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