Speaking the unspeakable

2015-02-15 08:10

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Pencil test 2, Ukuguqula ibatyi: Kemang Wa Lehulere in a screenshot from his video that references the degrading pencil tests that were ­conducted during apartheid to determine racial classification. If the pencil stayed in the hair, you were deemed black

Japanese artist and composer Mieko Shiomi’s Spatial Poem No?3 carried a simple instruction: Record your intentional effort to make something fall, occurring as it would, simultaneously with all the countless and incessant falling events. The project is said to have been a response to the atomic bombs the US dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the final stages of World War 2.

Award-winning young artist Kemang Wa Lehulere’s exhibition, To Whom it May Concern, at the Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town is inspired by, and speaks directly to, Spatial Poem No?3.

“I ran into Shiomi’s work in Paris in 2013, which inspired my Nat Nakasa work to take its course,” says Wa Lehulere in his studio on the fifth floor of a modernist building in Cape Town’s CBD.

“I wrote a letter asking Shiomi to amend her work and include Nakasa as one of the falling bodies she documented for the project.”

This was long before it became public that South Africa was trying to repatriate the remains of the legendary writer and journalist.

Wa Lehulere’s work presses against the weight of history, interrogating its convenient narratives. Take, for instance, his installation featuring squares of grass grown inside a suitcase.

The artist draws from the experience of black bodies under the apartheid regime as much as he does the experience of black bodies in the post-apartheid state.

“The idea of being in exile,” he explains. “Also the number of unmarked graves that still exist in South Africa of people who were killed by the apartheid state and by fellow comrades, who never found their way home.”

As with his Nakasa work, it finds a connection with recent events like the release of apartheid’s most feared assassin, Eugene de Kock.

A DOG'S LIFE: In this installation, Kemang Wa Lehulere draws from the experience of black bodies under the apartheid regime as much as he does the experience of black bodies in the post-apartheid state

The historical references in his work help make sense of today’s politics of power, privilege and possession, and equality and poverty in South Africa.

It frames history as a continuum, not a set of isolated events. The pieces are rich and layered, and allow an open reading that speaks of the personal, the strangely fragmented and confused, and the soft determination to make sense of visible and invisible scars of body and mind.

The work, like history, is repetitious. One of its most iconic elements is kitschy porcelain dogs with pointed ears. They’re a nod to a 1930 short story called The Dog Killers by the forgotten black South African writer RRR Dhlomo.

In one version of Wa Lehulere’s piece, the viewer is confronted by the dog as a representation of the value of black bodies during apartheid, especially, in juxtaposition with the suitcases.

“How do you depict a heavy, traumatic event?” asks the artist, looking wistfully around the bare studio, the work all packed off to the gallery for his show.

We’re talking about the Marikana massacre of 2012. “It’s something that is unspeakable,” he says.

I suspect the fragmented format of the exhibition is an answer to this question.

From the written, erased and rewritten scenes of what appears at first to be a script for a play to the butterfly fixed in front of the steps of Parliament, the works also speak directly to Under the Tongue by Zimbabwean author Yvonne Vera, about her inability to speak about trauma.

“The work is about finding connections with people, whether historical or otherwise, and breaking the boundaries that exist physically, spatially and with one’s relation to power,” he says.

A video installation of the artist digging with a music stand at the mines in Joburg South left the most profound impression on me. The video is silent, but to Wa Lehulere it evokes “a song you sing when you come from initiation school”.

The use of a music stand? “Well, there’s a lot of music culture from the villages to the mines,” he says. “Ke ngwana mang o tlo sala? Whose child will be left behind? That’s the song,” he says.

The video again reminds me of Marikana and the unspeakable ruins of our contemporary history, just as it does our past. Having been through initiation school myself, the work became poignant from that point of view.

It also reminds me of the initiation rites of our young democracy, which included the violence and assassinations of citizens and activists after the unbanning of our liberation movements.

DIGGING IT: A silent video installation of the artist digging with a music stand at the mines in Joburg South evokes ‘a song you sing when you come from initiation school’

How does one begin to speak of these experiences? What does one become after experiencing trauma? How does one begin to exorcise the demons of the past to move on? Where does one start the healing process, if one were to exercise a kind of self-therapy?

These are the sort of questions that burdened me long after our interview and the exhibition opening.

“On one hand, the work is about bringing to the fore histories that have been forgotten, which I believe is important,” says the artist.

“When I started the project, Nakasa had been relegated to oblivion. I could only imagine how the family must have felt – that you couldn’t even go to your son’s funeral. He was not even a radical person.

“This is the institutional violence where you were not allowed to go to your son’s funeral or for your son’s body to be returned home for you to bury him. And there is so much that is unspoken, that is not dealt with in all of that.

“I’m not sure if I’m able to rewrite history, but I can try rewriting certain paragraphs that history has already written. I’m not as arrogant as to believe I can affect change directly. All I can do is change what has happened in terms of historical narratives.

“In that way, maybe change the perspective of young people … to see that there were other people, other blacks, there were other stories than the dominant narrative, not just the white narrative but also the ANC narrative, which I find problematic. This, in a way, is my form of resistance,” he says.

To Whom it May Concern is on at the Stevenson Gallery until February 28. The gallery is open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm and Saturdays from 10am to 1pm

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