Ke Lefa Laka A Family History

Pied Piper, 2013
Pied Piper, 2013 | © Courtesy of the artist and Stevenson Gallery

Young South African photographer Lebohang Kganye talks about Ke lefa laka, a photographic research into the history of her family.

Manon Braat of Africanah Arena for Contemporary African, African-American and Caribbean Art interviews Lebohang Kganye about Ke lefa laka, work from a year’s research into her family history using family photographs, testimonies from family members as well as personal narratives.

Manon Braat: Could you tell me where the idea for Ke lefa laka came from?

Lebohang Kganye: The project was mainly about my family’s history and me trying to place myself in it, because I felt so lost. My mother was the main link to the other members of my family, when she passed away I felt I lost the connection. So by working on this project I found my place in the family somehow.

MB: How did you go about?

LK: I tried to place my family within the context of South African politics, history and economy. It started with me exploring my ancestral roots, beginning with stories that were narrated by my grandmother regarding places where my family members had lived. These stories reflected my family being uprooted and resettled because of apartheid laws and the amendment of land acts and having to move from place to place. I visited the different locations in South Africa where my family lived and attempted to trace how we ended up in the different spaces that we all now call home.

MB: And what did you find?

LK: The project was a means for reconstructing my identity by reconnecting with family members, both alive and dead. But through this process I have discovered that identity cannot be traced; it is an invention, constructed of true, half-true and untrue narratives, hopes, dreams and fears. One goal of the project was to find out what my actual surname was. Over the years my family’s surname changed from Khanye to Khanyi, and eventually Kganye. My grandmother’s surname was spelled differently from my grandfather’s surname, which doesn’t make any sense – they were married to each other. Then my mother’s surname was also spelled differently, so there were three different variations of the same surname in one household. During my search I found even more variations, and I asked myself: if I change my surname, what will I change it to, and what will this mean ultimately? I soon accepted that I might never know what the original spelling of our surname was. Of all the things I came across during my search it allowed me the choice to except or refuse it as my history. I made my own decisions; things were no longer decided for me. This journey allowed me to claim a history, one that I can call my own.

MB: Could you elaborate on this changing of surnames in South Africa?

LK: Black people were forced to move during the apartheid era to designated areas. The changing of the surnames was either an attempt to identify with the different social and physical spaces, each with their own predominant language, where family made homes. Or they were a result of negligence in recording by law officials. Officials recorded surnames of black people incorrectly, because they couldn’t care less. Also, there was a lot of illiteracy among black people, so many of them couldn’t correct the officials when they spelled their names wrong. Ke lefa laka is a typical South African story; people are used to slight variations in surnames, authorities too. So when I need to claim insurance or something like that, authorities can’t make it an issue.

MB: What did your journey eventually result in?

LK: My project diverted into different threads of investigation that explored the personal and collective histories of my family: the story of my mother, my grandfather and my own story. The work consists of three different parts. One part being audio recordings of interviews with family members I tracked down and the photo album I created myself using a selection of all the images they gave me. The second part consisted of digitally manipulated photos. I used existing images of my mother, and juxtaposed them with images of myself, dressed and posing in the same way. Then there are the photos of the cardboard collages. I made life size cardboard cut-outs of enlarged photos from old family albums and placed myself in the setting, dressed in my grandfather’s suit and performed stories that were narrated to me about my grandfather. These performed imageries were then photographed and these images are currently on view in Huis Marseille.

MB: By placing yourself in the old photographs, you connect to your family narrative before you were part of that narrative, placing yourself in the apartheid era.

LK: I am very much aware of the fact that I was not in the era in which they lived. As I was working on the series the word ‘ghost’ kept coming up. Initially it was about the (deceased) family members being ghosts but later on I realized I was the ghost, because I am the one who was forcing myself into their history, into a place and an era that I’ve not been a part of. I put myself in a story that I don’t belong in and that I can’t claim but I’m conscious of my presence there anyway.
The work refers to apartheid, an era that’s behind us. But it also speaks to the present that is very much impacted by apartheid. Everything that is now, the economy, black families living in townships, white people in suburban areas, is a result of the past. So the series also talks about current issues in South Africa, such as land. There have been quite a lot of debates around the redistribution of land. In the work I talk about my family who stayed on a farm for so many years but had no claim to it. And then they came to the city and moved to the townships because that’s just where black people had to live. That doesn’t make sense.

MB: Ke lefa laka shows the absence of a father figure. In South Africa an extreme high amount of mothers are single. Do you have an explanation for this?

LK: It dates back to the time when black mothers and children remained and lived in the rural areas, while fathers had to go to the city to work and stayed there for long periods of time without seeing their families. The apartheid system basically separated black families. Even after apartheid, a lot of black families are broken, and very dysfunctional. It has somehow become such a norm for black men to have illegitimate children with different women and for those women to raise the children by themselves. I don’t think it’s fair for children to have to grow up in such unstable environments, and it’s not fair for the mothers either. My work also speaks about the absent father. I grew up in a home where my mother had to take up all roles, that of the caring parent and that of the providing parent.

MB: How do you deal with the issue of representation in your artistic practice, working with the medium that, one could argue, plays the most important role in the creation of stereotype images that exist of ‘Africa’?

LK: I consciously chose to step away from photojournalism and deal with issues that are personal to me. What I make is not the typical imagery of black Africans you often see in the media, Africa is beyond that. But there seems to be an interest in images from Africa that show black people who are poor, looking hungry and dirty. The stereotypical ideas worldwide about Africa are a result of the imagery that’s out there. When I travel overseas it’s sometimes a shock to other people that I am civilized as an “African”.

MB: For real?

LK: Yes, you really do get weird questions. When I was in New York recently this guy asked me: “But how are you from Africa?” So I asked him what he meant by that. He replied: “How is it that you are dressed like us?” Hahaha.

MB: You’re laughing now. But doesn’t this upset you?

LK: No, I am upset by very little. I just told him he needed to educate himself a bit more. It only shows the effects the media has. And it’s our fault, the image makers, for portraying Africa that way.

MB: How do you feel about the current political situation in South Africa?

LK: I think if we’re able to overcome apartheid we should be able to overcome anything. We’re living in an in-between-process, which is a bit scary. I mean, for instance, elections are coming up and I don’t know what party to vote for. I feel like there’s just no party that speaks to me. And I don’t know if I trust any of the parties to lead this country, which is sad. We’ll be fine in the end I think, but change hasn’t really happened yet, while it could have.

MB: In what way?

LK: Africa should really be a rich continent, because of its minerals; it really should be very prosperous. There are reasons why it’s not… This doesn’t only concern South Africa, it concerns the entire continent. There are reasons why Africa is in the state that it’s in as a whole. How and when we can actually overcome this, is to be seen I guess.

MB: What are your personal dreams for the future?

LK: I recently just went back to school, for four more years to study visual art. I am currently enrolled at the University of Johannesburg and I am really excited about getting into sculptural work.

MB: You don’t want to do photography anymore?

LK: I’m going to continue doing photography. I just want to somehow merge photography with sculpture. My work is going to move towards something that I can be more involved in with my hands. I enjoyed working with the cardboards, and I felt it was really sculptural, so I want to explore this more. For me personally photography is also about the process of making. I am not so interested in taking photos of things that are just there, I actually want to be involved in the creating and be part of the process before the shutter is pressed.

MB: Your previous work also deals with representation and with race politics. Would you say that your historical awareness and political engagement was encouraged by art? I mean, contemporary art from African artists presented in Western institutions, is very often political. In the West we seem to expect and actually want art from Africa to be politically and socially engaging. How do you feel about this?

LK: I don’t feel any pressure. If I should feel the need to make art about shoes, I wouldn’t hesitate to do so. My engagement hasn’t got anything to do with what is being expected. The artwork is simply reflective of my mental process. You can’t turn a blind eye to issues that are relevant to you. How can your work not talk about politics, if you’re thinking about politics all the time? Of course artists make art for different reasons. For me, those are just my reasons. Looking back, ever since I was a child, I have been involved in art, so I think that my photography is just an extension of both my creative interests as well as my concern with South African politics and my own personal identity issues.

MB: There’s growing interest from the West in art from Africa. Western museums are presenting more and more work by contemporary artists from Africa or the African Diaspora. At the same time curators are debating ways in which they should present ‘African art’, struggling with questions such as: how to address race politics in a way that doesn’t reinstate people’s differences and reproduce prejudice and otherness, how to avoid colonial mindsets that persist in art and art institutions? How do you feel about African exhibitions in Western institutions?

LK: What I think makes sense for exhibitions about Africa taking place in Western institutions, is to have an African curator on board, to co-curate or advise. But in any case, to have somebody involved with the exhibition who understands the history of the subject you are dealing with. Someone who actually lives in Africa with that personal life experience can help to avoid clichés and misinterpretations. There’re always more sides to a (hi)story, exhibitions shouldn’t be limited to the single perspective of the Western outsider.

MB: So inclusion is the key word?

LK: I think so. I don’t object at all to the grouping of artists from specific areas or countries in exhibitions. I just feel the involvement of local expertise about the specific context is the best way to do it. I know that there were artist’s talks and lectures in Huis Marseille for instance and I think it is very important for the understanding of the work and the broader context in which it was produced. Having people from South Africa, for instance talk about the historical, political, social context and placing the work within the correct context, such as with ‘Apartheid & After’, that makes a lot of sense to me.

Lebohang Kganye (1990, Johannesburg), is a photographer living in Johannesburg, currently studying visual arts at the University of Johannesburg. 

Ke lefa laka was produced with The Tierney Fellowship, organized by the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg in collaboration with the Tierney Family Foundation in New York. The work was first exhibited in Johannesburg, in the Market Photo Workshop Gallery and later at Photoville, the large annual photographic event in New York. Ke lefa laka was on show at Huis Marseille in Amsterdam as part of the exhibition Apartheid & After from 15.03.2014 - 08.06.2014.