Protest, resistance and questions of ambiguity

In Kemang Wa Lehulere’s exhibition, The knife eats at home, a history of student protest is laden with ambiguity and poetry. A week after the 40th anniversary of the Soweto student uprisings, MS. ALUWANI RATSHIUNGO reflects on the meaning of the award-winning artist’s latest body of work. 

Mr Kemang Wa Lehulere explores the capacity of objects to transcend their ‘prescribed’ use, meanings and literal forms in his latest exhibition The knife eats at home at the Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg. Using paintings, drawings and sculptures, he re-configures forms and gives life to inanimate objects. Drawing from the student uprising of 1976 and through the use of, among many, vintage desks, shoes, briefcases and blackboards, the artist interrogates the state of the education and the history of student protests in South Africa.

The exhibition is as indeterminate as it is literal – pure poetry. But a few weeks in – and after posits by commentators and attempts at answers from the artist himself – it still leaves you with a plethora of questions. Are the crutches intended to represent the aid students desperately need or the psychological and physical trauma they suffered in 1976, and continue to suffer at the hands of state and private security on University campuses? The colourful wool, linking everything: does that speak to how connected we are in spite of our differences?

The dogs – like the blackboards and briefcases – have appeared in his previous work, but what do they represent in this context? Are those the master’s guard dogs? What are they guarding? Why are they black and gold? There are so many. Big ones and small ones. They are everywhere. Mr Wa Lehulere touches on the fact that they don’t talk back; they don’t question. Are the dogs a reference to the police and campus security guards who are quick to use full force on protesting students at the instruction of the master?

Are those the master’s guard dogs? What are they guarding? Why are they black and gold? There are so many. Big ones and small ones. They are everywhere.

At the preview and walkabout on opening day in early June, a small media contingent got an opportunity to gain deeper insight into the work, his inspiration and ultimately the artist, an inextricable part of the work. “It’s a long relationship I’ve been having with these dogs. My family and other people in the neighbourhood believed that if you took sleep from a dog’s eyes and placed it on your own, you could enter into the spiritual world,” says Wa Lehulere, “as a kid, I wanted to do this but I was too scared of what I might see. It later became like a personal way of dealing with history and the past even though the spiritual world is not the past. But I use it as a metaphor, as a way of looking at past times.”

The multi-award winning visual artist – whose first name is literally a question (Who am I/Who is it/Who is that?) – has been resisting the ‘system’ since he was merely a boy. He recalls a day where him and his friend decided to bunk Sunday school. The day was very eventful. From witnessing protesters looting a food truck, taking advantage of the opportunity to score a bunch of Tinkies, selling those, only to be conned out of their earnings by an older guy – they went from Sunday school bunkers to entrepreneurs and then victims all in one day. He also mentions how he flat-out refused to speak Afrikaans “for political reasons”, a move which forced his school to find an Afrikaans teacher who also spoke isiXhosa as he only presented his oral assignments in isiXhosa.

In keeping with the recurring theme of resistance, he sometimes seems like he does not want to answer questions posed to him. He hesitates and you almost get the sense that he did not really ‘think about it like that’, that he does not know the answer to the question, or maybe he just wants you to do the unpacking, to interpret it for yourself and form your own opinion. When asked about the ambiguity in his work and himself, he simply answers: “I don’t believe in one truth. If I had any kind of absoluteness I wouldn’t be far from propaganda.”

He does, however, make it clear that his objective is not to victimise but to look at the history of student protests in South Africa from a survivalist perspective. He cites artists such as Mandla Mlangeni; Fela Kuti and Feya Faku as his inspiration. In Mlangeni’s music, he was awed by the fact that even in the sad history, there were moments of celebration, love and happiness. This is apparent in this body of work. As heart wrenching as the topic of education and student protests is, he also adds an element of playfulness and joy through the use of swings, for example.

One can’t help but wonder why he was showcasing his artwork at a gallery, considering this pronounced theme of resistance in his life? Why doesn’t he resist the white cube? He tells the small group that he “sold out” and the whole room bursts into laughter. “On a serious note, I wanted to make money off my work. I tried selling my work myself and a lot of niggas would hustle me all the time,” he says. “I used to view the gallery as a very evil system but I don’t think it necessarily is, maybe some. As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned that some things are more complex than they seem, hence my approach to my work. It’s not one-sided all the time”

The exhibition runs until Friday, 15 July 2016. 

Images: Stevenson Gallery

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