Bird Song
Kemang Wa Lehulere at MAXXI in Rome

Kemang Wa Lehulere is one of the most important representatives of a young generation of South African artists. The point of departure for his installations, videos, and drawings is the apartheid-influenced history of his home country. Yet this historical trauma has inspired the artist to create works of fragile beauty and poetry that go far beyond South Africa. After the premiere at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, “Bird Song,” his “Artist of the Year” exhibition, is now on view at MAXXI in Rome.
A meditation on home and loss: In Kemang Wa Lehulere’s video Homeless Song 5 shots of vacant houses, flowers, and landscapes overlap, and occasionally the artist shows the negatives of these pictures. During the video, he reads a very personal text about the violent expulsions of the black population by the South African apartheid regime. In the 1960s, the residents were forced to resettle in newly erected townships, including Gugulethu, where Wa Lehulere grew up. Homeless Song 5 is projected above the large staircase that leads to the exhibition space, putting visitors to MAXXI in the right mood for Bird Song, his exhibition as Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year” 2017.

Bird Song investigates the traumatic history of Kemang’s home country South Africa. And this past also influenced the fate of Gladys Mgudlandlu, the painter who inspired Lehulere’s exhibition project. She was the first black female South African artist to exhibit regularly at galleries, in the 1960s, in spite of apartheid. She was called “Bird Lady” on account of her fondness for birds. But Mgudlandlu’s fame faded quickly, and she was forgotten after her death. This is attested to by the fact that the murals she painted in her house in Gugulethu were painted over by later residents.

More than fifty years later, these pictures were rediscovered by chance. When Wa Lehulere was visiting his aunt Sophia in Gugulethu, a neighbor brought over a book about Mgudlandlu. Much to Wa Lehulere’s surprise, it turned out that Sophia Lehulere had visited her often when she was a child. She said that the artist had painted colorful murals on the walls of her home. Her nephew decided to go and see if they still existed. After removing eight layers of paint, he found the remains of the wall paintings, which even showed one of Mgudlandlu’s beloved birds. The discovery became a point of departure for his current exhibition project. “So we became interested in the bird, in flight, and in bird sounds—things that 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,“ he said in an interview with Britta Färber, the curator of the exhibition.
The installation My Apologies to Time (2016) takes up the bird motif. Wa Lehulere converted old school desks into birdhouses and connected them to an interlaced system of steel pipes. Birdhouses can be both protected breeding sites and instruments of domestication. They are guarded by a stuffed gray parrot. This species of bird has special linguistic talents. But they merely repeat the words they learn without understanding their content. The parrot can be interpreted as making a bitter statement: Schools could be places of independent learning, but often they are ideological instruments used for purposes of control and conditioning, and not only in South Africa.

The second large installation in Bird Song was also built out of old school desks. For Broken Wing, the artist processed them into something resembling crutches. He clamped a set of teeth into each of them, in which in turn a Bible in the language of the Xhosa tribe is clamped. The Bibles are like gags that silence people. Wa Lehulere hangs the crutches from the ceiling in a wing formation. Broken Wing reacts to the legacy of colonialism. “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land,” Desmond Tutu once said. “They said: ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.” The wing shape again evokes the bird motif. 

A selection of the artist’s drawings are also on exhibit at MAXXI. Wa Lehure’s chalk drawings enter into dialogue with Mgudlandlu’s works on paper painted on both sides, a kind of discourse between South Africa’s present and past, Wa Lehulere appropriates motifs from her depictions of birds and landscapes. One of the fascinating things about Wa Lehulere’s work and his “Artist of the Year” exhibition is the fact that everything flows together, that content-related and formal motifs are taken up again and again. His most recent works push ahead Mgudlandlu’s abstract tendencies even further and recall notations of music. Indeed, Bird Song is a kind of visual jazz improvisation. Themes and motifs are taken up again, transformed, and developed further. They are inextricably intertwined, just like collective and individual history. At the same time, the exhibition makes it very clear that the wounds left behind by history have not healed.

Kemang Wa Lehulere: Bird Song
27 September - 26 November 2017