School desks, ceramic dogs and letters...
THIS YEAR’S Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Arts, Kemang Wa Lehulere, is about to start working on his exhibition for the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, though he says it will have no reference to any of his previous exhibitions.
While he is open to explaining the process he follows when creating a new piece of art or exhibition, Wa Lehulere is more cagey about explaining what the piece means or how people should interpret it, preferring to leave it to the viewer’s discretion
“People can think what they like, I’m not going to arrest anyone,” he said.
While he is ensconced in his Cape Town studio, we can still engage with To Whom It May Concern, currently being exhibited at the Stevenson Gallery in Woodstock. This particular exhibition does reference many of his previous works and travels.
At a walkabout he explained to a captive audience how the exhibition references a work by Japanese artist Chieko Shiomi, Spatial Poem No 3 (Falling Event). Ever since engaging with her work, Wa Lehulere has been writing and re-writing a letter to the artist, and while he did not want to include the actual letter in the exhibition, it is the idea of falling that remained with him.
The exhibition spans several rooms, consisting of blackboard drawings, photographs, a video, ceramic dog statues and wooden school benches recreated into various shapes.
The ceramic dog statues are all over the place, facing each other and away from each other, either watching the viewer who can walk through them, or skirt them as they loll about in the various rooms.
There is even a broken dog, lying in shards in the first room. At the walkabout, Wa Lehulere admitted that he had asked “someone” to deliberately break the statue when the exhibition was opened. While he initially enjoyed people’s varied responses (from shock to bemusement), he quickly had to step up and tell everyone that it was okay, he had asked the person to do it.
Still, he insists that he is not a performance artist, merely curious about how people would navigate the space.
He has used dogs in previous works and here the ceramic statues – common in homes in the past – become silent witnesses to history, just like the school desks. There’s also a reference to the African myth that if you took sleep from a dog’s eyes and put it in your own eyes, “you would be able to see into the spiritual realm”.
“There are so many stories that are out there, and they are not all part of history,’ he said.
So, too, his sketches on blackboards evoke the idea of education and the “sensitivity and fragility of narrative and history”.
Once you move beyond the dogs you start noticing what they are looking at – like the dirt-filled suitcases, with varying clumps of grass. Evoking the idea of land, land ownership and what you take with you, Wa Lehulere spoke about how he found out about Nat Nakasa, while working on a residency at a gallery in Amsterdam.
He became fascinated by the idea of the journalist exiled from his home, who fell to his death from a high-rise building in 1965.
He kept on watching footage of himself, reading poetry at Nakasa’s grave, and conceived of the idea of taking a piece of grass from the grave, keeping it growing and eventually bringing it home. This was obviated by the return of Nakasa’s actual remains to South Africa, but he remained fascinated by the ideas of exile and falling: “I was less interested in the idea of Nakasa as the poster child of the traumatic South African narrative of exile, than in the simple fact of the administration and bureaucracy of what it meant to be an exile.”