Kemang Wa Lehulere teams works by Gladys Nomfanekiso Mgudlandlu with chalkboard drawings in Does the Mirror Have a Memory?

As with all the new works created by the recipients of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award who make their debut at the National Arts Festival, the visual arts exhibition is always subjected to intense scrutiny. This is the moment in which the artist proves they are worthy of the accolade.

Kemang Wa Lehulere has found the ideal solution to this custom; in History Will Break Your Heart he mostly presents the work and life of other artists, thereby cunningly shifting attention away from himself. In presenting the works of Gladys “Nomfanekiso” Mgudlandlu and the life story of Ernest Mancoba, Wa Lehulere has found an expedient way to avoid risk and fill a room with art that is above criticism. Fortunately, this novel solution is clever in other ways too – he appears to have found a way to reinsert (art) history into the present/the now – this exhibition is always viewed as being an expression of what’s hot in contemporary art. In so doing he also poses the question that art perennially asks: what is art? Is curating works, making documentaries, art? Might a curator or art historian get a bash at winning this award in future, stretching the definition of artist a little further?

Not that Wa Lehulere limits his talents to curating. Each Mgudlandlu work he presents is pared with a blackboard bearing crude drawings in white chalk, in which Wa Lehulere draws attention to the gaps, the absent works. This refers to not only works that are missing but were never made – the times in which Mgudlandlu made her art limited what it could be. There is an installation too – an arrangement of salvaged school desks at the centre of the gallery too, further driving home this school, instructional theme. We are in the process of relearning the narratives about people who were erased from the history books.

Wa Lehulere appears to be interested in recouping cultural history – retrieving those figures, works and positions from an era and society that was constructed to ensure their invisibility. A sense of futility pervades and the reconstruction or retrieval is marred by a sense of temporariness, which is alluded to in the chalkboard drawings, which can be rubbed out and replaced. In a way, this has been the fate of Mgudlandlu and Mancoba.

In the film, The Bird Lady, in nine layers of time, Wa Lehulere documents a process of trying to uncover an artwork Mgudlandlu created in a home in which she had lived. It cannot be reclaimed – there are too many layers concealing it. This is an obvious metaphor for the difficulties entailed in cultural recuperation in the post-apartheid era, where much effort has been put into retrieving the work and lives of people who were overlooked because of their race.

Art historians, curators, theorists and writers have long focused on the incompleteness of archival records, which prevent reconstructing history. Wa Lehulere follows this line, but also seems to direct our attention to the ways in which the narrative is immovable. In the stop-motion footage of recreating a Mancoba work, it seems obvious that every one of Mancoba’s strokes was informed by the moment – his background in South Africa, the racism in France and the inability for anyone to see him and his work beyond his racial identity. This is the tragedy of his existence; he tried to outrun his identity when he moved to France, but was immured to white supremacist societies and no re-reading of history, no act of recuperation can set him free.