There’s a mixture of vulnerability and anxiety that comes with having your photograph taken. For South African photographer and visual artist Lebohang Kganye, it’s been a matter of using that sense of discomfort to create art that speaks to the complexities of ancestry and identity.
What makes the young artist’s work stand out is her use of different mediums to interrogate the past and subject matter of family, and the narratives set and told by family members. This is apparent in her first solo exhibition Ke Lefa Laka in 2013, which depicts how captured moments in time can be pieced together to form familial roots and origins.
The exhibition was a project that came about three years after the death of Lebohang’s mother. Because she was the main link to extended family and historical roots, it sparked Lebohang’s need to trace her ancestral roots.
“I initially began navigating my history through geographic mapping, attempting to trace where my family originated and how we ended up in these different spaces that we all now call home,” says Lebohang. “I visited the different locations where my family lived in South Africa and found many old family photo albums. I realised that family albums are a significant part of family histories.”
Ke Lefa Laka is therefore an ode to her familial roots, as well as an investigation. Using old photographs of her mother, Lebohang digitally superimposes herself into those photographs, making for a surreal composition that plays with the past and present. The collection is also self portrait, as she deliberately places herself in her family’s narrative and history.
“I realised how the family album is composed of a selection of what shall be remembered, what’s forgotten, therefore our histories become orchestrated fictions, imagined histories,” she explains.
Like her mother, her grandfather also plays a key role in her family history, and was the first person in the Kganye family to move from the Free State to the Transvaal to find work. He then made it to Johannesburg. Despite his death before she was born, in Ke Lefa Laka the two generations meet and interact.
“Ke Lefa Laka is also about being at the same place at different times and not meeting. I enact stories about my grandfather to construct a visual narrative, in which we meet, through the use of life-size flat mannequins of the characters related to me in various family stories,” says Lebohang.
“In these fictive narratives I am the only ‘real’ person, taking on the persona of my grandfather, dressed in a suit, a typical garment that he often appeared wearing in the family photographs.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Lebohang’s talent for photography would spill over into film, prompting her to create an animation from the Ke Lefa Laka series entitled Pied Piper’s Voyage, and more recently Ke sale teng, where she continued exploring the family narrative using stop-frame animation. Ke sale teng means “I’m still here” in Lebohang’s home language of seSotho, and she challenges the conventions of the family portrait and urges an entire reinterpretation of it.
Using silhouette cutouts of family members, Ke sale teng tells of Lebohang’s family history and how that very silhouette forms her identity, and her position in her family’s narrative.
“I am interested in how albums no longer have a fixed narrative but instead open us to interpret our past and perhaps a kind of reinterpretation,” says Lebohang.
Ke sale teng won Lebohang the 2017 Sasol New Signatures Art Competition, which will allows her a solo exhibition at the Pretoria Art Museum as well as R100,000 cash prize. For Lebohang, her detailed exploration into her history is not just about the family narrative, but also an exploration of language, oral culture and about telling our own stories.
“Family history remains a space of contradictions. It is a mixture of truth and fiction. The image is never complete. We are only presented with visual clues that allow our own imaginaries to further “complete” the story,” says Lebohang.