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When History is Broken: Kemang Wa Lehulere

As with all the new works created by the recipients of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award (SBYAA) who make their debut at the National Arts Festival, the visual arts winner’s exhibition is always subjected to intense scrutiny. It is the source of such focus for the visual arts community mostly due to the fact that the festival continues to sideline this sector. The organisers say it is due to a lack of appropriate venues for art and down to the fact that exhibitions don’t fit into their business model: they can’t charge tickets for people to view them – only for walkabouts – and those are limited.

And so it is that the winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist award carries the burden of presenting the ‘highlight’ for the visual arts for the festival. It sucks because they also have to present their work in one of the worst venues for visual arts, the Monument Gallery, which reminds me a bit of my dreary office in Sauer Street. Please god may an artist who wins the prize in the future make some sort of architectonic intervention in this space. In truth the SBYAA winner usually grows the exhibition over time as it moves from venue to venue, finally landing up at the Standard Bank Gallery, where it exists in its optimal state. Unfortunately, by then everyone has stopped writing and analysing their show – the story has gone cold, so to speak.

The Grahamstown showing presents the moment in which the artist must prove they are worthy of the accolade they have received. Kemang Wa Lehulere found the ideal solution to this custom; in History Will Break Your Heart he mostly presents the work and life of other artists, thereby cunningly shifting attention away from himself. This was clearly articulated in the publicity material available at the exhibition, where his biography is preceded by that of artists Gladys “Nomfanekiso” Mgudlandlu and Ernest Mancoba. In this way he sort of also inserts himself into history – joins them.