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I LOVE YOU TOO (Cape Town)
Kemang Wa Lehulere
Artwork 2023
Artist Kemang Wa Lehulere Title I LOVE YOU TOO (Cape Town) Date 2023 Materials Public participatory project Credit Courtesy of the artist and blank projects

“The aspiration,” Wa Lehulere writes, “is to paint a social portrait through prose and poetic form by way of public declarations of intimacy.” A people’s library of love letters, I Love You Too holds space for vulnerability. An open invitation to the public, participation involves booking a twenty-minute massage that is received in exchange for speaking a love letter. Writers play the part of amanuensis; giving words to the participant’s sentiments. Establishing “a moment of tenderness that connects people,” I Love You Too is a gesture of love about love.

You to Me, Me to You marks the second iteration of Wa Lehulere’s I Love You Too. Letters from the project’s first iteration are compiled in I Love You Too, a collection of love letters from the people of Manchester (2021), available to read in the Gallery. 

Excerpt from a conversation with Kemang Wa Lehulere (K.W.L.), Josh Ginsburg (J.G.), and Sara de Beer (S.d.B.) held in person in preparation for You to Me, Me to You, 4 August 2023:

K.W.L. In February 2012 in Houston, Texas, I presented some work, including what we had been doing as the Centre for Historical Reenactment collective in Jozi in the aftermath of the murder of Mozambican musician Gito Baloi.

He had been killed a block away from where I was working in Johannesburg. The title of his song Na Ku Randza (1997), which translates as ‘I love you’, inspired us to undertake multiple interventions outside, in the public realm, and inside of our space.

While invited to a closed symposium at the Menil Museum, in Houston Texas, one of the participants in the symposium was then the director of the African Film Festival in New York. After the presentation, she came up to me and said, “You’re trying to tenderise your people.”

That phrase stuck with me for many years – I wondered, how could I develop a project in the future to speak to this? To take it further.

I Love You Too, this idea of love letters as a project, arose from this phrase, as an exchange of tenderness.

For the longest time my work focused on a particular lensing of history, and together with the collective’s very politically charged energy.

I remember Thembinkosi Goniwe asking, “What do revolutionaries do when they’re not being revolutionary?” What is beyond the sloganeering, politics, political positioning? What makes us human?

I don’t want to talk about the idea of ‘humanity’, or some other version of this, but I am interested in talking about finding commonalities: what makes us common as people across the world? Everyone desires love. Even if it hasn’t been had, felt, or experienced, love is nevertheless desired.

I was curious about public participatory projects, and this feeling I had that, oftentimes, these kinds of projects ended up taking more from people than they gave. How can one create something that spreads tenderness and love? And how can we talk about love without it feeling cheesy or like a gimmick?

J.G. Even talking about love in art suggests the art is cheesy, when it’s just speaking about love. Part of this project, we’ve realised through talking together with the artists and with our team, is about practising or testing how to speak about love, and what happens to us when we do that.

K.W.L. Love is something which is often expressed privately. Growing up, I was always curious about people who wrote declarations of love in the toilets – the boys’ toilets at school, and on school desks. School desks are the material I’ve been working with for so long and I often come across these declarations of love on them.

These marks people leave behind… These are not marks for the people who make them. They may sit at the desk every day while considering making a mark, but these are marks made for people to find in the future. How is love, this thing we all desire, something we are so often shy about?

I’ve wondered after small signs of affection – those things like holding hands. I grew up with toxic masculinity: for the generation of black men in Gugulethu where I grew up, holding hands with one’s girlfriend in public would have been seen as a sign of weakness. Apartheid governed and controlled black bodies in the public space. With friends from Cameroon, or Zimbabwe, they experience similar controls and limitations when it comes to public displays of affection.

J.G. ‘Love’ appears in other of your titles.

K.W.L. Bring Back Lost Love began as a joke. In downtown Jozi, there are all these signs advertising the work of prophets. Call them if you want a penis enlargement, to get rich…all kinds of scams.

I wondered what it would be like to call one of these guys and present them with an impossible challenge: to Bring Back Lost Love, in this case, lost land in relation to the Native Land Act of 1913. But the idea for I Love You Too was there first, it’s only that it was difficult to find support for the project, because perhaps it seemed so divergent from work I’d done previously, or it was difficult to visualise. But I’d been thinking about it for years for more than ten years. When the Manchester International Festival [MIF] published the first iteration of the book in 2021, it was perhaps easier to see the project’s form and have it understood.

J.G. Love seems to be a part of your practice more widely – love as a strategy for confrontation.

K.W.L. I developed a frame of thinking that I would describe as very radical, in the beginning, and then more refined within the academic space of universities, but both of these mindsets were about thinking critically. The training was towards criticising, problematising, analysing, not towards tenderness.

At some point, I felt exhausted. I enjoy humour, why could I not make humorous work? In fact, humour is incredibly challenging – to open yourself up, and look towards a moment of joy – when you have been trained to see problems.

We are not trained to be generous. This was about finding fault in my own thinking patterns.

At the Zeitz Museum, we tested the project with Zeitz staff – for this test the project was not open to the public. But there were individuals who burst into tears after their sessions, overwhelmed by the experience. One individual expressed that they had never felt love in their life. I understood we had to develop an ‘aftercare’ for the project. It’s now a requirement for there to be a person on the team who is there to sit and be with each participant after their experience. [Editor’s note: the project involves each participant receiving a massage from a trained masseuse. While receiving this massage, they are asked to narrate a love letter. A writer is present in the room and commits this letter to text.

We so often take it for granted; that people know love. My parents weren’t allowed to be together because of apartheid. Even though they both died when I was young, I knew that I was loved. I knew that my father loved me. Even if he couldn’t be with my mother. But this is not true for everyone; not everyone has the experience of being loved.

J.G. Perhaps it’s the most radical act of all, to make a practice about love…

K.W.L. When I Love You Too was first conceived of, I wanted it to take place at a taxi rank, or the train station, between 5.30 and 7pm. These are the hours when black bodies are in transit after a day of labour, moving, working, serving. What would it mean to gift someone a massage, a moment to rest, at the end of a long day, and then for them to take those feelings of tenderness with them, and share those in the home? This is where I would still most want it to take place, no matter the logistical complications involved.

J.G. This may be a bit of a far-out question. Is there a part of this project that is about developing self-love?

K.W.L. Each time I’ve developed a project I’ve developed my thinking, and sight of the world. At present in my studio, the oil paint I’m currently working with is teaching me patience. I’ve been wondering, who would I write to, if it were my turn to get on the massage bed and to write a love letter?

There’s a video in which Slavoj Žižek proclaims that the idea of universal love is disgusting, because rather than loving, he is indifferent to the world, and that love is a violent act, an act of picking out one small detail from the others, even if this detail is one single, fragile individual, who one chooses to love above all else. To paraphrase Žižek, creation is a catastrophe. We must assume it’s all a mistake and still go all the way to the end, knowing everything is imbalanced, and doing this is called ‘love.’ In his words, love is evil.

As a parent now, when I look at how soft and gentle my son is, because he is such a loving boy, I find myself asking, “Am I ok with him going out into the world, with this gentleness?” It is beautiful – that he is this way, but the world is tough and unforgiving, full of heartache, swindlers, scammers, and fraudsters.

How does one protect a child, who has this gentleness, without risking that one forces them to become tough? My love for him is also my desire for him to be able to be himself. But this means I have to stand by and see him get hurt – this dangerous openness – as he learns how to be appropriate in this world where hurt people hurt other people.

Talking about this now, perhaps this is the realisation: that the person that I would write my love letter to, is my son.

S.d.B. Talking about romantic love may be a way to cultivate wisdom in loving – a love muscle, as it were, that’s responsive, flexible, fit: that moves nimbly and smartly.

J.G. Is it love, if it’s unrequited? Does love exist where it is given, only, without a force to press back against it – to answer back? Love is possibly something that’s cultivated only in the time between its sharing. That it becomes material through the response: I Love You Too.

K.W.L. Black men have not been allowed to be tender. We have had to fight, to battle, to struggle. At some point, I didn’t want to always be fighting. One project in the wake of Gito Baloi’s death was to stand and hand out roses on the street to passersby. Just – here, this is for you, no explanation or expectation.

When I think about black male artists who have successfully worked with love and tenderness, I think of Moshekwa Langa. Moshekwa writes the names of his past lovers as a catharsis that is also an act of preservation – this is still confrontational. Ernest Mancoba’s move away from South Africa and his decision to follow abstraction, to work in that way – I think this can be thought of as a radical act of self-care.

J.G. I don’t see this work as departing from your other work. It’s more like a glue that binds them all together. 

Kemang Wa Lehulere works against collective forgetting and gives to South Africa’s recent past images, objects and gestures – each a mnemonic sign for those stories lost in historical abstraction. Working between amnesia and archive, Wa Lehulere’s installations and performances become poetic translations of memory. Wa Lehulere counts among his many mediums collaboration, quotation, objects found and made, and chalk. To chalk he gives material significance, for its pedagogy, its fragility, the palimpsest of a blackboard. It extends, he suggests, “into broader ideas around history and memory; the writability of history… the erasure of history, the marginalisation of certain histories, and the re-writing of history.” Wa Lehulere’s historical impulse is not one of nostalgia, but rather a critical re-examination of inherited truths. History, after all, is not static but generative. To the artist, it lends itself to be reimagined and revised.