Between art and memory

It’s an act as old as the construction of images. For thousands of years, people have been using the family portrait as a vehicle for the intimate abstractions and constructions of memory and nostalgia. Be it in Ancient Egyptian reliefs, royal court paintings or personal photographs, the family portrait has always been a vehicle for travelling beyond the deadening confines of space and time; beyond mortality.

Seated in one of Johannesburg’s many spiritless malls, Lebohang Kganye is rather matter-of-fact in communicating the ways in which her work addresses the need to repair a traumatic separation from the past psychologically; a past she was not a part of that is captured in the personal and collected histories of her family.

Throughout her work, Kganye finds ways to insert herself playfully in the early stories of her late mother and grandfather, answering an innate need to hold on to memory and grapple with the ways it inevitably begins to mutate into fantasy — a magical realism, if you will.

In Kganye’s earlier work, Ke Lefa Laka, we see the artist re-enacting, in dress, location and pose, old photographs of her mother in her youth. In these works, she digitally inserts herself into the photograph as a familial ghost from the future, forcing itself into intimate histories.

Her use of the personal visual archive begs us to consider the artist’s own visual language. True to the Dadaist manifesto, much of Kganye’s earlier work is an engagement with the family photograph as a “found object”, a post-Duchampian ready-made that in many ways negates the power of the artist’s hand, removing much of the emphasis on the formal elements of a picture and placing it into concept and process.

In speaking about our respective relationship with photographic practice, as past students of Johannesburg’s Market Photo Workshop, Kganye insists that she has never “really imagined a photograph” before a project’s fruition.

“The end result would be a photograph, but there’s so much creation and setting up that happens before that, which actually is the most enjoyable part for me. The photography, it’s the end product. But the process of getting there is actually what is the most meaningful.”

Leading up to producing Ke Lefa Laka, Kganye took a series of trips around the country after her mother’s death, determined to find out the true spelling and origin of her surname, “Khanye”, “Khanyi” or “Kganye”, as it appears differently in family members’ identity documents. In visiting family, some of whom she had never met before, she collected oral histories; peoples’ memories of “the everyday” of times past. Inspired by this, Kganye created a series of life-sized cardboard cutouts from enlarged photographs of her late grandfather and enacted scenes from stories she had heard from her grandmother — again placing herself in the history of the deceased.

Over time, the correct spelling of Kganye has become less and less important to her. It has acted rather as a vehicle of transportation to her most recent work, Ke Sale Teng, for which she has just been named the winner of the Sasol New Signatures Award. In it, Kganye develops her process of working with cardboard cutouts and introduces animation, constructing and enacting moving tableaux from her grandfather’s life and the effects of migration on her family.

In relation to this work, she describes family history as a “space of contradictions … a mixture of truth and fiction”.

On the one hand, the single question of a name speaks to the ways the intimate is both political and historical. Because of the culturally unconcerned government administrative system pre-1994, it is not uncommon for people of colour to find spelling variations and errors in their identity documents. This also speaks to the ways different local languages influence the spellings of sounds in different parts of the country — “Khanye”, “Khanyi”, “Kganye”.

She laments and revels in the complications involved in working with oral history and personal archives — and the trauma involved.

On the one hand, there is the primary trauma that one inevitably excavates when people relay events, working with the memories of people who were racialised and groomed in a world not primed to serve them. On the other, perhaps more surprisingly, is the intergenerational trauma that lingers in one’s own experience of the everyday, filtered again through the experience of viewing snapshots of a past that is not one’s own. In many ways, these stories and images are proxies of our own contemporary existence.

Kganye’s more recent multidimensional work speaks to the aesthetic, ephemeral sensibilities of South Africa’s photographic giants — Andrew Tshabangu and Santu Mofokeng — while giving a nod to the playful silhouetted animations of William Kentridge.

“Photography chose me,” she says. Although she was inspired to study photography by the work of people like news photographer Kevin Carter and the rest of the Bang Bang Club, who captured the stories of the mid-1980s and early 1990s, Kganye always wanted to study African literature and creative writing.

The intimacy of storytelling is at the centre of her photographic work and she is excited by the idea of working with multiple mediums to achieve that.

Inspired by the mentorship she received from Mary Sibande and Nontobeko Ntombela as part of the Tierney Fellowship, Kganye says she most respects artists who demonstrate an ability to work sensitively with different mediums.

Although the question of kinship, family and belonging is at the core of Kganye’s work, she repeatedly undertakes the process of seeing and re-seeing, questioning her role in creation and abstraction. Her laborious methodologies of enacting, inserting, mimicking, cutting, recording and animating reflect a deep investment in providing a space in which intergenerational conversations can be held through the tactility of being conceptually intimate with the found object.

Kganye’s work exists in a liminal space between art and memory.

Not dissimilar to the Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980) of American artist Cindy Sherman, Kganye’s persistent insertion of herself in images that are already deeply embedded in the intimate and public cultural imagination begs us to consider the artist in a variety of roles — as artist, performer and photographer.

She is the persona of her mother, her grandfather and herself all at once, an exercise in finding her place not only in her family’s history but also in South Africa’s. 

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Zara Julius
Guest Author

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