After Lebohang Kganye’s mother died at age 49, the South African artist began going through the things she’d left behind as a means to deal with the grief.
In her mother’s wardrobe, Kganye recognized clothes and jewelry that she’d only seen her wear in old photographs, many of them taken before she was born. Among them was a feminine calf-length white halter sundress knotted in the front; a vibrant red top with a white-trimmed collar; a dressy black-and-white patterned long coat.
“I went on this journey of trying to locate her somehow, or reconnect with her,” Kganye explained in a video call from Johannesburg.
It was through this cathartic process that Kganye found the direction of her photography practice. She dressed in her mother’s clothes and styled her hair as she did, then reenacted the scenes, superimposing her own spectral image directly into the old family photographs.
Her mother had been a strict woman, but playful and a bit unorthodox, the South African artist recalled from her home in Johannesburg. She was religious, but open-minded, she said, and practical when it came to matters of spirituality. In the images Kganye chose, her mother was just a few years older than the artist, posing with a sense of easy confidence in neat tailored clothes and knee-length hems.
Kganye became a time traveler in each photograph, an abstract presence witnessing the events that eventually led to her own life. She seemingly shimmers in and out of existence in group portraits, and she takes the shape of a ghostly double exposure when her mother poses alone. In one image, she reaches out to her own self as a baby, beaming as the younger version of herself takes a step.
In making the body of work, titled “Ke Lefa Laka: Her-Story,” Kganye visited her relatives around South Africa – they helped her locate the exact places, and she began to collect their stories as well, laying the groundwork for a later series that reconstructs her familial 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 found it was the result of a combination of things, from illiteracy and misspellings by local officials to the result of apartheid-era forced removals, 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 magnified for me, I was like, ‘I actually don’t know the people I’m left behind with,’” she said. “A lot of the research allowed for…an intimacy that I would have otherwise not had.”
Kganye has now shown her photographs around the world, and next month she’ll represent South Africa at one of the art world’s largest events, the Venice Biennale, where she’ll show images from an early series in which she recasts herself in classic fairy tales but sets them in an African township.
At Rosegallery in Santa Monica, California, “Ke Lefa Laka: Her-Story,” is on display alongside two other interlinked series. The show, titled “What are you leaving behind?”, examines her place within her family and her wider South African heritage, as she moves on from a period of image-making that was largely about loss.
“I wanted to walk away from…making work that was about mourning,” she explained.
Over the years, Kganye has developed a practice in which she recreates memories in different ways, by restaging photographs or creating diorama-like scenes based on oral histories she collects. But in each of the projects Kganye uses the photograph like a theater stage, building the cast, props and environments to unfold her narratives.
The series “Reconstruction of a Family,” is quite literally built this way, with black-and-white tableaus made of cardboard, set in an imagined version of her grandparents’ home in Johannesburg. Each image is based on her family’s recollections – her relatives’ tales often centered on her grandfather, the first person in her family to diverge from becoming a farmer. Instead, he moved to the city during apartheid to work in a factory and start a family, and his home became a waypoint for other family members who left their farms to follow him. But for Kganye, who never met him before his death, her grandfather had always been more of a symbol than a fully fleshed person – a man in a suit and formal shoes she recognized from photographs, but knew little about.
“(The work) is centered around my grandfather as this man that became like the Pied Piper, who led everyone in my family from the farms,” she said.
In recording her family’s oral histories, she realized how fluid memories are – how accounts differed by person, or even morphed in their retellings by the same storyteller. So she reflected the sense of dubiousness in her work, with details of each figure obscured by the blackness of silhouettes.
“Our memory has these gaps,” she said. “As they’re telling me all of these different stories, they had these elements of the imaginary and the fantastical.”
Her grandfather came to life through her research, however. He was a man who was daring enough to migrate to the city, who was boldly funny and extremely frugal, and who was once so drunk he had to be taken home in a wheelbarrow. (One account from her aunt recalled the time she was given the herculean task of cutting his toenails, so Kganye included an image of an oversized clipper in the scene.)
But in all of Kganye’s work, including the 2018 series “Telltale,” which moves on 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 understand herself through her country’s complexities. Adrift after the loss of her mother, she anchored herself through all of the histories, from the personal to the macro, that touched and shaped her own life.
“(There’s) this grand narrative of history, the history that is meant to represent the whole of South Africa,” she said. “But it is actually in the micro histories, where we get to hear how actual apartheid affected families and family structures.”
The question Kganye poses in the show title refers to many things – what her mother left behind, what South African families left behind, and what Kganye leaves behind as she shifts her work away from grief. 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 are you leaving behind?” is exhibiting at Rosegallery through April 9. Kganye will also show her work at the South African pavilion at the Venice Biennale from April 23 - November 27.