I cut my skin to liberate the splinter, 2017.
I cut my skin to liberate the splinter, 2017.
Image: Performa / Paula Court

Kemang Wa Lehulere’s work is arguably the most accurate example of contemporary art, simply in the way that each object is constructed through displacement from its original context. He works with everyday materials, such as porcelain dogs, blackboards, and school desks, which, when recontextualised, invoke apparatuses of power and their historical effects.

As a performer, video artist, sculptor, and draughtsman, Lehulere’s work is simultaneously wild and playful, as well as controlled, erudite, and contemplative. It skillfully avoids coming across as inane or frivolous. Reflecting on history and drawings, Lehulere says: “When I am on location, searching for things that have been left behind during those forced removals, it is an interesting experiment to think of the process as some kind of drawing.” The art medium itself assumes a transcendental value.

Kemang Wa Lehulere, The knife eats at home, installation view, 2016.
Kemang Wa Lehulere, The knife eats at home, installation view, 2016.
Image: Stevenson Gallery

Thus, his art does not quite settle in any present: it questions and evades it. In such disquiet, or even derangement, in which objects go through a cyclic process of destruction, reconstruction, and recycling, even rubble has material and conceptual weight. Nothing is really “the past”, as it is dug out, examined, and re-articulated. Items are ephemeral, but also repeated. Some remain and others disappear, and thus, more than rushing to their assumed social meanings, Lehulere’s work challenges us not only through his intended commentary, but also in its methods and aesthetics.

As co-founder of influential arts collectives, including Gugulective, Dead Revolutionaries Club, and Centre for Historical Reenactment, the “collaborationist ethic” pervades Lehulere’s work with the living and the dead. This is seen in his earlier work, where the artist archaeologically dug up the ground with a comb and found a cow’s skeleton, as well as in his more recent work, where he excavated layers of walls only to discover the hidden mural of artist Gladys Mgudlandlu.

Matric 2015, detail, 2018.
Matric 2015, detail, 2018.
Image: Stevenson Gallery

For curator Elvira Ose, these historical discoveries are “an invitation to not forget”, yet memory is hard to fully recover. Lehulere invokes and blurs memory between the exactitudes of the tenses — of autobiography and the collective; art and reality; and self and other. His virtual collaborations with Mgudlandlu and Ernest Mancoba’s (1904-2002) works in History Will Break Your Heart, and recently with trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni, are suggestive of the idea that memory and freedom are collective efforts.

- From the September edition of Wanted magazine.

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