Art from south africa: unpretentious elegance

Deutsche Bank presents its "Artist of the Year" 2017. Kemang Wa Lehulere’s exhibition is not entirely convincing. Why?

Dentures and Xhosa Bibles: Kemang Wa Lehulere’s "Broken Wing" (2016) Photo: Mathias Schormann © Kemang Wa Lehulere, courtesy STEVENSON Cape Town and Johannesburg

Kemang Wa Lehulere is considered one of the most important representatives of a young generation of South African multimedia artists. Now a jury consisting of Udo Kittelmann (Director of the National Gallery in Berlin), Okwui Enwezor (Director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich), Hou Hanru (Director of the MAXXI Museum in Rome) and Victoria Noorthoorn (Director of the Museo de Arte Moderno) has chosen him as Deutsche Bank’s Artist of the Year.

The exhibition in Deutsche Bank’s KunstHalle associated with the prize, however, only partially supports the claim of Wa Lehulere’s exceptional talent. It is true that "Bird Song," as the exhibition is called, captivates through the eye-catching, lively presentation of the exhibits. But on closer inspection, they appear all too obvious and quickly lose their appeal.

First, however, a picture greets you auspiciously from the wall as you enter the exhibition. Like an archaeological excavation, it has been neatly chipped out of the red plaster – exposing the motif of a bird. It was painted by Glady Mgudlandlu (1917-1979). The self-taught artist, who was one of the first black women artists ever to exhibit in a gallery in South Africa, had decorated her house in Gugulethu, a township in Cape Town, with such murals.

Kemang Wa Lehulere also grew up in this township. When he found out that Mgudlandlu once lived in his neighborhood, he and his aunt set out to find traces of the painter, who was successful during her lifetime but quickly forgotten after her death. The artist’s search is the nucleus of the exhibition; the search for the repressed history of South Africa and the buried memories of Wa Lehulere’s work in general.

Act of resistance or escapism?

The exhibition is therefore staged as a dialogue between past and present, alternating between Glady Mgudlandlu’s soulful paintings of fantastic birds, lush blossoms and hilly landscapes and the artist’s cool abstract drawings.

In addition, in the second exhibition room, there are chalk drawings that Kemang Wa Lehulere’s aunt drew from memory of Mgudlandlu’s lost murals and which the artist reworked gesturally. The fact that a black woman painted and exhibited was an act of resistance during apartheid, even if the writer Bessie Head, as the booklet to the exhibition informs us, only wanted to recognize escapism in Mgudlandlu’s art.

The artist’s sheets, often painted on both sides, are mounted perpendicular to the wall so that they project into the space. The space is dominated by several sprawling tubular steel structures topped with birdhouses assembled from old school desks. As attractive as the sculpture seems at first, its strangely didactic, narrative feel is equally strong. The bird is a symbol of freedom in Glady Mgudlandlu’s work, which now sits on the steel frame in the figure of the stuffed parrot.

Will he find food and shelter in the birdhouses? Or is he, as the school furniture might signal, only domesticated and disciplined after all? Is he settling in because the sawed-up school desks are now a place of thought and imagination, rather than a place of indoctrination as they were during the apartheid system?

The Bible between the teeth

The work spreads out these questions. Balanced and calculated, however, it fails to make any argumentative statement about the historical circumstances. It’s a similar story with the mighty swinging arm, assembled from wooden crutches, that rushes toward you in the second exhibition room. It, too, is a means of transport for a narrative.

This is stated by the narrative object of the artist’s denture imprint, which is fitted where the crutch otherwise reaches under the arms. He holds a Bible between his teeth. The work illustrates an anecdote by Desmond Tutu, who said, "When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray. We closed our eyes. When we opened it again, we had the Bible and they had the land."

Until 6/18, KunstHalle by Deutsche Bank, Berlin, catalog 35 euros.

Likewise, the white canvas, on which a music is notated with frizzy black Afro hair, refers to jazz in South Africa and its role in the exhibition. Its title derives from "Lindelani" or "Birds," a song by Miriam Makeba. "Bird Song Album" is the name of the vinyl LP that Kemang Wa Lehulere recorded with jazz musician Mandla Mlangeni in an edition of 300 copies on the occasion of the exhibition.

Nothing in the exhibition – like a bird – is simply a marvel in itself. Everything is reference, didacticism, means of instruction. One misses a surplus moment that did not simply illustrate historical research and the diligence of research, breaking through the penetratingly unoffensive elegance of the works.