2016-11-01 23:06:17
Kemang Wa Lehulere Constructs a History From South Africa’s Shadows

CHICAGO — High above a gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago, balancing on a bright red ladder, Kemang Wa Lehulere worked intently on a school blackboard, his slashes of white chalk gradually cohering to reveal a rounded form. A video of a cigarette slowly burning played as male voices sang.

It was the third day of the two-week process of drawing, carving and constructing dozens of works of art on the spot for Mr. Wa Lehulere’s first American museum show, “In All My Wildest Dreams,” which opened on Thursday. “There are elements that speak to each other, but I have left them quite loose,” he said, when asked about the relationships among the drawings, paintings, video, sculptures and performance work that make up the exhibition.

At first glance, Mr. Wa Lehulere’s work can seem very abstract. The large chalk drawing would take shape as a Boston pencil sharpener, looming over porcelain dogs that are seated next to suitcases filled with earth and grass. A taxidermied parrot in a hanging birdhouse seems to recite American language lessons. Tires are punctured with crutches constructed from school desks, and works made from human hair line the walls.

But a closer look reveals how Mr. Wa Lehulere’s art offers allusive, layered references to his own complex personal history and its deep entwining with that of his country, South Africa. Themes of education and the schoolroom (the chalk, the sharpeners, the school desks); his birth into an apartheid system that essentially endured even after democratic elections; tools of everyday use and protest (the tires, used in violent “necklacing” incidents, but also in childrens’s play in Gugulethu), of incapacity and immobility (crutches, the immobilized wheels), all permeate his work.

He was born in Cape Town to a white father (the son of Irish missionaries who had moved to Zambia) and a black mother. It was 1984, when mixed-race relationships and any children of such unions were illegal. Democratic elections and the end of apartheid, in 1994, came too late for Mr. Wa Lehulere’s parents, who were never able to live together, and who both died before he was 12.

Mr. Wa Lehulere went to live with an aunt in Gugulethu, a black township established by the apartheid government outside the central city. His light complexion marked him as different any time he stepped outside of his close-knit community. “I feel like a permanent outsider,” he said. “I’ve never been black enough; I’ve never been white enough.” He added: “I reject the idea of a South African identity; I feel outside the South African art scene. I don’t feel part of any shared collective sensibility. It’s troubling, but freeing at the same time.”

Lerato Bereng, an associate director of Stevenson Gallery in South Africa, which represents Mr. Wa Lehulere, said the artist “sits with things for a long time.”

“He collects materials both physically and conceptually and let’s things unfold,” the gallerist added. “I never know what the form of a Kemang work will be.”

Mr. Wa Lehulere is pensive, reflective, serious. During a long interview, he thought silently and hard about questions before responding, often questioning his own premises and ideas. Occasionally, a charmingly broad smile and a gruff chuckle would break through. Mr. Wa Lehulere admitted that he found it difficult to think of himself as a real artist. “I always feel I’m just doing things,” he said.

Others have no such doubts. In the decade or so since Mr. Wa Lehulere began to show his work — initially as part of different collectives — he has garnered numerous awards (most recently, Deutsche Bank’s 2017 Artist of the Year) and residencies and exhibitions. His work has been seen at the Lyon and Berlin Biennales and at the New Museum Triennial in 2012.

Kate Nesin, an associate curator in the department of Modern and contemporary art at the Art Institute, put his name on an acquisitions wish list. When James Rondeau, now the director and president of the Institute, traveled to South Africa in early 2015, he saw Mr. Wa Lehulere’s first solo show at Stevenson. “He sent me an email that day, saying Kemang is great, go for it,” Ms. Nesin recounted.

Mr. Wa Lehulere’s taste for working in different mediums and for performance come partly from the artistic environment of his youth. His mother sang in a jazz band; his cousin Itumeleng Wa Lehulere is a playwright and director who introduced him to the theater. (A performance piece in the exhibition, “Rehearsals for ‘Echoes of Our Footsteps,’” is based on his cousin’s play.) At school, he excelled at art but was more interested in technical drawing and woodwork — skills that would later emerge in fine draftsmanship and meticulous sculptural work.

What he really wanted to do, he said, was act, but he was repeatedly told that he wasn’t credible in roles for a black actor. After graduating, he enrolled in a film course, where he met Duma Kumalo, one of the Sharpeville Six, who was sentenced to death in connection with a murder that occurred during a 1984 protest march. (Their sentences were later commuted.) Mr. Wa Lehulere said that hearing Mr. Kumalo’s story shifted his sense of black South African history and ignited an enduring interest in its unwritten narratives — its unacknowledged artists, poets and thinkers, whom he frequently incorporates into his work.

After studying performing and visual arts at a local community center, and working for a television production company, he helped found Gugulective, an arts collective in Gugulethu in 2006. He created videos and performance work. (In one piece, he dug into the earth with an Afro comb, unexpectedly finding cow bones.) “Performance frightens me, because I am a very shy person,” he said. “But it also incorporates so many previous experiences.”

He was a founder of another collective, the Center for Historical Reenactments, while earning a fine-arts degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. It was only last year, Mr. Wa Lehulere said, that he first worked individually. “It was a turning point,” he said.

Asked what he felt about addressing a non-South African audience in the Institute exhibition, Mr. Wa Lehulere was briefly silent. “My caution is, always, what kind of story does one tell outside the country?” he said. “You have CNN and the BBC saturated with images of poverty and violence. They want the flames — Africa burning again. But there is peaceful, intellectual protest, too.”