Bird Song
Kemang Wa Lehulere at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle

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. Now the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle is presenting Kemang Was Lehulere in Germany for the first time with a comprehensive exhibition.
There is an incredible story behind the first painting in Kemang Wa Lehulere’s exhibition Bird Song. It seems as though the artist ferreted out a fragment of a mural under the KunstHalle’s white plaster. In point of fact, however, it is the reproduction of a picture from the former house of Gladys Mgudlandlu. In the 1960 she was the first black female artist in South Africa to have regular exhibitions at galleries, apartheid notwithstanding. On account of her predilection for birds, she was also called “Bird Lady.” But Mgudlandlu’s fame waned quickly. When she died in 1979, her work was worth so little that the murals were simply painted over.

After more than 50 years, Wa Lehulere rediscovered her murals by chance. During a visit to his aunt Sophia in Gugulethu, the township where Mgudlandlu lived and where he himself grew up, a neighbor brought over a book about the artist. Wa Lehulere was surprised to learn that his aunt had visited her often as a child. Sophia told him that Mgudlandlu had adorned the rooms of her house with colorful murals, and her nephew decided to find out whether they still existed.

In the studio of the KunstHalle, his documentary The Bird Lady in Nine Layers of Time (2015) shows how a conservator carefully removed two plaster layers and seven layers of paint, exposing part of Mgudlandlu’s mural. As fate would have it, one of the artist’s favorite motifs could be seen—a bird. The video documents the symbolic liberation of this bird, as well as the damage done to the mural while it was being uncovered. As in many of his works, Wa Lehulere draws attention to something that was lost or forgotten. At the same time, he makes destruction visible. The scars caused by history remain, and not only in South Africa.

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. The discovery of Mgudlandlu’s bird 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.

Thus, My Apologies to Time (2016), the installation in the first part of the exhibition space, consists of old school desks that Wa Lehulere converted into birdhouses and connected 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.

My Apologies to Time is also convincing in formal terms. “I wanted to treat the sculpture I have been working on for this show like a drawing,” says Wa Lehulere. And indeed, his construction is akin to a three-dimensional, abstract drawing. The steel pipes look like lines that connect simple geometric shapes, and this continues in the shadows of the installation on the floor. The material, in turn, has its own history which is literally inscribed in the wood of the school desks: The students carved their names in the wood or immortalized it with sayings such as “hard living” or “living in a box.”

The poetic video essay Homeless Song 5 also engages with traces of history. To photos of vacant buildings, flowers, and landscapes, which he occasionally reverses into negatives, Wa Lehulere reads a very personal text about the violent expulsion of the black population to Gugulethu. He quotes Achille Mbembe, an important postcolonial theorist, as well as the poet Gladys Thomas. He links her poem Fall Tomorrow with the lines “Do not paint a wall, tomorrow it will have to fall …,” to Gladys Mgudlandlu. After all, she painted the walls of her home as an act of appropriation and personal affirmation. Black residents of Gugulethu were actually forbidden to alter their identical-looking houses. And as Sophia Lehulere recalls, there were also rondavels—traditional, thatched round houses—on Mgudlandlu’s murals. Here the artist evoked a longing for a home, which she and so many non-white South Africans were driven out of.

The theme of displacement resonates in Bird Song time and time again. However, the history of South Africa is merely the starting point for Wa Lehulere’s works. “They speak,” say Carlos Gamerro and Victoria Noorthoorn in their catalogue text, “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.”

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.” But the crutches are also a reference to the Biblical fall of man, which Wa Lehulere regards as “the earliest documented forced migration.” In the wing form, the motif of the bird as a symbol of freedom echoes again.

In addition to the installations and video works, a selection of the artist’s drawings is also on view at the KunstHalle. 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, similar to how a jazz musician takes up and elaborates on melodies and rhythms in an improvisation. His most recent works push ahead Mgudlandlu’s abstract tendencies even further and recall jazz notation. He titled these works Birds of a Feather, alluding to the saying “birds of a feather flock together.“ The title conveys a feeling of togetherness.  

A work chiseled into the back wall of the KunstHalle closes the circle that began with the reproduction of Mgudlandlu’s mural at the beginning of the show. We read the words “Mother said every song knows its home!“—but in the form of hand signals in American Sign Language. This version of sign language is used in many African countries. These visually striking hand signals also appear in Wa Lehulere’s video essay Homeless Song 5, where they are projected onto the artist’s naked back. While his mural addresses the theme of home again, it is also about inscription into the history of the institution. As at a construction site, he leaves the plaster that fell down during the chiseling work on the floor. Wa Lehulere draws attention to the provisional and processual quality that characterizes many of his works. After the exhibition, the hand signs will disappear under the plaster again, overlain by new layers of color, time, and meaning.

Kemang Wa Lehulere: Bird Song
"Artist of the Year" 2017

March 24 – June 24, 2017
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Berlin