My Own Sanity Within That Madness | Kit Eginton | The Hypocrite Reader

Kit Eginton

My Own Sanity Within That Madness

Lawrence Lemaoana, Fools Multiply When Wise Men Are Silent and But Fools Despise Wisdom and Instruction, 2019

HR editor Kit Eginton caught Lawrence Lemaoana, the artist featured in our 2022 issue WHERE YOU STAY, for a discussion of gender, South African politics, hype, disappointment, and the nature of curiosity. Lawrence, born in 1982 in Johannesburg, has created a body of visual work that engages with mass media, political control, and South African identities. His work often appropriates political slogans by embroidering phrases onto brightly-colored kanga cloth, a garment with complex ties to local celebrations and gift-giving, American slavery, and global trade. He is represented by Afronova Gallery and teaches at the University of South Africa.

Kit Eginton: Hi, my name is Kit. I’m an editor at Hypocrite Reader, a writer, and a translator from Russian (where I lived and studied art history for a while). I’m really pleased to get to talk to you.

Lawrence Lemaoana: Why did you live in Russia?

K: I suppose because I just feel really drawn to that culture and language. I always have been.

L: You know, South Africa is very tied to Russia culturally. Of course there was this massive fight for dominance over Africa, but also in terms of ideology—you either had British influence, or Russian. So our liberation movement, the ANC, was partly supported by the USSR, and some of our political influences trace back to that. So there is a lot of “struggle,” with people referring to each other as “comrades” and so on. A lot of “speak” here is borrowed from that space and reinterpreted.

K: Do those aesthetic politics persist into the present day?

L: Remnants of it, yes, when expedient. In contemporary art, we have a whole history of movements to borrow from. And with the South African cultural situation now, you can pick from any part of the timeline for contemporary use. So there’s a lot of that, but there are also progressive young politicians who are not linked to that, but still apply it. We have a political party called the EFF, and they go to Parliament, to Congress, in red overalls and boots to emphasize that they are for the workers.

K: A lot of your work is asking what discourses people are echoing. Some of your early work, for example—the rugby players, the [former South African president frequently referenced in Lemaoana’s early art] Jacob Zuma—my understanding is that one of the things you’re doing is trying to piece apart which traditions or codes of masculinity people are drawing on.

Lawrence Lemaoana, Newsmaker of the year, 2008

L: Absolutely. I speak of South Africa as kind of like a “new” democracy—it’s been 25 years, but those in my age group are in the in-between phase. We experienced the tail end of apartheid and its influence on people’s movements, people’s lives. And we also know the beginnings of a democratic space.

During those beginnings the majority of us were able to access what we call “better education,” or formerly white schools—which had facilities like rugby, the equivalent of American football. Rugby was the domain of the white male. It’s a very physically demanding sport, but it was contained within white Afrikaner culture. The ultimate male in this country was this rugby player.

So I was utilizing the codes that I experienced in the rugby world, as a young Black person, for my own identity, for being stuck in this in-between space of being a township kid who’s shown the possibilities of another world. There’s this kind of schizophrenic element about these situations, so I utilize some of the metaphors that I experience in real life: the pink emerges from the lesser masculine, but also from grappling with this talk (at the time) of the metrosexual, a male who is clean and almost feminine. As Black kids, we fell into that in-between crack, between not being fully male, and not being fully immersed in this world, and not having the rugby traditions and having to generate new forms of tradition in the sport, and being rejected. I tried to apply those experiential things in almost simplistic ways—color coding, for example.

Lawrence Lemaoana, First Line of Defence, 2008

K: In writing about your work—by you and others—I often read that you are “critiquing” something, or you are “commenting” on something. But so much of your work seems centered around references and quotation and manipulating quotations in ways that are simultaneously underdetermined and overdetermined, to the point where I feel like I don’t always know what the grammar of it is. When I’m looking at a sentence, I can find a subject and a verb: X does Y, X is or is not Y. Whereas in your work it seems to me that there’s often just a subject, a very complex X. The verb never arrives.

L: Exactly. I think what I try and do is locate the work within the language of ambiguity. That stems from the culture of posters in South Africa. You have these street posters with headlines that sometimes very insensitively incite violence—or work with the violence. So I try to apply that, work within that in-between space, and distill the meaning in, say, less than eight words. It’s trying to encode, but at the same time deliberately open up the conversation, to work in the in-between, not to be didactic to my audience but to open up the channels of meaning, too.

K: I’m a transgender woman. Something that I have experienced is that since making my gender transition, I have been able to relate much more affectionately to masculinity. In your work, there is a critique of masculinity or a critique of the way that codes of masculinity are used to support certain politics, but I also see—particularly with the rugby players—almost an affectionate suspension. I wonder if that is something about the way that you relate to quotation or citation in general—that you might be critiquing the thing that you’re suspending on the cloth, but that there’s also some love that you have for it.

L: Yes, of course. I think it began with the fact that I do love myself. When you are faced with a world that promotes the unloving of yourself, when you’re submerged in the high levels of critique of Black males in this world, etc., you come out of it by expressing different types of maleness. I was critiquing the hegemonic masculinity that pervades not only Black males, but also white males. It was an engagement with maleness and what maleness is. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I love other males—I’m fully heterosexual and all that—but I do have a self-critique that extends out into the world. I tried to pack all these things into a kind of mess, but it can be unpicked. Even with the feminine act of sewing—I was already practicing it: it didn’t emerge from the work, it was something I applied to the work.

I think that there’s something about the apartheid system that encourages less self-love. You’re stuck in a world that defines where you live, how you live. There’s a metaphor that I like to use: it’s like your body is imprisoning you. Do you know the movie The Diving Bell and the Butterfly? It’s about this—about being immobile, and just stuck there. This guy gets paralyzed from the spine downward and he can only move his eyes—it’s called “locked-in syndrome”—and he writes a whole memoir. When you’re defined by apartheid, you’re visibly what you are, and you can’t be anything other than what defines you.

K: That makes a lot of sense. And there’s a certain immobility in a lot of your artwork, a lot of things are fixed and set. There’s also, simultaneously, a lot of compression and a lot of open-endedness. And I was thinking whether in some way this combination of compression and openness, this free immobilization, might be a way of navigating double consciousness.

L: Yeah, very much. What is always interesting about being from this generation of young Black people is that you have the township, which is like a ghetto, where you come from, and then you also have opportunities to escape—you go into suburban, formerly white areas, and you develop this twoness; your accent, the way you speak, changes according to how you want to assimilate into either space. So there’s a conscious or subconscious sense of being in two places at the same time and transitioning from one zone to the next.

I read this fascinating book recently called King Leopold’s Ghost. The author speaks about how Africa is a space of no commandments. The logic is that in deep dark Africa, you can do whatever you want, because the laws of the Bible are not in effect, because you don’t have the infrastructure for it. If you don’t have a fence, how do you respect your neighbor? So this is a way of dismantling the things that make the Western world function, making it impossible for them to operate here.

That gives you license to do horrible things: apartheid, genocides. If I think about, for example, the Namibian genocide, if I think of Skull Island, or even as far as Australia, these become spaces where there’s a kind of unwritten law: “dismantle, dismantle.” I’ve set foot in Europe; I know what is to be done; I know what it is to be a civil servant. But that’s not necessarily as well applied in South Africa, because, you know, we’re in “Africa”—in inverted commas.

K: Hypocrite published an article in the WHERE YOU STAY issue about pan-Africanism and Judaism. It discusses an idea from a book called The Black Atlantic, that there’s a dialectical relationship between what it calls the politics of fulfillment and the politics of transfiguration. So, “fulfillment” is the attempt to live up to the white ideal: you’re going to adopt the white system, the white rationality, the white morality, the white family, and you’re going to do them better—whereas “transfiguration” is like, no, fuck that, we need a whole different world. And this is a leap, but it feels to me as though, because you are in the situation where there are systems of white rationality or systems of rationality from Europe, but then they don’t necessarily apply, or they aren’t perceived to apply in the same way, maybe by creating these artworks that exist in this space between, on the one hand, presenting a body to be cared about, and on the other hand having a claim about, you know, foolishness, or something else to be critiqued... You’re balancing on that pin, between presenting a body and critiquing a way of doing or thinking.

L: Absolutely. One thing I use to think about in-betweenness is the color scheme of red, black, and white. This comes in part from the color schemes that newspapers use. But, also, in traditional ways of living, red, black, and white is spiritual. It’s the in-between zone. For example, when young men go to initiation school and transition from being boys to men, they put red clay and white clay to emphasize the notion of the in-betweenness. And along with black, these colors are about spirituality. It’s about locking in this in-betweenness zone. For example, when a traditional healer goes through the healing process, they’re neither male nor female: they are in-between.

Even in the quotes that I include: yes, they come from the real world, but they’re also connected to the spiritual realm. One of the most interesting things about being Black in South Africa, or in the world, is that we are highly spiritual. Though we may not be Christian or whatever, our ancestors are living with us, and we see them—and often I think about how jealous the Europeans that set foot here must have been to encounter these beings who live with their ancestry. We don’t do monuments, we don’t create these mega-structures in order to talk about our ancestors, they’re just there, there in spirit, there in thought. And so for me, it’s an acknowledgement of playing both sides but extracting the best that I can from both and creating another dimension of in-betweenness. It’s about these two zones of existence, or maybe not even two, maybe multiple zones of existence.

I wanted to say earlier that I discovered the idea of drapetomania from a gallerist in Chicago, and I find it quite interesting—

Lawrence Lemaoana, I Am Tired of Marching... I Am Tired, 2021

K: Yes, I had really wanted to ask you about drapetomania—

L: As a term, it was created to mark these Black people who were not only stealing the master’s property, but also stealing themselves. When I dug in, I learned that in Russia, they have what they call the holy fool. And I found that amazing. Right now I’m investigating madness as a form of survival: the idea that I might lose the things that make up my dignity for the sake of my own survival and my own sanity within that madness.

And I might also bring up the Tibetan kind of form of like, self-immolation. It’s this notion that, you know, you will not own me, to the point where I can destroy myself, right? It also maybe links to what [South African anti-apartheid activist] Steve Biko was saying, that the last artifact for the white man is the Black man’s mind. Even when our physical strength—because that is what we get used here for, to lift things, to grow things—is exploited sufficiently, the mind is the last object. Also, I was inspired by the catalyst for the Arab Spring, the Tunisian man who set himself alight.

There’s a philosophical term—nihilistic, maybe. It’s about not being able to be owned. Because it’s so important to own people in the world. When I think of Jeff Bezos, when I think of the 10 richest men in the world, each of them is about ownership of something—ownership of our movements, ownership of tracking us on the internet. I think these notions in my work expand beyond just the limited space of my locale.

K: Many of the slogans in your drapetomania pieces—“I can’t Black today,” for example—feel very Afropessimist. You mentioned nihilism, and one definition of nihilism is the desire to destroy the world—which is kind of Afropessimism’s thing, right? The idea that the world is inherently anti-Black, so the world must be destroyed. But when I think about madness—and maybe this is just that I don’t like Afropessimism, but—I think about how the holy fool, for example, has more degrees of freedom or lines of flight, more places it can go, than to think that we have to destroy the world.

L: For me, it’s when we are reaching the peripheries of the standard practice that the antidote of madness can come into play. I really enjoyed the perspective on the holy fool of one of my favorite Russian directors, Tarkovsky. In his film Stalker, there’s this figure who just goes into madness. His methods are to use chance, like throwing a thread and a coin, spinning it, and wherever it lands, that’s where we go.1 For me, this is where the exploration is. You reflect on the possibilities in relation to what is happening now.

And then the other thing that is quite interesting about not destroying the world and being an Afropessimist is that, especially within South Africa, which is sometimes called “the great experiment,” the liberators are the very same ones taking on the gatekeeping, the connection with the West for the sake of exploitation. It’s basically one tribe of men replacing another and doing the very same thing. The infrastructure is doing exactly what it has always done. So for example here you have the old city or the central business district that has been abandoned by white wealth. And they go on to develop new spaces, Steyn City and so on, and create essentially these fortresses in which to live, and everybody else is chasing them.

And so when we occupy these abandoned spaces, we seem like mad people: “Why would you go to the city, there’s nothing there,” you know. So it’s that kind of logic. And so for me, it’s about not closing these kinds of chapters all at the same time, it’s about opening them up, and exploring them and creating different recipes of existence: the chapter of apartheid, the chapter of the new democracy, the chapter of a political struggle, etc.

K: Quite a few of the slogans in your work gesture at a revolutionary horizon, like, “we will get free if we do this.” Often to me these pieces do seem very critical of the slogans that they present, and I wonder if that is coming out of both this disappointment with the ANC but also, more broadly, a sense that you have to continually engage with what’s actually in front of you rather than either hoping for a revolutionary future or just repeating the revolutionary sentiments of the past.

L: Absolutely, absolutely. For example, the slogan “I’m tired of marching” references a Martin Luther King speech where he says, “I’m tired of marching for something that should be mine at birth.” And I find that to be so interesting. Because it speaks to the fatigue of struggle, right? The fatigue of having to find ways to vocalize the pain that you’re feeling, or having to express it and be understood. Even as we speak, today, there are people who are still having to march to express themselves. So I was engaging with this fatigue of trying to be liberated.

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was one of the first bodies of work engaging with this, and when I made my piece of the same title, it was having its fifty-year anniversary. The central figure in that story is a Nigerian Igbo man who has to let go of his traditional ways of being a man and apply Western forms of being a man. So a man who collects yams and is saving up for the next winter, that’s not really a man; the man that should be a man is a dandy, he has a title, he can speak well, etc., etc. This was part of what I was speaking to with “Things Fall Apart”: there is this recurring life-and-death situation, and sometimes you have to acknowledge the fatigue, the tiredness of it.

I also think of #FeesMustFall, this movement that began in 2015, where young Black people were asking the liberation leaders to promise free and fair education for everyone. And you find that, actually, not educating the masses is great for politics. Because you can always go through the cycle of saying we promise you this, etc., and give people T-shirts, and, you know, a hot dog and a cap, and not deliver. It was like this a luta continua process—even though we have found the Black government to govern us, we have still not found the promise.

Lawrence Lemaoana, Things Fall Apart, 2008

K: I remember when I was in college, in maybe 2015, at Harvard there was #RoyallMustFall. There were a number of these “must fall” campaigns of course. But the only reason I bring it up is that RoyallMustFall was about trying to change the names of things built with slaveholder money, while #FeesMustFall is about—it’s about race, and it’s also about class, right—it’s about the present, it’s about material access, what things cost right now and who can afford them. On the one hand, there’s a rethinking of political legacy; on the other hand, there’s a criticism of what’s happening now.

L: Absolutely. So, the genesis of #FeesMustFall was Rhodes Must Fall. In the Western Cape, in Cape Town, there are a lot of academics who were funded by Rhodes—I don’t know if you know the Rhodes that I’m talking about; he was a businessman, a mining magnate, and Rhodesia, which is what Zimbabwe used to be called, was named after him. There were lots of sculptures and statues that commemorated him, and people started to ask, why do we have all of these? That’s what sparked the movement, and it spread like wildfire.

K: It’s a deep connection between the symbolic and the economic. Like, on the one hand you’ve got monuments, and on the other hand you’ve got what people are having to pay to go to college in the modern day.

L: Yeah. I watched this documentary called Black Gold: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee. It began as an investigation into a drug in Ethiopia, but then the directors discovered that coffee is actually much more interesting. Five companies own all of the production—one of which owns Starbucks. There’s a scene in the film where these traditional men are having a coffee ceremony and praying, like, “Oh, Lord, please make our coffee more expensive this year.” In the meantime, they cut to Wall Street, where some guy is determining the price of their coffee. And for me, that was a really interesting juxtaposition between the real and the imagined. And then, what are the governing elements? Can we go beyond the juxtaposition and say, actually, there’s something even further than just liberation?

K: Something I’ve found—if you read the news in the US context, the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post or whatever, it can feel as though everything is simultaneously ever-so-important but also very mechanical, and none of it really makes sense. Like if you read the news, none of it makes sense, right? It just doesn’t. It’s like a just-so story, you know, that’s “just the way it is.” And you can’t imagine doing anything about it, because you can’t really hold in your head how any of it works.

For me, in my own life, understanding the world as spiritual and trying to understand, you know, the economic mechanisms that, for example, change the price of coffee—those are very intertwined. And it’s hard for me to take those economic mechanisms seriously if I don’t also believe that they are in some way inseparable from something spiritual.

L: I mean, they are inseparable, but also they are interdependent. So, for example, in the context of Africa and many other parts of the world, Christianity was used to dominate—and Christianity is mechanical: you’ve got commandments, you have a book that you need to follow, etc. But at the same time, there’s a joke that people tell, which is that the Westerners came with the Bible and got us to close our eyes in prayer while they took the land.

And then there’s this interesting book that was released a few years ago by Tembeka Ngcukaitobi called The Land is Ours about the first Black lawyers in South Africa. It goes deep into the past, into the 1800s—and it turns out that in the 1800s, there were Black people leaving Africa, going into America, and studying and becoming lawyers already. That was kind of unfathomable to me. In moments like that, you start to suspect your own education. You’re like, how do I not know this?

So, yes, we can say that the spiritual is constant, and it’s kind of continuous, but there are also these kinds of breakages that are influenced by real things. One of my favorite philosophers—he’s so funny—Slavoj Žižek, in The Sublime Object of Ideology and The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, speaks of desire and how sometimes desires are themselves manufactured in the world for us to enjoy. So the spiritual can be co-opted, in a way, to benefit the economic and the tangible.

A few years ago, here in South Africa, there were these pastors, these false prophets, who were making people eat grass. Literal adults, logical people, were made to eat grass, because a prophet was told by a dream that like—

K: That’s terrible for your teeth!

L: Yeah, and it goes beyond absurd. There were people who were made to swallow petroleum. It gets really ridiculous. “The word,” in inverted commas, can be co-opted to benefit who the speaker is, and influence the real and the tangible.

K: Right. Yeah. I’ve noticed that in all of your bios, it always says, you know, something like “with his trademark cynicism”...

L: *laughs*

K: I think that it’s interesting that you described yourself as being cynical. In part because you seem so fascinated by everything!

L: I am, that’s the thing, I’m tirelessly curious about the world and about its mechanism. But I think the cynicism—I think one of the galleries actually formulated that line—is that you kind of always find yourself disappointed. For example, I’ll think certain things mean—whatever they mean, in the context of encountering and experiencing them—only to find that in their roots, something diabolical happened. Like Barclays Bank, for example—you find out that the genesis of Barclays Bank is slave-owning, even if they ultimately transformed it, cleansed it, named it differently. My curiosity is always there, but I always find myself in this corner, where I’m disappointed, like, “Oh, this is just another mechanism.”

There’s this book Medical Apartheid, and it got me thinking about how the older generation here is very distrustful of the medical system and doctors, because they know that you might have a flu and end up being operated on for a heart attack, or all your limbs cut off, or whatever. Medical Apartheid puts that in context, how factors like race influence medical care now because of things put in place centuries ago. Or I might think of Henrietta Lacks, the Black woman whose cells were the basis of the first “immortal” human cell culture line? And then you read the story of who she was, and what happened to her...

So yes, I’m cynical, but also, there’s an interesting genesis to everything. I think I’m trying to foreground those backstories, and to play with them as well.

K: This is kind of a joke, but do you have any advice for the readers at home about how to stay curious about everything while remaining cynical?

L: It would be really easy to say, this or that is the formula. And yes, there is a kind of formulaic way in which I explore things and engage with them. But I think it’s more organic than that. And especially when you are visual—as you explore a space visually, things start to look unlike how they usually appear, like when you use an X-ray to look at a car. You can “X-ray” what it means to be human, or the blueprint of what governs the world. It’s about being in those spaces and seeing what’s possible.

I read that the nomads in the southern part of Africa would carry what was useful to them and leave whatever wasn’t. And part of engaging with the real world is just that: packing light, but also packing what is useful.

They also took ecstasy, as a form of hunting—you take the ecstasy, and then you embody the hunt, you see the hunt. And then eventually, when you come out of it, it plays out almost like Gran Turismo, the racing game, where after you do a lap, they create a ghost car of that lap, and you can chase yourself in a way. That’s another kind of formula.

K: Can you say more about the ghost car?

L: So, in the video game, you do one lap, right? And let’s say you do it in three minutes. Then when you get to the starting point again, you begin at the same time as your ghost car, and you chase and race against yourself. So I think about those people taking ecstasy and imagining the hunt, going through it in their minds, almost as if they were the ghost car. And then when they go and hunt for real, things happen often just as they imagined.

K: It sounds like you don’t so much have a formula as a sense of looking and imagining that keeps you moving forward.

L: Absolutely. But this doesn’t mean that that curiosity is also productive. Your productivity might be slowed down, but your experience of the world is that much more vivid, spiritually and physically.

Can I ask you a question? Your transition … psychologically, what was it—was it coming to terms? Was it like being reborn? What did you experience?

K: What did I experience when I transitioned? Well, obviously, it’s summarizing many years in one brief comment. But I transitioned very gradually. I started by transitioning socially, and then eventually, I started to change my appearance, to the point where now I mostly get read as female on the street.

But I think the most interesting thing that I experienced was a shift in my own perception. Before I transitioned, I looked at myself in the mirror a lot. And I still look at myself in the mirror a lot, but the experience is totally different. Yes, I feel good about what I see in the mirror now. That’s part of it. But another part of it is that I feel I understand what I see better.

Before I transitioned, for example, if I looked at my own face, I couldn’t see my mother’s face in it—even though, when I still looked like a boy, everyone told me, “You look just like your mother.” I couldn’t see it. I could see my face, and I had feelings about my face, but I couldn’t interpret my face. And after I transitioned, it was as though I had been given a code that allowed me to see how faces relate to time. I could see how my mother’s face was reflected in mine, I could see how my younger face was reflected, I could even start to imagine what I would look like when I was older, which before I transitioned had been completely opaque to me.

The other thing that happened is, as I said, that I started to be able to relate to men. Before my transition, I felt very afraid of men, I didn’t really understand why men needed to exist, I was opposed to the whole concept of men. And after my transition, I realized—this maybe sounds less profound, but I don’t really think it is—I realized I was able to think about the concept of a man differently. I could appreciate the potentials of masculinity, and understand how masculinity might fit well into a system or experience of human life.

L: I mean, it sounds like you almost had an outside-your-body experience. I remember my first international trip, which illustrated to me how parochial my thought was, and made me feel I needed to extract myself from that. The analogy I always make is to Google Maps. When you want to travel to a space, you can use Street View to be in the zone, or you can have a bird’s eye, satellite view of what you are experiencing as you go along, or you can look at it topographically. For me, it’s like trying to merge those three forms of knowledge into one. When I extracted myself, I was able to see what it is to navigate the maze, but also fly over it.

K: Right. I don’t know quite what the word I want to use here is because it’s not exactly dissociation. And it’s not exactly alienation. But I think that gender is very deeply related to time. You know, we use our genders to make families, and we use our families to make babies, to make futures. And when we try to talk about it, when we’re in the wrong gender, there’s a way in which we’re also out of time, we can’t imagine the future. I’ve written about this at length in Hypocrite. We can’t get a grip on time. It’s like we’re driving and our tires are spinning on mud. I think back then it was very hard for me to have that combination of being in-the-moment and having the bird’s eye view, and from the bird’s eye view having empathy for myself and others. Before transition, that triple perspective you talk about was alienated. I couldn’t access it—I tried, but I couldn’t.

L: It’s quite powerful. One of the little nodes in my journey as an artist is this—not through simulation, but like being in the real, in the physical space—because, you know, writing is abstract. And that’s what I’ve tried to play with: writing is abstract, but also it has such an influence on the reader. One of the things I speak about is this notion of spelling as a form of casting a spell on your reader, a magical kind of transmission that happens and has an influence on the reader.

K: Do you know Donald Glover? The American actor who also made the show Atlanta and is also a rapper? He has this line in an interview where he says, “My job is to encode a message to the culture.” I think about that a lot. It seems like art isn’t exactly a message, but it has a relationship to the moment in which it’s experienced. Especially with music, but also with poetry and visual art: a piece of art can be appropriate to a moment. It’s not that it tells you to do something, but if you experience it at the right time it seems to unlock an understanding, like it has a spell-like quality. It opens a way.

L: So, for a time I got into Gilles Deleuze and Guattari, and their idea of the rhizome. And I had the weirdest experience in an airplane, I was 30,000 feet up, and there was a tingling in my body, and I got it. It was like an opening, the third eye. And as the plane landed, it just kind of dissipated. It’s what you’re talking about, that the text does something and you’re like, “This is what it’s meant to do.” And I swear, I reread that text a few times over, and I could not get to that moment again.

K: I don’t want to keep you much longer, but I wanted to ask a question that you maybe don’t get often. I’ve been looking at your Instagram, and fairly frequently you’ll have an odd little montage with one static image or one short, very simple video, and then another one, and you’ll put a clip of a song over it. What are you doing there?

L: So many things. Nostalgia, and trying to say something political with very little, and trying to find the right song for a frame, and watching time change, and just tricking myself into playing visually. It’s all packed into layers.

K: There’s something fascinating about it. It’s also very hard for me to read. Part of that is I’ve never been to South Africa, I think.

L: I literally exhaust my gallerist. She’s like, you are in fucking New York and all you can do is look at, I don’t know, a fire engine or something? You know the Dean collection? They had just commissioned Derek Adams for an artwork, they invited me and various other artists, you know, Alicia Keys’ husband, what’s his name… Swizz Beatz, right, and Joanna from what’s that gallery, and Jack Shainman. They had all these cool art people, these amazing superstar artists. And it was really nice, and, you know, alcohol, and very American. Very Black American, as well. I was like, okay, this is nice, it’s kind of like what I saw in magazines, and it’s real. But I just got interested in capturing the moment in a much more real way. I went into my zone. My gallerist was like, how do you do that? For me, it was like trying to look away from what is Instagrammable. Trying to remember the space for what it was, emotionally, psychologically, and me being there.

K: Do you feel like that comes out of a discomfort or an alienation with the art world? A feeling of not fitting in, or a desire to fit in?

L: Yeah, it’s part of it. It’s part of that kind of alienation, but also, to use a kind of shorthand, impostor syndrome. You know, I feel like an outsider in the art world, but I feel like an outsider in the real world, too. Imposter syndrome can be almost like a tool as well. Just like madness is a tool, just like Instagram is a tool, and I try to combine them and not to reject them outright, as though they were outside of me. They are part of me. You’re kind of dismantled into bits every once in a while, and then you come back together again, and then you’re in the moment. But this is why one of my favorite goddesses is that Indian goddess, what’s her name? The blue one, and she stands with a tongue out, and she’s got skulls.

K: Kali.

L: Kali, Kali. She’s creation, but also she’s destruction. And that is the human experience.

K: Yeah. Yeah! You keep cheerfully talking about being or putting yourself in these positions of pain, you know?

L: Well, it’s the visual thing again. But also, take South Africa. We went through this horrific experience of apartheid. And it dehumanized us, it did all sorts of things to make us feel less. And now, we’re in this post-apartheid situation where everything is kind of democratic, etc, etc, and the politics have moved on. But there are these, kind of, should I say, “vestiges of hope?”

For example, in the liberation of Black people, the ANC has sometimes had to apologize for neglecting other factors—LGBTQ+ communities and so on. So on one hand you’ve got this idea of the broader development of life and human capacity, but on the other hand there are these small, or considered-small, communities that get left behind. During #FeesMustFall, there was a second protest against the protesters, because the LGBTQ community felt used as pawns to liberate everybody else, to give everybody rights, while their rights as human beings were not, or were not going to be, on the to-do list. There are these pockets of communities that haven’t been treated fairly by the liberators, you know, by the people who speak loudly on the mics and TV.

So being in the pain is not necessarily even only about disappointment in the idea that we are all going to be liberated. It’s about, how do we empathize and throw ourselves in the situation of other people, and be able to take their pain along with us in curing the world. You know?

K: I do. Is there anything you want to add before we say goodbye?

L: I guess what I will say is that for me, the creative process is not limited to the studio. Life is a studio of continuous experiments, or development explorations. And I think it’s when we feel full or complete that we lose humanity. That’s what I leave my home or even my bed with: the thought that like, “yo, there’s like 100 million new possibilities of knowledge that you could accumulate today.” That’s kind of what carries me to the next project.

1 At this point, Lawrence is either reading Stalker in a nontraditional way (since the titular Stalker’s use of coins are implied in the narrative to be a genuine way of navigating in the unique environment of the Zone) or blending his memory of Stalker with another Tarkovsky film, Andrei Rublev.

Works mentioned:

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Andrei Rublev
Black Gold: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee
The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema

King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild
The Black Atlantic by Paul Gilroy
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
The Land Is Ours by Tembeka Ngcukaitobi
The Sublime Object of Ideology by Slavoj Žižek
Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington
A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari