Studying history at school we tend to think of the facts that we learn as absolute but, as an adult, especially as someone who has grown up in South Africa, we learn that history is a subjective, evolving narrative that is very much dependent on the perspective of the story teller.
This is one of the dominant themes in the work of South African artist, Kemang Wa Lehulere, who’s recently been signed by the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York. Wa Lehulere was born in 1984 in Cape Town, where he still lives and where in 2006 he co-founded the art collective, Gugulective. In 2008, Wa Lehulere created the performance piece, Ukuguqula iBatyi, where he used a comb to dig into the ground and uncover a cow skeleton. This gesture of unearthing buried histories and forgotten or neglected narratives is a metaphor that’s present throughout Wa Lehulere’s work, which reflects his experience of growing up in Gugulethu during apartheid.
Wa Lehulere’s 2015 exhibition, History will Break your Heart, included a video that documented the chipping away of paint to reveal fragments of a forgotten mural by South African artist Gladys Mgudlandlu in a house in Gugulethu. Through these works, and his most recent solo exhibition, Not Even the Separated Stay Grounded, Wa Lehulere highlights what he calls the ‘deleted scenes’ of South African history.
Wa Lehulere also often uses chalk in his work. In a 2016 interview he explains his motives for working with such a temporary medium
Its lifespan is limited. It’s very ephemeral, and so is memory. For me, using chalk speaks to history – history as written, history as revised, history has to be revised and should be revised. The idea of a palimpsest as something that is written, erased, and rewritten and constantly rewritten. If, like James Joyce wrote, “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”, then history is something that is constantly under construction.’
An interesting notion when you consider the work of the Durban Liberation Heritage Route, which highlights a particular history of the city that was neglected and rendered invisible.