Immersive Installations: the Visual Language of Kemang Wa Lehulere
As the latest South African exhibiting at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York, Kemang Wa Lehulere is inviting a global audience into the conversation around South Africa’s collective history.
Kemang Wa Lehulere uses performance, sculpture, drawing, painting and other media to create hauntingly affecting installations that excavate marginalised histories and personal narratives – what he calls the ‘deleted scenes’ of South African history.
His visual language incorporates a set of recurring found objects such as ceramic dogs, school desks, bones, pencils, music stands and bird houses, which he repurposes into sculptural installations. Each of these inanimate pieces carries its own symbolic resonance, but by bringing them together and into dialogue with one another, Wa Lehulere offers the possibility of multiple narratives being contained within each one. When orchestrated together, like the notes of a score, they tell a complex story that incorporates many voices, ideas and histories.
History is a central theme in Wa Lehulere’s work, which engages with the space between personal narrative and collective history. In one of his early performance pieces ‘Ukuguqula iBatyi’ (2008) – created when he was still part of the Cape Town-based artist collective Gugulective – Wa Lehulere used a comb to dig into the ground and uncover a cow skeleton. This performative gesture of unearthing buried histories and forgotten or neglected narratives becomes a poignant metaphor throughout his work, and also reflects his childhood spent growing up in Gugulethu township in Cape Town’s Cape Flats during apartheid. In fact, his 2015 exhibition History will break your heart, for the Standard Bank Young Artist Award, included a video that documented the chipping away of paint to reveal fragments of a mural by South African artist Gladys Mgudlandlu in a house in Gugulethu.
Large chalk drawings on blackboards are a frequent component of Wa Lehulere’s installations. These intricate yet fleeting murals sketch out scenes of fragmented stories, often bearing the traces of erasures and revisions. In an interview with writer Alice Inggs in 2016, he explains his motives for working with chalk: ‘It communicates, it writes. It doesn’t last though, it disappears. Its lifespan is limited. It’s very ephemeral, and so is memory. For me, using chalk speaks to history – history as written, history as revised, history as to be revised and should be revised. The idea of a palimpsest as something that is written, erased, and rewritten and constantly rewritten. If, like James Joyce wrote, “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”, then history is something that is constantly under construction.’
Since he first emerged on the art scene in the early 2000s, Wa Lehulere’s work has gained high praise and accolades both locally and worldwide. He was the recipient of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Art in 2015, and before that, the winner of the Tollman Award for the Visual Arts in 2012. In 2017, he was awarded the fourth ever Malcolm McLaren Award for his sonic installation I cut my skin to liberate the splinter at Performa 17, the biennial exhibition of performance art in New York. That same year, he was the first South African artist to receive the Deutsche Bank’s Artist of the Year award.
In 2018, Wa Lehulere was signed up by global powerhouse gallery Marian Goodman (the same gallery that represents acclaimed SA artist William Kentridge) and opened its 2018-2019 season in London with his solo presentation Not even the departed stay grounded. Recent significant solo exhibitions include showings at Pasquart Art Centre, Biel, in 2018, MAXXI in Rome and the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle in Berlin in 2017, and the Art Institute of Chicago in 2016.
In an interview for the book 9 More Weeks (Stevenson, 2018), Wa Lehulere says, ‘I’m suspicious of meaning because I’m suspicious of anything concrete. For me, meaning is something that has to do with authority and authorship. Meaning is ultimately about power.’ Rather than creating something ‘concrete’, then, Wa Lehulere is interested in hollowing out definitions to invite in ambiguity and plurality. Through his extensive use of found objects, he asks us to reflect on how the events of the past intersect with the present (and vice versa), as well as on the ways history sways in perpetual flux between being written and erased.