South African artist Lebohang Kganye recreates the life of her late mother in old family photographs.

Written Jackie Palumbo, CNN

After Lebohang Kganye’s mother died at the age of 49, the South African artist began to sort through the things she left behind to cope with her grief.

In her mother’s wardrobe, Kganye recognized clothes and jewelry she had only seen in old photographs, many of which were taken before she was born. Among them was a feminine white calf-length sundress, knotted in front; bright red collared top with white trim; elegant long coat with a black and white pattern.

“I went on this journey trying to somehow find her or reconnect with her,” Kganye explained in a video call from Johannesburg.

It was through this cathartic process that Kganye found direction in her photography practice. She dressed in her mother’s clothes and styled her hair as she did, and then reenacted the scenes by overlaying her ghostly image right on top of old family photos.

From the series “Ke Lefa Laka: Her-History”. Credit: Lebohang Kganye/Rosegallery

Her mother was strict but playful and a bit unorthodox, recalled the South African artist from her home in Johannesburg. She was religious, but open-minded, she said, and practical when it came to spiritual matters. In the pictures Kganye chose, her mother was only a few years older than the artist and posed with a touch of confidence in neatly tailored clothes and knee-length skirts.

In each photograph, Kganye became a time traveler, an abstract presence, a witness to the events that would eventually lead to her own life. She appears and disappears in group portraits and takes the form of a ghostly double exposure as her mother poses alone. In one image, she refers to herself as a baby, beaming as a younger version of herself takes a step.

A series "Ke Lefa Laka: Her story."

From the series “Ke Lefa Laka: Her-History”. Credit: Lebohang Kganye/Rosegallery

While working on a major work called “Ke Lefa Laka: Her Story”, Kganye visited her relatives in South Africa – they helped her find the exact locations and she also began collecting their stories, laying the groundwork for a later series reconstructing her family and cultural background. history. Before embarking on the project, she felt cut off from her roots—she didn’t even know why her last name, meaning “light,” was pronounced three different ways in the family. But in her research, she found that it was the result of a combination of factors, from illiteracy and spelling errors by local authorities to the result of forced relocation during the apartheid era, which displaced some 3.5 million black South Africans in the second half of the 20th century. .

“After the loss of my mother became very exaggerated for me, I thought, ‘I don’t really know the people I ended up with,’” she said. “A lot of research has allowed… intimacy that I wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Reconstruction of memories

Kganye has 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 from an early series in which she transforms herself into a classic fairy tale. fairy tales, but their action takes place in an African town.

At the Rosegallery in Santa Monica, California, “Ke Lefa Laka: Her Story” is on display alongside two other interconnected series. A show called “What Are You Leaving Behind?” explores her place in the family and her wider South African heritage as she emerges from a period of image-building that was largely about loss.

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

A series "Ke Lefa Laka: Her story."

From the series “Ke Lefa Laka: Her-History”. Credit: Lebohang Kganye/Rosegallery

Over the years, Kganye has developed a practice of recreating memories in many ways, restoring photographs or creating diorama-like scenes based on the oral histories she collects. But in each of his projects, Kganye uses photography as a theatrical stage, arranging actors, props and settings to unfold his narratives.

Family Reconstruction is literally built that way, with black-and-white cardboard paintings set in an imaginary version of her grandparents’ house in Johannesburg. Each image is based on her family’s memories – her relatives’ stories often centered on her grandfather, the first person in her family to give up farming. Instead, he moved to the city during apartheid to work in a factory and raise a family, and his house 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 was always more of a symbol than a complete person – a man in a suit and formal shoes, whom she recognized from photographs, but about which she knew little.

“(The work) is centered around my grandfather, the man who became like the Pied Piper, who took all my family members away from the farms,” she said.

A series "Family reconstruction."

From the Family Restoration series. Credit: Lebohang Kganye/Rosegallery

As she recorded her family’s oral stories, she became aware of how fluid memories are—how much stories differ from person to person, or even transformed in their retellings by the same narrator. She thus reflected a sense of doubt in her work, the details of each figure obscured by the blackness of the silhouettes.

“We have these gaps in our memory,” she said. “When they tell me all these different stories, they have elements of the imaginary and the fantastic.”

However, her grandfather came to life thanks to her research. This was a man who was brave enough to migrate to the city, who was daringly cheerful and extremely frugal, and who one day got so drunk that he had to be driven home in a wheelbarrow. (In one account, her aunt recalls a time when she was given the Herculean task of cutting his toenails, so Kganye included an image of a huge clipper in the scene.)

A series "Control."

From the series “Fairy Tale”. Credit: Lebohang Kganye/Rosegallery

But in all of Kganye’s work, including that of the 2018 TV series The Tale, which moves from her own family to the oral histories of the inhabitants of the village of Nye Bethesda, where she had an artist’s residence, she attempts to better understand herself through her country’s complexities. Adrift after the loss of her mother, she has anchored herself in all the stories, from the personal to the macroeconomic, that have touched and shaped her own life.

“(There is) this grand storytelling, a story that should represent all of South Africa,” she said. “But really, these are micro stories where we can hear how real-life apartheid has 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 left behind when she switches her job from grief. But out of that sense of loss, she made a tangible record of her place in the world—something else that would remain when she was gone.

What are you leaving behind? exhibited at the Rosegallery until 9 April. Kganye will also show his work at the South African Pavilion at the Venice Biennale from April 23 to November 27.

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