The opening of “Kemang Wa Lehulere: In All My Wildest Dreams” at the Art Institute of Chicago marks the first solo exhibition in the United States for South African artist Kemang Wa Lehulere (b. 1984, Cape Town). The show, curated by Kate Nesin, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, emblematizes Wa Lehulere's multidisciplinary approach through its display of objects created in several media, including Polaroid photographs, handwritten letters, annotated sketches, digital video, and sculptures made from salvaged school desks.
Upon entering the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, viewers immediately witness “In All My Wildest Dreams,” visible through the glass walls that enclose the front of the exhibition (Fig. 1). In the first gallery space, visitors may ponder the seemingly disparate collection of objects that include several ceramic dog sculptures scattered on the floor, with some shattered and others still intact; these sculptures rest amid closed and opened weathered suitcases filled with plots of green grass. A depiction of a pencil sharpener resting on a pile of intricately illustrated bones, drawn in white chalk on a large blackboard, serves as a backdrop for this installation and was created on site by the artist (Figs. 2–3).
Though the works are diverse in media and subject matter, several related motifs begin to emerge, gleaned from Wa Lehulere's mark-making, juxtaposed materials, and inclusion of physical remnants. The incorporation of cassette tapes and depictions of pencil sharpeners may be understood as an ode to relics of the past, but their use remains relevant as both magnetic tape and graphite pencils function to communicate history through the written or spoken word. A taxidermied African gray parrot—included in one of the works—is an object preserved from the past but meant to appear as though it lives in the present. Further, the inclusion and/or depiction of car tires, crutches, suitcases, and ladders, function as reminders of a changing history, capable of propulsion and hindrance. The theme of absence is also realized in a number of ways in this exhibition, most notably in a framed work of several Polaroid photographs in rows, with the adhesive backing stuck to the empty places for which several photos are assumed to have once “lived” or been placed (Fig. 4). In the work Broken Light (Fig. 5) musical notes written in chalk have been erased on the board, the suggestion of their previous presence still made visible by the chalky rectangular eraser marks that remain. Wa Lehulere's works prompt viewers' memories or moments of nostalgia, calling into question the ways in which they perceive time, history, and culture.
Wa Lehulere's artistic practice also notably includes performance and poetry. In conjunction with the exhibition opening on October 27, 2016, Wa Lehulere and his co-performer Chuma Sopotela were scheduled to perform live a work entitled Echoes of Our Footsteps (A Reenactment of a Rehearsal). This performance derives from Wa Lehulere's memories and recollections of a play in which he acted many years ago. As a result, each version of the performance demonstrates a revision of a historical moment from his life and functions as an art piece in flux. The work engages many of the themes and motifs evident in his oeuvre and showcased in this exhibition including: historical and temporal fluidity, conceptions of memory, and how fragments and physical remnants can be revised or reworked to address and reimagine what Wa Lehulere has referred to as the “malleability of history.”
Unfortunately, the planned performances were canceled “due to complications in the travel arrangements of his co-performer,” but a video recording of Wa Lehulere and Sopotela enacting a previous version of the Echoes of Our Footsteps performance plays on loop in the second gallery space of the exhibition. Sopotela's issues securing necessary papers for international travel, though unfortunate, are quite apropos considering their relevance to an anecdote that Wa Lehulere shared during an artist talk preceding the exhibition opening. In the conversation and Q&A, Wa Lehulere and his colleague, South African curator and artist Josh Ginsburg, reflected on how Wa Lehulere's past experiences informed his creative motivations. Wa Lehulere described how learning about black South African journalist Nat Nakasa's transnational experience had a profound impact on him. As a journalist working during apartheid, Nakasa hoped to flee a government system in which his writing would likely be banned or censored. Upon receiving news he had been selected for a journalism fellowship at Harvard, Nakasa needed to secure a passport but was refused one by the South African government. In order to go to the US, Nakasa accepted an exit permit that meant he could no longer return to South Africa. Moved by Nakasa's harrowing experience, Wa Lehulere visited his grave in New York and recited poetry there, cutting a patch of grass, which he repatriated to South Africa, in hopes that he could keep it alive. This complex relationship between international borders, temporal movement, and physical exile pervades Wa Lehulere's artistic practice, and is evident at the start of this exhibition.
Particularly for informed viewers, the suitcases filled with grass recall the Nakasa anecdote, which Wa Lehulere so eloquently described in the exhibition talk. But others need not know Nakasa's impact on the artist in order to understand or appreciate Wa Lehulere's work. The curatorial choice to exclude narrative artwork labels or interpretative wall texts strengthens the viewers' experience of the work and aligns well with Wa Lehulere's interpretation of history and time. Rather than look first, think second, read third, or any combination of these, a viewer has the opportunity to exercise each of these actions in a variety of ways, appreciating the works without a dictated path or explanation. Like Wa Lehulere's perception of history, it is fitting that his works have not been distilled into certain frameworks or didactics. It should be noted however, that if viewers wish to learn more about Wa Lehulere, an exhibition brochure is available at the Art Institute of Chicago and includes an informative essay by curator Kate Nesin, one that seamlessly contextualizes the collection of works. The auditory experience includes music emitted from a video of a cigarette burning slowly and a cassette recording of language lessons; in this way Kemang Wa Lehulere's works literally and figuratively speak to one another, and to the viewers enveloped by this thought provoking and multifaceted exhibition.