In conversation with Kemang Wa Lehulere

Words: Sikhumbuzo Makandula
Photographs: Fiona Christensen
STANDARD BANK YOUNG ARTIST AWARD WINNER FOR VISUAL ART 2015

History will Break your Heart

Sikhumbuzo Makandula: On collaborations and collectives  you have done, and working again with Gugulective…

Kemang Wa Lehulere: We can’t work together anymore there are too many issues and for me it doesn’t work anymore.

SM: Why?

KL: I don’t think I’ll be able to manage but also I just became tired of everything, the same thing and issues every year and I’m all about work,  I am not all about work but I just want to work.  I want to do (damage), because I’m excited and I realize our power. We are not Mandela children but we are at the same time, you know. We have possibilities, sinemithetho and access we can shit the system and we can do shit.

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SM: On this exhibition History Will Break Your Heart, you only spray painted the soles of the gumboots… What was the concept behind it?

KL: There are figures that are underground and twisting the idea of labour on one hand but also it’s a comment on death and  death of blacks, these people steps on gold but never owns the gold, they turn the soil inside-up. The work is inspired by RRR Dhlomo and I have been meaning to do something on the killing of miners in Marikana.

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SM: What was the thinking behind the material you used, such as the ceramic vase dogs, school desks, and music-stands in the installation?

KL: It is a silent lament, it is a scream without noise, since Marikana killings happened while I was out of the country. Marikana was a marking and a turning in South African political landscape it changed everything. It is also about being conscious about critiquing history  but not neglecting the present.

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SM: Your work is research-based and inspired by literature, how do you negotiate text and cultural products?

KM: To be honest I am trying to grapple with conceptual strategy of the text and because there is a history of text and image but for me it was not about intervening within that tradition of thinking of text and image. I told Lesego Rampolokeng that I did a course on script writing with Duma Khumalo on introduction to film and television. Duma Khumalo was on a death row as a political prisoner, his hanging kept being postponed for a number of years until they released political prisoners. When I met Duma he said his soul had died long time ago  and I thought, Yoh (whistling softly after)! Anyway, that’s when I did scriptwriting, I met this wonderful old man.

SM: Also interestingly with…

KL: Wait I’m not done I wanted to finish… So then I have done this course on script writing and started to write scripts, but actually I started writing scripts in high school but they were stage scripts, so it was just part of how to bring out these things and my thinking because it is part of my everyday.

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SM: How much did you mediate and negotiate the conversation and works between yourself , Enerst Mancoba, Gladys Mgudlandlu and your aunt for this exhibition?

KL: It was really tricky because there were two options, I could treat my aunt as my aunt or I could treat her as a film subject and I chose to treat her as my aunt. I feel like it is my aunt project somehow because she knew everything and I was just a vehicle. Obviously I was very cautious about how I want her to be seen as she was not very comfortable in front of the camera, hence she started drawing in the room that I built, at some point in the video she asks, yintoni enye into eshotayo? What you do not see in the video is her refusal to draw and it’s her walking out of the frame. And then she comes back and I speak with her… please… and then I’m  like aah please. I was very careful about how she felt, her discomfort  and respecting her and how do I best give her dignity. I really want to turn the house into a museum, fuck it mfethu!
SM: The house nhe…

KL:  But I can only do that if the man who lives there now, can leave with dignity, otherwise I won’t do it I’d rather let the work be destroyed than disturb his life.

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SM:  The uncovering of the painting… There is violence in the chipping of the wall and you also mentioned that the guy wanted you to return the wall of his house in the condition you found it.

KL: If someone asks me about the traumatic nature of this project  the heavy amount of trauma and how I navigated it for myself… My aunt was shot in the head and she don’t like to talk about this thing but since we spoke about Gladys she opened up she told me she has a file about her experience.And then there is the man who lives there, a former MK veteran and anti-apartheid freedom fighter who is suffering from mental illness. Its been so complicated. But to arrive at an image of the bird, the uncovering is a very violent process but what does a bird symbolize, freedom?