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Kemang Wa Lehulere’s Ghosts of the Past

A Standard Bank Young Artist Award (SBYAA) is almost inarguably the greatest tribute the South African arts industry can bestow on an artist. So it is understandable that artists spend nights dreaming of achieving this honour. This is not Kemang Wa Lehulere. He is an insomniac and a workaholic. His works are a stream of consciousness that utilise a plethora of materials ranging from chalkboard drawings, paintings, scripts, text, glazed sculptures, found objects and even him. Kemang Wa Lehulere is also excavating his interest in film and working on a video. Having already been recognised in the country and abroad through various other awards, it is refreshingly candid to hear an artist say that ‘this kind of derails me.’ Kemang Wa Lehulere does not seek to win awards. He never imagined that he would be a Standard Bank Young Artist. ‘I’m focused on my work,’ he says, but adds that even though it is important to gain this credit, the work has to come first if he is to continue to grow as an artist. And so, the story of the Gugulethu-bred mulatto man who grew up without his father but developed with many questions about the nature of identity continues; with a retinue of talents as tools for an archaeology of existence.

Much has been made of the use of the gesture of digging, as well as the images of bones, in Kemang Wa Lehulere’s work. There is a certain quirky haunting presence to his drawings. They are filled with chalk lines that hint at their imminent evanescence as seemingly endless works in progress. When he won the inaugural Tiberius Art Award Dresden, Hartwig Fischer (Director General of Staaliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden) said, ‘his over-sized wall drawings represent the performative art of drawing, vanishing as they do at the end of the exhibition.’ Wa Lehulere calls it an ‘archaeology of moments’.

‘During a performance I discovered bones.’ Kemang Wa Lehulere remembers how digging began as a mere symbolic gesture for him and how ‘discovering bones was purely chance.’ In a disarmingly charming way, he speaks as though the endless sleepless nights spent crafting his work and drafting new ideas can be forsaken for the chance meetings he has had with ghosts of the past that inform his contemporary art. ‘I started digging in 2008 here in Cape Town’ is the familiar story of how this vocabulary came to be. When he continues to think – his mind rapidly flooding with more memories – he slickly states that ‘there are all these ghosts lingering around.’ He evokes a 19-year-old Kemang Wa Lehulere who read Nat Nakasa and realising, at the time, that Nakasa was buried in New York as an exile and ‘found it fucked up’. When Wa Lehulere found himself in New York in an autumn August in 2013 he visited Nakasa and ‘took a piece of grass from his grave.’ The many stories that fill his works are memorable imprints on contemporary art. His simple take on his multiple awards is that ‘because I work across mediums a lot of people find that fascinating.’

Contemporary art, he says, is indefinable. It is an ‘endless number of possibilities’ that he started to seriously explore the limits of when he cofounded Gugulective in 2006. Without fear, he has carved out his own space in contemporary art. He is also a co-founder of the Centre for Historical Re-enactments and is looking forward to his exhibition touring the country after the National Arts Festival. He hopes that the acknowledgement of this award can bring not just his story but also the many stories that he tells to people, who are like him, but are afraid that they don’t have a place in the arts.

The dream was not the SBYAA for Visual Arts, as grateful as Kemang Wa Lehulere is, it surprised him. The dream is ‘to inspire, that’s the only thing I can return.’ Growing up in a close family of over 16 cousins, many of whom are also artists, he was exposed to the arts and, armed with research, he was able to fearlessly pursue his craft. His uniquely brazen quality goes a long way. When he went water boarding with his cousins once, he simply jumped on board and only after a successful first attempt did he then tell them that he did not know how to swim. One cousin dubbed him either the bravest of people or the stupidest. He says, ‘I still don’t know which I am.’

Stupid or brave, as he dives into the expansive depths of contemporary art Kemang Wa Lehulere is definitely inspiring.

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