History Lessons: Kemang Wa Lehulere’s journey from the past into the future

Today Kemang Wa Lehulere is one of South Africa’s most important contemporary artists. But it was not an easy road. Sean O’Toole talked with him about successes and losses, transience and the Fall. A studio visit.
During Kemang Wa Lehulere’s formative years as an artist finding his way in the world, after his decision to leave acting for figurative painting and before adopting more experimental and collaborative forms of art making, he did not keep a studio. This was neither a purposeful nor a conceptual strategy. The simple truth was that this highly decorated Cape Town-born artist, whose mixed-race parents were both jazz musicians, was for many years unable to afford it. “I always wanted a studio, and up until recently not having a studio directed the kind of work I made,” explains Wa Lehulere, who is Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year” for 2017. “Hence all the wall murals in chalk and the performances and collaborative things geared towards intervention in my earlier work.”

Wa Lehulere’s studio occupies the entire fifth floor of an unremarkable brick building in downtown Cape Town. It includes a partitioned corner office with windows looking onto a magistrate’s office, a popular city theater named after playwright Athol Fugard, and a museum dedicated to District Six, a mixed-race neighbourhood demolished by apartheid authorities between 1968 and 1982. Wa Lehulere draws my attention to a series of structures inside his office: pitchroofed birdhouses made from wood salvaged from old school desks. The birdhouses, which appear in his exhibition Bird Song at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle in Berlin, are informed by his ongoing research into the circumstances of the largely forgotten expressionist painter Gladys Mgudlandlu (1917–79). Trained as a teacher, she only began to paint seriously in her forties. She often depicted birds in her work, and referred to herself as the “Bird Lady,” or “Unontaka” in her native Xhosa, a language Wa Lehulere is fluent in. The writer Bessie Head celebrated her as performing a “kindly service” as a black “escapist” artist —“Who wants to be reminded of the terrors of township living?”

The assembled form of the birdhouses however also points to a submerged detail in Wa Lehulere’s biography. “I studied woodwork at high school,” explains Wa Lehulere, who has thick coiling hair, brown eyes, and a scrub beard that, seen in the right light, shows traces of red, an inheritance from his deceased Irish father, David McKibbin. “I was trained to make tables, chairs, and cabinets. I learned woodturning. It is a skillset I never used until I had a studio.” Wa Lehulere’s studio includes a large workshop area stocked with professional woodworking machines. “My studio is a resource where I have equipment to make sculpture without neglecting certain aspects of my practice,” he proudly informs me. To access the workshop, one has to pass through his cluttered office with red-painted walls. Wa Lehulere’s office is functionally decorated.

On a striped couch used by visitors are two unopened books by Nigerian writer Kole Omotoso and South African-raised Portuguese poet and writer Fernando Pessoa. Nine of Wa Lehulere’s ink drawings, some with figurative elements, are tacked to a wall. Drawing is a recurring medium in his exhibitions, whether it is on paper or in his complex wall-based chalk murals, and his drawings typically incorporate recurring motifs such as cocooned figures, combs, and pencil erasers. A shelf next to his work desk displays a stuffed African Grey parrot and two plaster of Paris models of the artist’s teeth. Wa Lehulere’s practice is marked by his incremental approach: his exhibitions frequently refine ideas from previous shows, often in new and unexpected ways. Last year, he produced a sculptural piece titled Once Bitten, Twice Shy, which was made from salvaged school desks and featured life-like dentures modelled after his teeth clamping down on gold-leaf-covered books. Similarly, for his Deutsche Bank KunstHalle installation “Broken Wing” he has produced crutch-like structures made from salvaged school desks that include Xhosa-language bibles clamped shut with dentures.

“For me the piece is about the fall in the biblical sense, the fall of man, which in my opinion is also the earliest documented forced migration– from the Garden of Eden,” Wa Lehulere told Deutsche Bank’s curator Britta Färber. Broken Wing deploys this primary Christian myth to comment on South African history, notably the forced removal of black people from their land and their settlement in segregated labor compounds, known as “townships.” The township is an important site of reflection for Wa Lehulere, who grew up in Gugulethu, a segregated neighborhood established in 1958 to cater for Cape Town’s growing black population. When he began painting in the early 2000s, he sometimes made work depicting township life. Wa Lehulere’s office is decorated with two of these early paintings, one a burnt-orange study of township dwellings made in 2004, the other an expressive portrait of an elderly man rendered in blues and browns from 2006.

“When I was starting out as an artist, I was painting a lot,” Wa Lehulere told curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, an early and influential champion, in 2015. Wa Lehulere’s early career as a painter is important to understanding his current practice, which encompasses drawing, sculptural installation, video, performance, and hard to classify activities that emanate from his serial collaborations. I ask Wa Lehulere about his decision in the mid-2000s to reject painting. Between shooting off messages on his phone to a jazz musician he is due to meet about a piece of music for Bird Song, he recalls the biases of his conservative high school curriculum, which early on directed him to “artists like Van Gogh and a lot of Expressionism.” He says his decision to work collaboratively with artist Unathi Sigenu radically shifted his understanding of art, both as a form of practice and a research tool.

In 2006, Wa Lehulere and Sigenu, childhood friends from Gugulethu, founded Gugulective, a network of musicians, artists, writers, and poets. The collective held its first exhibitions at Kwa Mlamli, a township tavern. Rather than showcase his paintings, Wa Lehulere did performances and created collaborative installations with Sigenu featuring books as subjects, an early instance of the book as recurring motif. Wa Lehulere’s current repurposing of school desks into sculptural forms in Bird Song also dates back to his time with Gugulective and is derived from an installation he made out of school desks and chairs. “Gugulective was the workshop for everything I’m doing now,” says Wa Lehulere. His invocation of the workshop is meant metaphorically, although it resonates literally too.

“With Gugulective, we didn’t really have a studio,” says Wa Lehulere, who was raised by his maternal aunts following the death of his mother, Letsego Lehulere, who had been unable to wed his father due to a pre-1985 prohibition on mixed-race marriages. “Now I feel I can do the projects we had hoped to materialize when I was younger, chatting to Unathi about the dreams we had, but which resources at the time prevented us from achieving.” The slippage between pronouns—between “I” and “we”—is revealing of an enduring mindfulness to his past that characterizes both Wa Lehulere’s art and how he talks about it. Displayed on a wall in Wa Lehulere’s office is a poster venerating boxer Muhammad Ali. It was Ali, speaking at Harvard University in 1975, who improvised a two-word poem about racial solidarity and paired pronouns for his audience. It went like this: Me We. Ali’s words perfectly summarize Wa Lehulere’s way of speaking about his past.

Wa Lehulere’s past involves many personal losses. After failing to convince his mother to move abroad, the artist’s father relocated alone to England. His passing, in 1995, is obliquely referenced in an important early work, Lefu La Ntate (2005), a  three-minute video of a cigarette burning to extinction first shown at a Cape Town group show in 2006. And then, in 2013, the year he held his debut New York solo exhibition at Lombard Freid Gallery, Sigenu died under mysterious circumstances. “His loss remains a huge absence,” admits Wa Lehulere. It is a measure of his maturity as an artist that Wa Lehulere is able to understand his current achievements through his losses, and that he is able to speak about the consolations of his studio in a collective voice. Although not a visible aspect of his exhibition Bird Song, Sigenu’s influence is woven into the fabric of the show—it was Sigenu who introduced Wa Lehulere to Mgudlandlu.

Wa Lehulere admits that he was little interested by Sigenu’s early enthusiasm for her work. “I never much cared for her work at first, to be honest,” he says. A case of serendipity in 2014 caused him to revise his position. Wa Lehulere was visiting his youngest aunt, Sophia, when a neighbor presented him with a copy of art historian Elza Miles’s 2002 monograph on Mgudlandlu. His aunt looked at the book and recalled visiting the painter’s nearby council- owned home in 1971. Wa Lehulere was stunned. It was the first time his aunt had mentioned this. She further recalled the elaborate murals she had seen. Wa Lehulere, whose practice since his debut solo exhibition Ubontsi: Sharp Sharp! in 2009 has researched suppressed aspects of his family history, found himself suddenly intrigued by Mgudlandlu. Within months he had received permission from city authorities to uncover her plastered-over murals.

“I am interested in the ephemeral, which is what drew me to Gladys,” Wa Lehulere told me at the 2015 opening of History Will Break Your Heart. The exhibition included a documentary on Mgudlandlu’s murals, as well as chalk drawings by his aunt describing the murals she had seen as a child. When the exhibition was over, Wa Lehulere believed he had drawn a line underneath his work with Mgudlandlu. He found himself revising his certainties when, in early 2016, architect Ilze Wolff showed him a historical photograph of Luyolo, a cluster of precarious homes built on a slope near the Cape Town naval base of Simonstown. Apartheid authorities razed this black settlement and—as with District Six residents—forcibly relocated its inhabitants to Gugulethu. Some of Mgudlandlu’s paintings appear to describe Luyolo. In an extension of their ongoing collaboration, Wa Lehulere and Wolff have created a publication exploring Luyolo’s history and Mgudlandlu’s depictions that is inserted into Wa Lehulere’s “Artist of the Year” catalogue.

“The Gladys project ignited something I felt I lost when Unathi died,” says Wa Lehulere of his continuing engagement with her work. It has also enabled him to re-connect with Sigenu. “I regarded Unathi as an older and younger brother at the same time. When I was working on projects, I always told him what I was doing, and he always told me what he was doing.” That intimacy and collegiality may have been shattered, but for now at least, while working on his post-painterly project about an escapist painter introduced to him by his friend, Wa Lehulere is able to reconcile past and present. This reconciliation is fundamental too in mapping his future trajectory as an artist who finally found his studio.
Sean O’Toole is an arts journalist and author based in Cape Town, South Africa. He is co-editor of “Cityscapes.”

Kemang Wa Lehulere. Bird Song
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Berlin
24.3. – 18.6.2017