Kemang Wa Lehulere is one of the most important representatives of a new generation of South African artists who work in many different genres and media in order to develop new perspectives and narrative modes, as well as new forms of political commentary. His work, which now includes installations in addition to painting, theatre, performance, and actions, focuses on the repressed history of his home country South Africa. Wa Lehulere unearths submerged memories, bringing fragile beauty and poetry to his art. In his works, he reconstructs things that were lost or destroyed and at the same time makes the destruction visible. Thus the recurring motif of the bird in this exhibition is a multilayered symbol of freedom that is yearned for, fought for, and suppressed, or whose voice has been silenced.
Indeed, at the beginning of his exhibition project “Bird Song” a bird is freed symbolically. Wa Lehulere’s photograph shows a seemingly archeological situation. Peeping out of a rectangular field chiseled out of reddish plaster is a segment of a mural picturing a colorful bird. It was painted by Gladys Mgudlandlu (1917-1979), who adorned her house in Gugulethu, a township in Cape Town, with the wall painting. The autodidact was one of the first black artists to exhibit work in a South African gallery, in the 1960s. Mgudlandlu painted what she loved: landscapes, and repeatedly birds, which is why she was called “Bird Lady”. In 1963, the writer Bessie Head criticized her for this, vilifying her work as escapist, reproaching her for blocking out the reality of apartheid and supposedly painting smug, folkloric paintings for white people. After her death, Mgudlandlu was largely forgotten.
Almost 50 years after she painted her mural, Kemang Wa Lehulere, Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year” 2017, freed the bird symbolically. Lehulere, who was born in 1984, also grew up in Gugulethu. He found out by chance that Mgudlandlu once lived in his neighborhood. His aunt had visited the painter’s house when she was a little girl and could still remember the mural. Together they searched for traces of the artist, who inspired the exhibition “Bird Song.” Wa Lehulere’s research led to a new reception of Mgudlandlu’s oeuvre. Yet he is concerned with much more than the rehabilitation and rediscovery of an artist.
Wa Lehulere’s artistic production is rooted deeply in his biography: in his childhood in Gugulethu, in his work with the artists’ collective Gugulective, in books, music, and travels. He devotes himself to the mechanisms of suppression and collective conditioning, which is not only inscribed in thought, but also in the body. The installation in the first section of the exhibition space, titled “My Apologies to Time” (2017), consists of old school desks. After dismantling them, Wa Lehulere made birdhouses out of the desktops and used the steel legs as connecting elements. Birdhouses are both protected breeding sites and instruments of domestication. The abandoned houses in his installations are in different physical states: open, closed, or reduced to a rudimentary form. The only bird on view is stuffed. Schools can be breeding grounds for thought, but also ideological instruments of control and conditioning. School furniture appears again and again in Lehulere’s installations, converted into structures that address how knowledge is imparted as well as issues of power and powerlessness.
The same section includes Gladys Mgudlandlu’s paper works painted on both sides: undulating ranges of hills, fantastic birds, blossoms and flowers that are often taken to the limits of ornamental abstraction. In the exhibition, they correspond in pairs with Wa Lehulere’s own works - as a kind of dialogue between South Africa’s present and past. During apartheid, it was an act of resistance when a black woman painted a bird or a tree. That alone was deemed a political action. But a closer look reveals that Gladys Mgudlandlu’s birds and landscapes might not only be about freedom, but also about black people being driven out of their homes. This issue is investigated in the video “Homeless Song 5” (2017), by Kemang Wa Lehulere and the architect Ilze Wolff. As in their publication “Gladiolus” which they realized expressly for this occasion and was included in the exhibition catalogue, they entertain the hypothesis that Mgudlandlu’s landscapes might be depictions of the rocky hills and huts of Luyolo.The black inhabitants of this township were forced to resettle to Gugulethu in the 1960s after it was declared a white residential area.
Crutches and prostheses are omnipresent in Wa Lehulere’s work. It is always about the loss of something authentic, about injuries, and about attempts to ignore or keep quiet about them. This is the case in his second large installation “Broken Wing” (2016), also made from old school desks. In a wing formation, crutch-like structures hang from the ceiling. Extending between the crutches are sets of teeth that were made based on imprints of the artist’s teeth. These teeth are pressed like screw clamps in Bibles in the language of the Xhosa tribe. With this installation, Wa Lehulere is reacting to the former colonial conditions. Desmond Tutu is said to have made the following remark about the white settlers: “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said: ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.” Wa Lehulere processes historical missionary activity and land expropriation the way the Fall of Man is approached in the Bible. The crutch refers to the Fall. In the wing form, the bird motif appears again, as well as the idea of Icarus falling from the sky.
A work chiseled into the end wall containing hand signals of English sign language forms the counterpart to the exposure of Gladys Mgudlandlu’s mural. Here it is not a matter of removing old layers, but about inscription into the history of the institution. As though at a construction site, Wa Lehulere leaves the plaster residue that accrued during the chiseling work for the picture on the ground to direct our view to the provisional and processual aspect of the production of culture. After the exhibition, this work will disappear under plaster again, will be overlain with new layers of color, time, and meaning, and will be forgotten. The chalk drawings made by Wa Lehulere’s aunt, at his request, in which she sketched her childhood memories of Glady Mgudlandlu’s paintings, are an artistic reconstruction of something that was almost forgotten. The artist then reworked the blackboards gesturally, erasing and blotting out parts.
“Bird Song”, the title of the exhibition, is taken from a classic jazz song written for Miriam Makeba. Jazz is an integral part of Wa Lehulere’s work and life. As an exclusive edition for the show, he and the free jazz musician Mandla Mlangeni recorded an album and composed all of the pieces themselves. The note sheet modeled from black hair is an homage to music, black identity, resistance, and the struggle for freedom and equality, which are symbolized by the afro hairstyle.