Kemang Wa Lehulere’s first American museum exhibition, “In My Wildest Dreams” at the Art Institute of Chicago, is on view through Jan. 16, 2017. | Video by Art Institute of Chicago

 

LIKE COUNTLESS OTHER NATIONS, South Africa has an uneven history. Unlike its African neighbors, its recent past has garnered sustained international attention—from apartheid-era racial segregation to post-apartheid black rule. Through storytelling, South African artist Kemang Wa Lehulere mines his country’s history, expressing his narratives, both personal and collective, via performance, sculpture, paintings and drawings.

While the broad arc of South Africa’s history may be familiar, unexplored micro-narratives remain plentiful. Wa Lehulere’s work is concerned with “deleted scenes” from South African history, often considering themes of exile and displacement. Through his practice he seeks to preserve memory and push back against forgetting.

Wa Lehulere has said: “History continually disappears. It comes and goes. It is not something fixed; it is malleable. …It is the elasticity of history that excites me.”

“History continually disappears. It comes and goes. It is not something fixed; it is malleable. …It is the elasticity of history that excites me.”
— Kemang Wa Lehulere

Based in Cape Town, Wa Lehulere is a founding member of the Center for Historical Reenactments in Johannesburg and the 2017 Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year, an honor that includes an exhibition at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle in Berlin, next March.

THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO is currently presenting “In My Wildest Dreams,” the first American museum exhibition devoted to Wa Lehulere’s work. The title, he humbly says in the video above, speaks for itself.

Wa Lehulere describes his chalk drawings as “visually ephemeral works that get erased at the end of an exhibition.” For this show he has drawn “When I can’t laugh I can’t write,” on a wall of chalkboard paint. The image is an enormous pencil sharpener, the kind that used to be found in schools that must be wound round and round to sharpen pencil tips. In Wa Lehulere’s chalk drawing, wood pencil shavings are reinterpreted as an overflowing mound of perfectly drawn bones. Given the title of the work, the image may symbolize and comment on South Africa’s treatment historically of black intellectuals.

Suicide claimed the life of South African journalist Nat Nakasa, a 1965 Neiman Fellow at Harvard University. Nakasa reported on the conditions of black life under apartheid. When he applied for a passport to go to Harvard, like other black intellectuals at the time, he was forced instead to accept an exit permit which would require him to renounce his South African citizenship and the ability to return to his home country.

In the United States, he faced racism anew, was homesick, and dealt with more serious ills and eventually jumped to his death from a seventh floor window in New York City. Shortly before his suicide he confided in a friend. Nakasa said: “I can’t laugh anymore and when I can’t laugh I can’t write.” The title of Wa Lehulere’s chalk drawing is adapted from Nakasa’s last lament.

 

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KEMANG WA LEHULERE, “One is too many, a thousand will never be enough,” 2016 (salvaged school desks, music stand, found object, taxidermied African grey parrot, sound installation). | © Kemang Wa Lehulere. Courtesy of Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town and Johannesburg

 

SOME OF THE WORKS IN THE CHICAGO EXHIBITION were first shown earlier this year in Johannesburg at Stevenson Gallery. “One is too many, a thousand will never be enough,” for example, is an open-design birdhouse, suspended from the ceiling, that is constructed with salvaged wood from school desks. There is an African grey parrot perched inside and it is accompanied by a sound installation.

During an exhibition tour at Stevenson, Wa Lehulere talked about the concept for the birdhouse, a mixed-media sculpture that considers efforts to erase South African accents in speech in favor of more American-sounding inflections. He also explained how he adapted the work to accommodate strictures he realized would be placed on it when presented in Chicago. The idea was inspired by a cache of cassette tapes he found in 2014, tape recordings of an American accent program. “I was astonished to find such a thing,” he said, and wanted to figure out how to utilize them.

“I had been thinking about America, South Africa, the relationship between the two post ’94, and American domination in our cultural sphere and society—the way people aspire to be American, whether it be sounding American or American culture and what not. I’ve been thinking about these things, looking at our radio stations, television, the movies, how people sound so American. The more American you sound, the better chance you have of getting a presenter job on TV or on radio. Having had experience in both these industries—radio as a teenager, having done commercials on radio and also having done work on television—I’ve been reflecting on these things,” Wa Lehulere told the group (LISTEN to the tour below).

“I had been thinking about America, South Africa, the relationship between the two post ’94, and American domination in our cultural sphere and society—the way people aspire to be American, whether it be sounding American or American culture.” — Kemang Wa Lehulere

“And then Rhodes Must Fall happened. [The name of the student protest references a statue on the campus of the University of Cape Town memorializing Cecil Rhodes, the British Imperialist who was a politician and businessman in South Africa, for whom the prestigious scholars program is named.] And after my show in Cape Town, I was thinking of the demands of de-colonization that the students were proposing, and thinking about the language that was being used theoretically, philosophically—how they spoke about their desires and the movement at-large. Then I began thinking about ’76 [when there was a historic youth uprising in Soweto], which I feel was kind of really the same thing, but articulated very differently.

“So what I did was early last year I bought a parrot with the intention of teaching it how to speak American, ’cause I feel that’s how most South Africans are, you know, American. I began teaching this parrot how to speak in South African. I kept it in my studio for a number of months,” he continued. “But then I was thinking of the logistics involved in the piece, having a living parrot. And also, it was a piece I had been thinking about for a show I have later on in Chicago this year and I was speaking with the people at the museum and they are like, ‘You can’t ship this thing.’ And also, the dynamics of how to have a living animal in a museum space and all of those things. But also, the parrot I had in my studio was refusing to speak this American!”

 


Summer 2016: Kemang Wa Lehulere gives students a tour of his exhibition “The knife eats at home” at Stevenson Gallery, discussing his birdhouse sculpture “One is too many, a thousand will never be enough.” Listen to Part 2

 

The tour group laughed uproariously. In the end, Wa Lehulere obtained a taxidermy parrot and had the found tapes digitized. The voices, practicing perfect American accents, play along with the birdhouse installation.

At Stevenson Gallery, Wa Lehulere was giving the tour to students when he explained the political and cultural underpinnings of “One is too many, a thousand will never be enough.” While history is central to his practice, the future and the socially conscious youth who will determine it (and continue a legacy of student civil disobedience with ongoing #feesmustfall protests against university tuition hikes), are reflected in his materials, imagery, and inspirations.

America looms too—its omnipresent culture, its shared history of segregation and social justice protest, and familiar politics of black hair. Hair, some of it his own, is a medium for Wa Lehulere’s paintings on view in Chicago.

“The politics of hair is quite an interesting subject historically in South Africa. I showed the works first in Johannesburg and about two months after the show these incidents blew out in the media of students revolting against oppressive school rules. Rules about how they should wear their hair, their black hair. Or like afros were not allowed at schools,” Wa Lehulere says in the video.

“What one might think is a historical moment, there is actually a lot of that still going on. History is something that continuously creeps into the present.” CT

 

“Kemang Wa Lehulere: In All My Wildest Dreams” is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through Jan. 16, 2017.

 

BOOKSHELF
A couple of years ago, Kemang Wa Lehulere’s work was featured in “Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa.” The exhibition at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco featured more than two dozen artists and collectives whose work reflects the contemporary perspectives overlooked during apartheid. A few months ago the exhibition catalog was finally published. His work also appears in the important new volume, “Four Generations: The Joyner Giuffrida Collection of Abstract Art.”

 

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KEMANG WA LEHULERE, “When I can’t laugh I can’t write,” 2015 (chalk on blackboard paint). © Kemang Wa Lehulere. Courtesy of Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town and Johannesburg

 

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KEMANG WA LEHULERE, “Broken Light (Feya Faku) 3,” 2016 (chalk and paint on wall-mounted blackboard). | © Kemang Wa Lehulere. Courtesy of Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town and Johannesburg

 

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KEMANG WA LEHULERE, “falling event 1,” 2014. | Through prior purchase from the Mary and Leigh Block Fund

 

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KEMANG WA LEHULERE, “falling event 10,” 2015. | Pamela J. Joyner and Alfred J. Giuffrida Collection, promised gift to the Art Institute of Chicago