The imaginary within memory for me is really important.
History. Memory. Story. Each seeks to make the past available in the present. History is highly structured, linking outwards into an expansive temporal world view. Its apparent objectivity often veiling a point of view so inured it may well be invisible to the author as much as the reader. Memory, on the other hand, is overtly subjective. It is owned, but slippery. For memories remain in a flux of subtle revision as they are called to consciousness amid the ever-changing flow of circumstance. But what is important about memory is not its facticity so much as its sense of personal validity. Its authenticity. Between these two sit stories told and retold by families and communities. Such stories live in the collective imagination, drawing people together through a sense of shared heritage. These are not texts memorised and recited. Inevitably, they change their complexion with each retelling and each storyteller. Those stories that stand the test of time do so because at their core is a resilient idea or image that remains meaningful even if that meaning is interpreted differently from one to another. They have a texture that, in the recounting and receiving, runs the fingertips of imagination over the familiar surface of narratives worn smooth by time.
It is in this triangular relationship between history, memory, and storytelling that the work of the South African artist Lebohang Kganye takes its form. What begins with a resonant revisiting of photos of her mother as a young woman, spirals out through the wider oral histories of family and community into the historification of literature. Her emphasis is on the ability of imagination to bring to apparent memory things which were not personally experienced. To engender the intimate textures of shared narrative in a form that is structured like theatre.
Yet, her distinctive way of using family and community photographs within an overtly staged mise-en-scène resists simple imaginative immersion in the stories she unfolds. It is a form similar to the technique of theatrical distancing developed by the German playwright Berthold Brecht. That distancing sought to maintain a conscious criticality in the viewer. To defamiliarise the characters and events unfolding on stage so that the audience did not become emotionally swept up in the dramatic flow but remained consciously analytical in their response to the action. Meanwhile, the origin of Lebohang Kganye’s source material in the family album and community archive sustains the familiar textures of oral history. In this way she achieves a remarkable synthesis of structure, texture, and authenticity that opens the narrative to the imagination while avoiding the undertow of sentimental submersion.
What drew you to the family archive in your artmaking?
I hadn’t worked with archives until my mother passed away. So, that’s really what started the journey, I used archives to reconnect with her. And it’s become a continuing theme in my work for the past ten years because it has pulled on many threads with finding my place in the whole family narrative.
[Left] © Lebohang Kganye ‘Ka mose wa malomo kwana 44 II’ 2013 from the series ‘Ke Lefa Laka: Her Story’
[Right] © Lebohang Kganye ‘Setshwantso le ngwanaka II’ 2013 from the series ‘Ke Lefa Laka: Her Story’
Tell me about ‘Ke Lefa Laka: Her Story’.
This series involved retracing the exact locations where my mother had been photographed. It started when I noticed that a lot of her clothes from the time she was in her twenties and thirties were still in her wardrobe. With the help of my grandmother, I then identified some of the places where she had been photographed, going to those places, and re-enacting the photos. As the work developed, I started to merge the two photographs together on the computer, her original photo, and my re-enactment. I wanted to explore the idea that a photograph can freeze a moment and allow us to live in that moment forever.
In the photo series ‘Ke Lefa Laka: Heir-story’ and the related film ‘Pied Piper’s Voyage’ you focus on your grandfather. What was it about your grandfather’s story that interested you?
As I travelled around South Africa researching my family history – and in particular the variant spellings of our surname – I found that a lot of the family members that I encountered had known my grandfather. Never having met him myself, I only got to know him through the stories they told me. Even though the project was focused on the family name, it ended up concentrating on him because of how pivotal he became in the stories my family were telling me. My grandfather was the first of our family to move to the city because he refused to work on the farm. As apartheid was ending and family members went looking for jobs in the city, they all came to live in his house at some point before finding their own home. As a result, he became quite central to the family narrative and that’s why this part of my family history ended up focusing on him.
Why did you choose to play the role of your grandfather yourself?
It’s about embodiment, in the same way I embodied my mother in the earlier series. It’s about embodying this character in my imagination. Someone who, in the family narrative, almost becomes like this superhero.
[Left] © Lebohang Kganye ‘Ironing’ 2014 from the series ‘Ke Lefa Laka: Heir Story’
[Right] © Lebohang Kganye ‘The Wheelbarrow’ 2013 from the series ‘Ke Lefa Laka: Heir Story’
Why did you associate your grandfather with the story of the Pied Piper?
I love children’s literature and that came out in the work – although I am more focused now on African literature. But I thought it was a fitting analogy, the story of someone who lures the family from one place to another.
In this work you establish a very distinctive mode of constructing your images, one that you have subsequently developed across a number of series. How did this way of staging scenes using cut-outs come about and why did you choose it?
At the time, I had been working as a stills photographer for film and television productions. I became fascinated by set design and began to use that language in my art practice. It made sense for the visual language used to explore the construction of memory to be this kind of constructed world. I was making work about a period that I never lived in, one involving the collective memory of many family members who had shared their stories with me. It is something that comes through a lot in my photography because of my interest in world-building.
What led you to later create a film version of this story?
That started as a commission. I had recently finished ‘Heir Story’ but felt the static images did not bring out the full potential of these cardboard cut-outs. I was interested to see what would happen with that work if it was moving. Film allowed the cardboard cut-outs to be activated. That project became ‘Pied Piper’s Voyage’, which opened the way to make other work in this way.
That film version was commissioned on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the end of apartheid in South Africa. How do you see these personal family stories relating to the wider shifting social history of the country, part of a broader shared experience?
I think my interest has always been in that relationship.
I am concerned with what photography has been used to represent across the continent, but especially in South Africa. The way that photography can be used as a tool of violence. The photographs about South Africa and the period of apartheid have always been about the suffering of Black people. It is an important narrative, but people were still living then. I think that the family archive, the personal stories, and the oral histories are what’s so important in my practice. They allow for those two readings of a country, not just the suffering, but the way of life, the relationships, and individual narratives. I think that, for the younger generation, there are other questions about that time that can still be explored in the present time through oral histories and the family narrative.
In ‘Reconstruction of a Family’, and the film version ‘Ke Sale Teng’, you develop your aesthetic further. Now the features of those depicted are not visible. In its still-image form the works are reminiscent of a child’s toy theatre while in the film version the scenes each open up like a pop-up book.
It was a moment when I started to shift away from the family narrative, and so the visual language begins to change. It was a turning point in thinking through my practice. I had also begun to think a bit more about the relation between photography and spirituality. The work is still very much centred on oral history, but now moving more towards literature while opening up space to play with the more imaginative possibilities of photography.
What is it that interests you about the relationship between what is remembered, what is spoken of, and the broader record of history – phenomena that underpin these works?
Not forgetting what is remembered versus what you imagine was remembered…
This idea of the imaginary within memory for me is really important. How we tell a story versus how it actually happened. So, while photography alludes to this idea of truth, it is very much a combination of truth, of fantasy, of choice… all of these things.
[Left] © Lebohang Kganye ‘O emetse mohala’ 2016 from the series ‘Reconstruction of a Family’
[Right] © Lebohang Kganye ‘O robetse a ntse a bala Bona’ 2016 from the series ‘Reconstruction of a Family’
Is it an internalised experiential thing as opposed to the external surface of history?
It’s a combination… because it is very much about looking at – let’s say – a family photograph and asking what it depicts versus what the family actually is or was. For example, my mother worked in a factory in her twenties, yet among her photos there is not a single one of her in her factory worker’s uniform. The photographs that come to represent her are all very staged, very beautiful. So it is about that contrast, but it is also about how photographs allow for an element of fantasy, a space where you can choose how you want to be represented versus what your reality actually is.
That’s a common thread throughout my work from the family archive through to this more literature-based work. Photography allows for the imaginary… the performance of that ideal self.
How did ‘Tell Tale’ come about’?
This was a collaboration with the Market Theatre and Market Photo Workshops [in Johannesburg]. It looked at the relationship between photography and theatre, something that has always been an interest for me given the importance of performativity and set design in my work. A natural progression.
I was working with some scripts by Athol Fugard and undertook a short residency in the Karoo [a semi-desert region of South Africa] which is where a lot of his plays were set. He had spent time there on writing retreats – so I did something similar. I went and spent time in Karoo so that I could imagine these plays unfold as I read the scripts. I made a lot of photographs there and then I went back to Johannesburg where I recreated various scenes from the scripts using cardboard cut-outs.
These series have been spiralling out from the close relationship of mother and daughter through the extended family to the wider community. With ‘In Search for Memory’ you move into a more futuristic approach that travels across time. What stories are you depicting here?
That work drew on a science fiction novel by the Malawian writer Muthi Nhlema set in an imaginary South Africa. It plays on the idea of time travel and going back in time to change something. In this case, a decision made by President Nelson Mandela that then affects what subsequently unfolds in this alternate South Africa.
There is a common thread relating to the way social issues are imagined that connects the three different directions in my practice: my family’s oral histories, the wider narratives of collective memory, and the stories told in literature that seek a different kind of insight. In each case it is about the history of the country understood through the imagination, collective memory, and oral histories versus what’s written, the authorised history, the official records. This is not about representing what I am being told. It is about depicting what I am imagining I am being told.
Your recent work, ‘Dipina Tsa Kganya’, takes a different aesthetic approach.
I had been thinking about my family name, Kganye, a word that means ‘light’. The journey exploring my family history using cardboard cut-outs had started with me trying to get to the original version of this surname, because it is spelled in three or four different ways across my wider family. To find out what the actual surname was and the history behind it.
So, I began with this idea of playing with light, and about the name in relation to my family moving through to these different parts of South Africa post-apartheid or even during apartheid. The lighthouse became a link with the name and the wider history of migration. But water has also had an important place in the history of migration. While a lighthouse was a guide to help people get safely into harbour and out to sea, it was also a tool that assisted in colonisation and the slave trade, and later with industrialisation. And so, the work touches on that more global history: of the slave trade, of migration, but also the names and the languages that get lost through migration. Themes that are specific to this work.
There is a fascinating relationship in your work between, on the one hand, the potency but unreliability of memory and the evolving, often embroidered, nature of family and community stories shared orally, and, on the other hand, the importance of those memories and stories in resisting historical erasure. That is an interesting apparent paradox.
I think all this work is about the resisting of erasure – but it is not about simply selecting one truth over another. The reality is that historical documents or other seemingly factual sources are more often than not one-sided. It’s about questioning official records and histories. Asking: who do they serve? Who recorded them and for whom were they recorded?
What I do is also subjective. I gather oral and collective histories, but it is what I am imagining those oral and collective histories to be. When you interview people, it is important to recognise that you do so through your lens. So, in that sense, it actually is no different to the care with which you must approach official histories. It’s about how you pass on information versus how you receive it, about the nature of that information and the moment in which you are receiving it. And that is organic. I am told a story today, yet when I am told it tomorrow, even if I am asking a factual question, it is different. If we are to resist erasure, we must always allow space for the organic.
Lebohang Kganye was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1990. She received her introduction to photography at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg in 2009, and completed the Advanced Photography Program in 2011. She obtained a diploma in fine arts from the University of Johannesburg in 2016 and is currently undertaking a master’s in fine arts at the Witwatersrand University. Over the past eight years she has exhibited her work extensively within curated group exhibitions and biennales. Among these many presentations the most recent examples include ‘Into the Light’, South African Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale, and the Aperture Foundation touring group exhibition ‘As We Rise’.
Lebohang Kganye’s work forms part of several private and public collections, including the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington DC; the Art Institute of Chicago Collection; the Getty Museum, Los Angeles; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the JP Morgan Art Collection, New York; the Carnegie Art Museum, Pennsylvania; and the Walther Collection, Ulm. She won the Foam Paul Huf Award in 2022. Other notable awards received recently include the Grand Prix Images Vevey 2021–22, the Paulo Cunha e Silva Art Prize 2020, and the Camera Austria Award of 2019.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.