Bird Song

As in a jazz improvisation, the works by young South African artist Kemang Wa Lehulere at the MAXXI museum in Rome talk about history, time and the role of the artist in society.

Kemang Wa Lehulere, My apologies to time 3, 2017
MAXXI along with Deutsche Bank, presents the first solo exhibition in Italy by Kemang Wa Lehulere. “Bird Song” curated by Britta Färber and Anne Palopoli, presents about twenty works by the young South African artist (born in Cape Town, 1984), winner of the annual award that Deutsche Bank dedicates every year to emerging or mid-career artists who stand out for the artistic and societal relevance of their work.


History, time, and the role of the artist in society are some of the great themes of Kemang Wa Lehulere’s work. “Bird Song” is a project focused on the dialogue between the works of the artist and those of Gladys Mgudlandlu (1917–1979), a self-taught artist and the first female black artist to exhibit her works in a South African gallery in the 1960s. Mgudlandlu mostly painted landscapes and birds and for this she was nicknamed Bird Lady but was also criticised for not having taken sides politically and was forgotten after her passing.

Kemang Wa Lehulere, Homeless Song 5, 2017
Kemang Wa Lehulere, Homeless Song 5, 2017. Digital video and sound – 11 min 37 sec, edition of 4 + 1 AP. © Kemang Wa Lehulere
Kemang Wa Lehulere, who grew up in Gugulethu, a township in Cape Town, in the same neighbourhood as Mgudlandlu, discovered that his aunt Sophia Lehulere had visited the painter’s house and still cherished the memory of her murals: he then began a search for traces of those paintings with her, bringing some of them to light that have inspired this project. The exhibition includes a series of works entitled Does this mirror have memory (2015) including gouaches and watercolours by Mgudlandlu and chalk drawings made by the artist with his aunt Sophia.
Kemang Wa Lehulere, Broken Wing, 2016
Kemang Wa Lehulere, Broken Wing, 2016. Wood from salvaged school desks, dentures, Xhosa bibles, 51 pieces, each 135 x 26 x 14 cm. Photo Mathias Schormann © Kemang Wa Lehulere, courtesy STEVENSON Cape Town and Johannesburg
Throughout the exhibition, the works by Wa Lehulere and Mgudlandlu dialogue as in a jazz improvisation, but the project’s scope is not to rehabilitate the memory of a forgotten artist, rather to create a dialogue between the present and the past of South Africa. The works of Wa Lehulere are deeply rooted in his personal history and in the history of his country, focusing on topics like collective conditioning and the mechanisms of oppression. The title of the exhibition comes from a jazz song written for Miriam Makeba. Jazz is an integral part of Wa Lehulere’s life and work: in an exclusive edition for the exhibition, the artist composed and recorded an album with the musician Mandla Mlangeni.
Kemang Wa Lehulere, My apologies to time 2, 2017
Kemang Wa Lehulere, My apologies to time 2, 2017. Salvaged school desks, ceramic dogs, steel, string, spray-paint, blackboard. Installation dimensions variable © Kemang Wa Lehulere, courtesy STEVENSON – Cape Town and Johannesburg

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