In old family photographs, a South African artist reconstructs the life of her late mother


Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

Following the death of Lebohang Kganye’s mother at 49, the South African artist began reviewing the things she left behind to deal with her grief.

In her mother’s wardrobe, Kganye recognized clothes and jewelry that she had only seen her wearing in old photographs, many of which had been taken before she was born. Among them was a feminine white halter sundress tied in the front; a bright red top with a white-trimmed collar; a long dress coat with black and white patterns.

“I undertook this journey to try to somehow locate her or reconnect with her,” Kganye said in a video call from Johannesburg.

It is through this cathartic process that Kganye found the direction of his photographic practice. She dressed in her mother’s clothes and did her hair as she did, then re-enacted the scenes, superimposing her own spectral image directly onto the old family photographs.

His mother was a strict, but playful and somewhat unorthodox woman, the South African artist recalls from her home in Johannesburg. She was religious, but open-minded, she says, and practical when it comes to spirituality. In the images chosen by Kganye, his mother was only a few years older than the artist, posing with an easy sense of confidence in neat clothes and knee-length hemlines.

Kganye became a time traveler in each photograph, an abstract presence witnessing the events that ultimately led to her own life. She seemingly flickers in and out of existence in group portraits, and she takes the form of a ghostly double exposure when her mother poses alone. In one image, she reaches out as a baby, beaming as the younger version of herself takes a step.

While making the whole work, titled “Ke Lefa Laka: Her-Story”, Kganye visited her relatives in South Africa – they helped her locate the exact locations, and she also began to collect their stories, laying the groundwork for a later story. series that reconstructs his family and cultural histories. Before embarking on the project, she felt disconnected from her roots – she didn’t even know why her last name, which means “light”, was spelled three different ways among family members. But through her research, she discovered that it was the result of a combination of things, from illiteracy and misspellings by local officials to the result of apartheid-era forced evictions, which displaced some 3.5 million black South Africans in the second half of the 20th century. .

“After the loss of my mother became quite amplified for me, I was like, ‘I actually don’t know the people I’m staying with,'” she said. “A lot of the research has allowed…an intimacy that I otherwise wouldn’t have had.”

Rebuilding Memories

Kganye has now shown her photographs around the world, and next month she will represent South Africa at one of the biggest events in the art world, the Venice Biennale, where she will show images of a first series in which she recasts as classic fairy tales but sets them in an African township.

At the Rosegallery in Santa Monica, California, “Ke Lefa Laka: Her-Story” is on display alongside two other related series. The show, titled “What Do You Leave Behind?”, examines her place within her family and her wider South African heritage, as she emerges from a period of image-making that was in largely a matter of loss.

“I wanted to get away from… doing grief work,” she explained.

Over the years, Kganye has developed a practice in which she recreates memories in various ways, by reconstructing photographs or creating diorama-like scenes based on oral histories she collects. But in each of the projects, Kganye uses photography as a theater stage, constructing the actors, props and environments to unfold his narratives.

The “Rebuilding a Family” series is literally constructed this way, with black and white cardboard paintings, staged in an imaginary version of his grandparents’ house in Johannesburg. Each image is based on his family’s memories – the stories of his loved ones often center on his grandfather, the first person in his family to diverge from becoming a farmer. Instead, he moved to town during apartheid to work in a factory and raise a family, and his home became a landmark for other family members who left their farms to follow him. But for Kganye, who had never met him before his death, his grandfather had always been more of a symbol than a person in his own right – a man in a suit and dress shoes whom she recognized in photographs, but of which she knew little.

“(The work) centers around my grandfather as a man who became like the Pied Piper, who drove all my family members from the farms,” ​​she said.

By recording her family’s oral histories, she realized how fluid memories are – how stories differed from person to person, even transformed into their stories by the same storyteller. She therefore reflected the sense of doubt in her work, with details of each figure obscured by the blackness of the silhouettes.

“Our memory has these gaps,” she said. “As they were telling me all these different stories, they had these elements of fantasy and fantasy.”

His grandfather, however, came to life through his research. He was a man bold enough to migrate to the city, who was daringly funny and extremely frugal, and who was once so drunk he had to be driven home in a wheelbarrow. (A story from her aunt recalled when she was given the Herculean task of cutting her fingernails, so Kganye included an image of an oversized clipper in the scene.)

But in all of Kganye’s work, including the 2018 “Telltale” series, which moves from her own family to the oral histories of residents of the village Nieu-Bethesda, where she had an artist residency, she tries to better herself. understand through it. complexities of the country. Adrift after the loss of her mother, she grounded herself through all the stories, from the personal to the macro, that touched and shaped her own life.

“(There is) this grand narrative of history, history that is supposed to represent the whole of South Africa,” she said. “But it’s actually in the micro-stories that we hear how real apartheid affected families and family structures.”

The question Kganye asks in the show’s title refers to many things – what her mother left behind, what South African families left behind, and what Kganye leaves behind as she diverts his work from sorrow. But from that sense of loss, she made a tangible record of her own place in the world – something else that will remain when she’s gone.

What do you leave behindexhibits at the Rosegallery until April 9. Kganye will also exhibit her work at the South African pavilion at the Venice Biennale from April 23 to November 27.

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