said he must have had crib notes up his sleeve or something. They made him repeat the exam, to the point where they stripped him naked, because they just couldn’t believe that this black boy could be so intelligent. He has the same name as my uncle. When I asked her whether it is my uncle she was talking about she said it wasn’t and dismissed it. These kinds of narratives are really important.
There are all these stories but there is not one that was ever spoken about properly. It was all in bits and pieces and I would have to piece them together myself. In fact, I have never spoken about these stories and how they have influenced my thinking to anyone. But these are the things that really influence my interest and excitement. There are so many things that people keep private for a number of reasons. At the same time these are beautiful stories and they are part of the fabric of the history of the country and where we’ve come from, and where we are, and where we are going.
From a personal standpoint, I grew up with the knowledge that my youngest aunt was a survivor of the assault on students by the apartheid state
YG: What book has impacted most on you?
KML: There are a few of them but the one that I can never forget is Why are we so Blest? by Ayi Kwei Armah. This book had the most impact on me when I was a teenager. I read it when I was 14 and the violence in the story stuck to me. After reading that book I started writing scripts. I wrote a lot of theatre scripts. When I think of it now I realise that the first script I wrote was directly influenced by this book. Of course I was reading the other African writers. In the older prints, they would list all the other titles that they published inside the front cover or on the back. I wrote these titles out by hand. There were about 50 of them or maybe even more. I wrote them on a piece of paper and stuck the paper next to my bed. That was my syllabus and I would tick each one that I read.
YG: What compelled you then into wanting to be an artist? What made you want to work with performance, film, drawing, and objects? How did you come to work as an artist?
KWL: A cousin of mine took me to the theatre and to productions that he worked on. Later on he had a theatre festival and I’d go and see a show every night for weeks on end. Theatre became a real interest and I started doing theatre classes and drama classes. I started acting. I developed an interest in theatre, acting and television. I had a small role in 1997 in a German television series. We were shooting on location for a number of days and I had to be there. The idea of taking time away from school to be filming somewhere was really exciting. At that time, school seemed like a disciplinary institution to me. I was really interested in doing stuff for theatre and then I started doing voiceovers and earning money for these things. It became clear that this is what I would do because it really excited me. I had watched my cousin interact with actors. At times, I had seen them rehearsing. I would say to my cousins, after going to a movie, let’s restage a scene from the film and I would direct them. I was mimicking what I was seeing. Throughout high school I took art as a subject and so there was this interest in fine art and also in the performing arts (drama and acting).
YG: You mentioned that you originally wanted to be a painter?
KWL: I wanted to be a painter because that’s all I knew that art was. In high school we did study installation a bit and conceptual art but those were things that were too distant for me to grasp conceptually. We did some land art. I remember that Robert Smithson’s spiral jetty was one of the biggest things that we discussed in the syllabus. This material was still too abstract for me to grasp at that time. When I finished high school all I knew was painting. Then I met some artists and curators who were talking about video art and installation. I had also been visiting galleries myself out of interest. I wanted to know more and study what other people were doing. I started to look at different kinds of art. I took out books from the library and borrowed books from friends. I discovered that I could express certain complex ideas using a variety of materials instead of just painting something. There are painters that make me want to paint. I still appreciate painting.
I incorporate the various experiences I have had in my life to my work whether it be writing, voiceover or theatre scripts. These things have influenced how I see the world but they are also things that really excite me. It’s taken me a while to be able to incorporate things into my work because I didn’t want to force things. I want my work to be part of a genuine process of thinking about what it is I am doing. The process of making work is important to me. It’s about reflecting and looking.
About Yvette Greslé and Kemang Wa Lehulere
Yvette Greslé is an art historian and writer. She is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre, Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, University of Johannesburg. She was awarded a PhD (History of Art) from University College London in 2015. Yvette is also an alumni of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (M.A, History of Art, 2000). She works on contemporary South African video art and questions of history and memory.
Kemang Wa Lehulere works widely across media and has exhibited on solo and group shows in South Africa and internationally. Solo exhibitions have taken place at the Art Institute of Chicago (2016) and the Gasworks, London (2015). Wa Lehulere holds a BA Fine Arts from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (2011). He is a co-founder of the Gugulective (2006), an artist-led collective based in Cape Town. He is also a founding member of the Center for Historical Re-enactments in Johannesburg. Wa Lehulere has been widely recognised for his work: Awards include the Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Arts (2015) and Deutsche Bank ‘Artist of the Year’ (2017). He is represented by Stevenson gallery (Johannesburg and Cape Town).