INTERVIEW WITH KEMANG WA LEHULERE
“In his wall drawings, collages, and complex performances, he revisits his own history and the pain of his society by creating poignant images that are never literal or explanatory, but are instead a territory to be traversed, understood, and revealed,” writes Victoria Noorthoorn, the directors of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires, describing Kemang Wa Lehulere’s art.
In spring of 2017, Kemang Wa Lehulere presented his first institutional solo exhibition in Germany at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle in Berlin. Together with the curator Britta Färber Kemang Wa Lehulere talks about his source of inspiration.
Britta Färber: Your exhibition Bird Song at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle is connected to the work and life of Gladys Mgudlandlu, a South African artist, who had been largely forgotten for decades but is now being rediscovered, partly also because of your efforts. Gladys was born 1917, and died in 1979, in Gugulethu, the township in Cape Town where you grew up. Her grandmother, who also raised her, taught her mural painting when she was a young girl. But it took Gladys, a school teacher, years until she started painting seriously. She was over forty when she had her first gallery exhibition in 1961. Self-taught, she was one of the first black female painters in South Africa to ever have a solo exhibition. There is a very direct link between you and Mgudlandlu’s house in Gugulethu.
Kemang Wa Lehulere: Yes that’s true. Two years ago I discovered part of a mural that she did in her former house, probably in the sixties. When I was visiting my aunt in Gugulethu, in 2014, one of the neighbors came over with a copy of Nomfanekiso, Who Paints at Night, Elza Miles’ book on Gladys Mgudlandlu. My aunt took a look at the book and said
that she knew her as a kid. For me this was quite a surprise. We started to talk about how she came to know her. One of her friends used to run errands for Gladys. She had told my aunt about the house and the mural, so she was very curious. My aunt told me that when she went into Gladys’ house for the first time she thought she was crazy.
BF: It must have been quite an experience for your aunt Sophia to enter an artist’s house as a little girl.
KWL: Many people used to make fun of Gladys Mgudlandlu because an artist was such a rare thing in a black township back then. Black people did not have any arts education because of the curriculum. One of the South African presidents had stated that there was no need to teach black people things that they would never use in their life. There was no holistic education, they didn’t try to convey a broad world view, to nurture people philosophically or engage them, for example, with mathematics. The education system was purely geared towards preparing black people to be servants for whites. So to see that mural was quite a big thing for my aunt.
BF: People called Gladys Mgudlandlu “Bird Lady.”
KWL: I think that was primarily because she painted a lot of birds. But of course she is also known for her landscapes. Her practice was quite contentious in terms of the subject. Many critics argued that it was influenced by the white people she was in contact with, for instance her gallerist. For me, there is something very exciting about her imagery
of birds and landscapes.
BF: What is it that you find so exciting you about her imagery of birds? You just acquired several of her drawings.
KWL: Their mark-making is very incredible, but also the fact that you are never really too sure what they actually show. They almost feel like cropped images in the way they have been done. I don’t know why I am drawn to these birds. But they are surely something that I have meditated on in my studio.
BF: So, your aunt told you about this mural she had seen in Glady’s house as a kid. Why was that so fascinating for you?
KWL: I was really excited by the possibility of a mural because I myself had been making large-scale chalk murals. I did one here in Berlin, for the Berlin Biennale, that was 21 meters in length. All my chalk murals have been erased after the exhibitions. So I was very curious to see if this mural still existed. Therefore, I started this research project. The house really is very close to where I grew up, it’s just a five minute walk. That made it easy to have a dialogue with the man who lives there now. Initially, he was very suspicious and kept on asking who I worked for. He was a veteran of the MK, the military wing of the ANC, that was trained in guerilla fighting. He knew my family, so this helped soften him up over time, and he finally allowed me to work on the walls in his space.
BF: But this took so long that you nearly gave up.
KWL: I became really frustrated, to the point where I thought, “Maybe this is not going to happen.” I was not sure if my aunt’s memory of having seen these murals was correct to begin with. She saw the murals almost 50 years ago, when she was still a child. To test her memory I invited her to my studio and interviewed her. I also went back to the house and measured the room to recreate it in my studio. I painted the walls with blackboard paint and then asked my aunt to draw what she remembered. She had never had any art training. First she only remembered the colors, but then also the landscapes. So I decided to give her small-scale blackboards, which I had produced for an earlier project, and
I asked her to work on those. Around that time works by Gladys Mgudlandlu came up at an auction in London and someone helped me to acquire them for the project. In my head I had kind of given up on the mural, so I thought I would have to settle with Mgudlandlu’s paintings and my aunt’s works. But then we had the chance to work on the wall and discovered the image, which was incredible of course. The segment that was uncovered showed the image of a bird. So we became interested in the bird, flight, bird sounds—what birds symbolize in general, but of course also in the context of Apartheid in South Africa, in relation to a political situation, or in relation to her as an artist.
BF: But at the same time this was a trip into a very personal history, your family history.
KWL: I navigate between the personal and the collective. My personal position in terms of my family’s history is of course part of the collective history. It became the starting point for this project. I never could have started it without the help of my aunt. In 1976, my aunt took part in the student uprisings and had a traumatic experience. She was shot in the head. When I was growing up we were not allowed to talk about Apartheid around her or ask questions about the student uprising. Surviving that violence formed the relationship we developed with each other, our relationship to history, talking about history and the past. It is only through this project that she managed to open up. The discovery of that bird in Mgudlandlu’s house was very beautiful in the sense that the cage had opened up somehow.
BF: You call your show at Deutsche Bank KunstHalle Bird Song, after a South African jazz standard written for Miriam Makeba. The song sounds sweet and melancholic.
KWL: Initially, I thought I could use Ntyilo Ntyilo, the original title of that song, as a soundtrack. The visitors would hear it when they entered the exhibition. But I had to rethink that because of copyright issues. In the end I choose to focus on Gladys Mgudlandlu. But I was also interested in what kind of meaning the image of a bird embedded in a wall for more than fifty years might have for the man from the ANC, living in this particular house with his kind of life experience. Or whether the bird could actually fly out into the air, out of those layers of time. I am excited by the multiple layers that the image occupies—both literally and metaphorically. We had to go through nine layers before we got to the image of the bird, two layers of plaster and seven layers of paint. [. . .]
The whole conversation between Britta Färber and Kemang Wa Lehulere can be found in the publication Bird Song.
Futhermore we would like to thank the photographer Adam McConnachie providing us Kemang Wa Lehulere's portrait.