Lebohang Kganye examines the relationship between storytelling and truth

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Showcasing three series exploring memory, fantasy and loss, the South African artist’s first US show opens in Santa Monica next week

As a teenager, Lebohang Kganye aspired to become a writer. “I have always been in love with words and the worlds you are able to create by arranging them,” she says. The South African artist found inspiration in African literature and poetry. “My interest in being a writer has always been linked to ideas of truth… I was interested in how a document, such as a photograph, becomes a tool of evidence.”

When Kganye eventually found photography – at Johannesburg’s Market Photo Workshop, in 2009 – these ideas about truth and storytelling became central to her artistic practice. One of three contemporary artists selected to represent South Africa in the 2022 Venice Biennale, Kganye uses photography to engage in layered acts of storytelling, often incorporating her family archive.

Her latest show, at Santa Monica’s Rosegallery, What Are You Leaving Behind?, presents three pioneering series made over the course of eight years. Together, they chart the evolution of Kganye’s practice, and how themes of memory, fantasy and loss have intersected in the process.

Re tantshetsa phaposing ya sekolo II, from the series Ke Lefa Laka: Her-Story, 2013. © Lebohang Kganye.
Ka mose wa malomo kwana 44 II, from the series Ke Lefa Laka: Her-Story, 2013. © Lebohang Kganye.

In the earliest work on show, Ke Lefa Laka: Her-Story (2013) Kganye confronts the grief she experienced following her mother’s death. “I was scared that I was beginning to forget what my mother looked like, what she sounded like, and her defining gestures,” Kganye writes in a statement that accompanies the work.

Gathering archival images, Kganye began photographing herself in the same clothes and poses as her mother, inserting herself as a ghostly presence. “The photomontages became a substitute for the paucity of memory, a forged identification and imagined conversation,” she writes.

Kganye continues to consider the role of the archive in Reconstruction of a Family (2016). In dissembling these images, she questions the truth of a story told through family albums. For many people, these photographs are their only source of information about the past. By reconstructing her family photographs with black-and-white cut-outs, Kganye alludes to a grey area where the proposed veracity of a photograph intersects with the narratives that exist in our memory.

You couldn’t stop the train in time, from the series Tell Tale, 2018. © Lebohang Kganye.

In an extension of these ideas, Tell Tale (2018) explores stories that only exist in other’s memories. “I am mainly inspired by oral histories,” says Kganye, who references the genealogist Kimberly Powell: “Oral histories are stories told by living people about the past. Generally, these are stories of their own life and the lives of the people around them. Often an oral history includes details and stories that exist nowhere other than in the individual’s mind.”

The images in this series are based on interviews with residents of Nieu-Bethesda, a small village at the foot of the Sneeuberg Mountains in South Africa. Kganye created a series of miniature theatre sets, and staged them based on their stories. In doing so, the work comments on the potential for memory and fantasy to collide when conflicting stories are told – sometimes by the same person.

These three series together demonstrate how personal narratives, memory, family and loss are the hallmarks of Kganye’s practice. However, the title, What Are You Leaving Behind?, also refers to a departure. “The exhibition is not only an important step in my career but a new relationship altogether,” Kganye says. “I am excited about what I am leaving behind, and making room for everything else that I will be starting afresh.”

What Are You Leaving Behind? is on show at Rosegallery in Santa Monica from 22 February until 09 April 2022.

Marigold Warner

Online Editor

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.