Poetic Resistance
Kemang Wa Lehulere at Pasquart Kunsthaus

The apartheid-influenced history of South Africa is the point of departure for Kemang Wa Lehulere’s installations, videos, and drawings. But this historical trauma has inspired works of fragile beauty that go far beyond his home country. Now Pasquart Kunsthaus in Biel, Switzerland, is presenting an extensive exhibition of the “Artist of the Year” 2017 supported by Deutsche Bank.
German shepherds have a very ambivalent image: They can symbolize loyalty, vigilance, and subjugation, can be family pets as well as police dogs. Porcelain German shepherds are omnipresent in Kemang Wa Lehulere’s installations, including those in his large solo exhibition at Pasquart Kunsthaus. In Red Winter in Gugulethu (2016), they guard an arrangement of suitcases pierced with crutches and balls of colored yarn. In Cosmic Interlude Orbit (2016), the dogs sit on wooden pedestals looking at blackboards covered with smudged chalk drawings. And they appear again in Homeless Song 5 (a sketch) (2017). Here the animals are guarding a suitcase in which grass is growing. The grass came from the grave of the South African writer Nat Nakasa, who jumped to his death in New York in 1965 in an act of desperation. The authorities in South Africa had refused to let him enter his home country again.

German shepherds can be a symbol of police violence, of course. But for Wa Lehulere, they also have other, very different meanings. During a tour of his exhibition Bird Song at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, which also featured an installation with porcelain dogs, he explained that these dogs were popular pets among South Africa’s black population. Thus, the porcelain figures also allude to the involuntary resettlement in the 1960s. At that time, hundreds of thousands of black South Africans were driven out of their homes and jammed together in townships. They had to leave their dogs behind, and the animals were killed and buried in mass graves. Subsequently, porcelain dogs became popular in the townships to commemorate the people’s lost pets.

But dogs also play a role in local popular belief. They are thought to mediate between different worlds. “My family and other people in the neighborhood believed that if you took sleep from a dog’s eyes and placed it on your own, you could enter into the spiritual world,” the artist said in an interview. “As a kid, I wanted to do this but I was too scared of what I might see. It later became like a personal way of dealing with history and the past.”

Many of the works on exhibit at Pasquart Kunsthaus attest to this investigation. Wa Lehulere repeatedly explores individual and collective history, past and present, showing how traces of racism and injustice in South Africa have been blurred and ignored up to the present day. However, his works are ambiguous, can never be reduced to striking messages. “I don’t believe in one truth,” he says. If I had any kind of absoluteness I wouldn’t be far from propaganda.” Accordingly, his exhibition is akin to a meandering, poetic narrative in which many things are only hinted at. Everything flows together; substantive and formal motifs are taken up again and again and varied, like the melodies of a jazz improvisation.

In addition to porcelain dogs, Wa Lehulere often incorporates salvaged school desks in his installations. This is the case in Broken Wing (2016) and My Apologies to Time (2017), both of which were part of Wa Lehulere’s exhibition as Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year” 2017. These pieces of school furniture, which are twisted, wrenched, and screwed together, refer to the deformation of consciousness by educational policy in the apartheid state. The government’s most important goal was to prepare black school students for their role as underlings. The old desks, in turn, have their own history, which is literally inscribed in them: Students etched their names in the wood or immortalized themselves with slogans such as “hard living” and “living in a box.”

The hypnotic video essay Homeless Song 5 is about such traces of history. While showing photos of vacant buildings, flowers, and landscapes, Wa Lehulere reads a very personal text dealing with the violent expulsion of the black populace. He also repeatedly thematizes the search for his artistic roots—for example, when he presents his own works in dialog with pictures by Gladys Mgudlandlu. She was the first black woman artist in South Africa to be shown at galleries despite apartheid. But when she died in 1979, Mgudlandlu was virtually forgotten. He varies motifs from her paintings of birds and landscapes with his own pictures. Wa Lehulere’s most recent works on paper from the series Birds of a Feather, on loan from the Deutsche Bank Collection, take Mgudlandlu’s abstract tendencies even further, recalling notations of jazz compositions.

Kemang Wa Lehulere’s works are much more than an investigation of South African history. The maelstrom of his associative imagery awakens consciousness to a present that feels the weight of the past. “They [his works] speak,” say Carlos Gamerro and Victoria Noorthoorn in their catalog text for Bird Song, “to the aftermath of colonialism in Africa and Asia, and they speak to a world where movement between regions, countries, and continents has become increasingly difficult and the only solutions governments seem to offer are thicker walls and higher fences.”

Kemang Wa Lehulere
1/28/2018 – 4/1/2018
Pasquart Kunsthaus Centre d’art, Biel, Switzerland