Kemang Wa Lehulere is a visual artist from South Africa. His MIF21 project I Love You Too takes the form of a book and an installation in The Reading Room of Manchester Central Library, 2 – 10 July, and is inspired by his residency in Manchester libraries during MIF19.
When artist Kemang Wa Lehulere was growing up in Gugulethu, near Cape Town airport, the second oldest township of the apartheid era, he would visit libraries with his older brother on Saturdays and often spend time with his uncle, a political activist and pamphleteer, who established the Worker’s Library in Johannesburg. Delving into these libraries Wa Lehulere recalls, ‘it was about reading, thinking, expanding our knowledge, engaging in different spaces’.
This developed into a fascination with publishing, libraries and archives – and an awareness of the erasure of Black voices, what he calls ‘deleted scenes’ from South African and post-apartheid histories. These experiences have inspired his latest project I Love You Too at The Reading Room, Manchester Central Library, 2 – 10 July. This multifaceted project, including a book of love letters by Greater Manchester residents alongside sculpture and installation, is informed by both the artist’s social activism and his residency across Manchester libraries during MIF19.
Wa Lehulere’s career began in scriptwriting and acting in the early 2000s, before he emerged as an artist through figurative drawing and painting to tell stories of people and place from his childhood. By the mid-2000s, he moved away from painting to adopt what was then considered experimental approaches to art-making using wall-drawings and mark-making, installation, video, sculptural and found objects, performance and collaboration.
In 2006, he started working with a childhood friend, the late artist Unathi Sigenu, who shifted Wa Lehulere’s understanding of art as a research tool. Together they founded Gugulective, a collective and platform for art-making and creative exchange, to make art accessible to their local community. Situated between art and activism, the collective brings together artists, musicians, writers, DJs, rappers, poets and more, who are committed to community-engaged art, from pirate radio to pamphlet publishing.
One of Gugulective’s earliest works, Blacks Don’t Read (2006) created a powerful statement in the form of a book, described by Wa Lehulere as ‘challenging stereotypes and urban landscape and architecture of apartheid South Africa.’ The book was to become a recurring motif in his art, as he sees books as ‘really precious; I believe these are vehicles one can travel with whilst being stationary at the same time.’
Gugulective would inform Wa Lehulere’s role as a founding member of the Center for Historical Reenactments (CHR) in 2010. A starting point for I Love You Too was CHR’s project NA KU RANDZA (I LOVE YOU) in 2011, based on a song by Mozambican musician Gita Baloi. The phrase ‘GITO BALOI NA KU RANZA’ was spray painted onto a wall in the Doornfontein area where Baloi was killed on 4 April 2004. On the same corner, above the Jumbo liquor store, was the store’s symbol of a large pink elephant. NA KU RANDZA was a project about conflict and love, with the Jumbo elephant as a visual sign of memory and mourning.
Love and memory remain central themes in Wa Lehulere’s art; this includes a love for family and friends, for reading and the physical form of the book, and for vocabulary and words. He sees his art as a commitment to making visible the stories and legacies of South African history, his art works as acts of love.
Of his installation at Central Library, Wa Lehulere says, ‘I’ve been trying to tease a lot of ideas into the space’, describing the sculptural objects as ‘quite fractured’ and expressing his desire for ‘visitors to experience the project in their own way.’ I Love You Too ask ‘what forms of reading are there?’ with the use of hands sculpted to form sign-language. The school desks, another motif in his art, are ‘reading stages’. These are presented alongside bricks painted black on three sides to represent banned books in apartheid South Africa.
For the parallel book project I Love You Too, Wa Lehulere invited over 100 people from across Greater Manchester to share their love stories to people, places, possessions and other things they hold dear. These stories were collected together, edited by 11 local writers, and published as a book of love letters, to be added to Manchester Libraries’ collection and displayed alongside the installation in Central Library.
For Wa Lehulere, ‘The love letters become an emotional or psychological mind-map of a city’ and the book accounts for both a collective history (‘It is about us,’ he says) and individual, personal histories, deeply rooted in the city of Manchester. Returning to the Worker’s Library his uncle founded, Wa Lehulere notes that, ‘the most fascinating thing is, it’s not only about South African history or Black history necessarily, it was about the history of workers, and I know Manchester has a very strong history of this.’ He would like to develop the project into an international encyclopedia of different cities.
I Love You Too is a tool to help us understand the impact of the pandemic, conflict and other world issues through love. For Wa Lehulere, it is about ‘searching for a moment of tenderness that connects people in a more positive light rather than an adversarial position.’ Here, the book of love letters is an act of love; it transports you through Manchester’s histories never to be forgotten. It is a gift of love from the writers, and a public declaration of love from the artist – to the people of Manchester and beyond.
Rachel Marsden is an academic, researcher, curator and arts writer based in the UK.