History will break your heart

An interview - captured on film - with Cape Town-born artist Kemang Wa Lehulere about his work.

From "History will break your heart" by Kemang Wa Lehulere (2015).

There still is the demand for black artists to exoticize themselves. The same struggle that Ernest Mancoba was having is still around and oftentimes one does not have to be told to self-exoticize; the mechanisms in which people are shaped into that kind of direction is very sophisticated, but that’s the nature of power itself. I’m very conscious of it. It’s also about refusing the spectacle.

–Kemang wa Lehulere

Steel structures pulled from worn-out school desks zig-zag across the floor, propping up inverted gumboots with gold soles.  Identical busts are placed next to each structure, loosely refereeing to the deeply flawed education system and the Marikana Massacre. The installation is surrounded by paintings from South African art giants Gladys Mgudlandlu and Ernest Mancoba; as well as chalk drawings by his aunt, Sophie Wa Lehulere and a film that documents an ongoing project in Gugulethu.

‘History will Break your Heart’ is visual artist Kemang Wa Lehulere’s, latest exhibition. Composed of installations, drawings, video, sculpture and performance, the exhibition is a fractured, layered and deeply personal narrative that recalls the past in order to rethink the present. Wa Lehulere was awarded the prestigious Standard Bank Young Artist Award for 2015.

I feel like I have to contextualize a few things because people get confused. And of course audiences vary. So we’re not on the same page, all of us. The show is read differently in different cities, according to the audiences and the space.

Born in Gugulethu and raised by his aunt, Wa Lehuluere has been moving between art and activism and rebelling against the education system since the school bell rang. “My teacher noticed that I was struggling with the curriculum, English in particular, I could not relate to Shakespeare as works of art, they just didn’t speak to me,” he said. “So she began taking books out of the library for me, which is when I started discovering black writers. By the time I arrived at university I was already critical of education as a package, as well as black writers who were erased,” he said.

From “History will break your heart” by Kemang wa Lehulere.

Wa Lehulere has four solo exhibitions, 50 group exhibitions and six residencies under his belt, in cities such as New York, France, Switzerland and Johannesburg. He’s no stranger but mentions more than once he has come to understand the “complexities of what it means to operate in the art world.”

“I’m critically aware of institutional power, the university, the education system, the art world, even Standard Bank Young Artist as an institution so I dance within these things.”

Along with his performing, photographing and filmmaking background Wa Lehulere was also one of the co-founders of Gugulective, a Cape Town based art collective that was established in 2006 to make art accessible in township spaces and allow creatives the space to explore “contemporary art in their urban township context.”

From “History will break your month.”

“When we did Gugulective one of my lecturers said, ‘Hey man what the fuck are you guys doing bringing conceptual art to the township? You’re speaking a language people don’t understand’ and I was like what? I mean, the responses I had at Gugulective were the most sophisticated, from an audience that is largely uneducated, they have an incredible ability to read images”.

“There was a performance piece I did where I was digging a hole with an afro-comb in Gugulethu and I discovered these bones, that work I did it again at the KKNK festival in Oudtshoorn and I was almost assaulted for the very same work. When I did this thing in Gugulethu, people thought I was mad, you know digging a hole with an afro comb. In Oudtshoorn, people took on a whole different political meaning, people came at me really angry like, hey fuck you I also want my own land. You know, in Afrikaans. People read it as coming from land politics. I’m still learning about different audiences and it’s not easy.”

Excerpt from “History Will Break Your Heart,” Kemang Wa Lehulere (2015).

History will Break your Heart includes one of the last filmed interviews with Mancoba (1904-2002), one of the first black avant-garde artists in South Africa; as well as  Mgudlandlu’s (1925-1979) paintings. She was a self-taught fine artist from the Eastern Cape, whose subject matter includes indigenous birds, rural landscapes and brightly coloured scenes from townships and villages. His work sits alongside theirs, speaking to each other, past and present. “These are artists that have been written out of history. Including them in the exhibition is an act of love,” said Wa Lehulere.

With a range of visual elements from a variety of artists, History will Break your Heart is a fractured collection of work, an intentional approach, which speaks to the nature of South African history.

Things need to change, it’s 2015. And the change is not about hate towards white people, it’s about saying that we also exist, we’ve been existing, we’re also human beings and both Mancoba and Gladys that’s what they’re fighting for, just a simple desire to be human it’s not about hate, in fact it’s about love. Self-love is very important.

Follow @KemangWa on Twitter.

Watch the clip we shot with Kemang:

Further Reading