As you enter Kemang Wa Lehulere’s In All My Wildest Dreams within the Modern Wing of the Art Institute, one can not help but feel a sense of awe as a chalk etched nostalgic pencil sharpener seems to jump out from the initial wall. The particular piece, When I can’t laugh I can’t write, is a telling example of Kemang’s work; a wonderful moment of intersection between humor, ingenious craft, and historical influences. Below the piece, lay various ceramic dogs, some intact, others shattered and scattered around classic looking suitcases full of grass laden sod.
On view from October 28, 2016 to January 16, 2017, In All My Wildest Dreams, features South African artist Kemang Wa Lehulere’s work. Interested in confronting the past histories of South Africa’s relationship to apartheid, Wa Lehulere’s work seeks to reenact the “deleted scenes” from the country’s history. Such manifestations are made in a variety of mediums; from wood and food objects, to video, chalk, and performance, with each piece correlating histories of class, race, and displacement.
Originally, I was exposed to this Wa Lehulere’s work through Rhoda Rosen’s art history course, Contemporary Cartography. Thanks to Rhoda Rosen, who is also from South Africa, I had the lucky privilege of experiencing the work through the eyes of both her and Kate Nesin, the associate curator in the department of Modern and Contemporary Art. As Nesin guided us around the show, it became increasingly obvious that very little backstory and context was given to the viewer, generating a conversation on how a curator balances such a paradigm. Items such as One is too many, a thousand will never be enough, have incredibly detailed backstories that have not been made particularly public in the exhibition. Constructed from old school desks, a fake parrot, and accompanying audio from found tapes of how-to have an American accent, Nesin soon allowed us further into the work by providing backstory. The piece originally used the tension between the tapes and the school desks as a way to generate a conversation on education, access, and privileged dialects. Yet, the difference between the original idea and the piece at the Art Institute is that originally it featured a live parrot. When Wa Lehulere was first constructing the One is too many, a thousand will never be enough, he would play the tapes nonstop to his parrot, in hopes that bird would begin to mimic the dialects of the directed American sound. Yet, as time went by, he found that the bird had no interest in such artificial language, and instead was infatuated by those who were within his studio. As Wa Lehulere began to digest this result, he considered what it would mean for the bird was to pick up such a dialect, only to be left alone in a gallery overseas without any intimate or known contact. Ultimately, Wa Lehulere abandoned the idea, yet the backstory is as telling as the piece itself.
Such insight from Nesin pushes my own considerations of how much information should be supplied to the viewer; that in an era of growing data and searchability, it is reasonable to expect viewers to investigate the work that they look at? Or rather that with such an infinite amount of information available that it becomes even more so crucial to provide direct information and relevant contexts? Yet, such questions seem to reconvene with the original scope of Wa Lehulere’s aims; to reconstruct the deleted scenes of South Africa’s past, a past that when reincarnated may not be so clear to those that did not experience it.