Up and Under

Lawrence Lemaoana’s embroidered rugby balls and fantastical photomontages offer more than just ironic comments on the white man’s sport. By Sean O’Toole. Lawrence Lemaoana is Art South Africa’s fourth Bright Young Thing for 2007

After my interview with Lawrence Lemaoana I had to look up a word I wasn’t sure about. “Rugby is really an enculturated sport,” he remarked in a vaguely northern suburbs accent – it turns out he went to high school in Highlands North. The web was possibly the wrong place to look for an answer, but then the dictionaries I had consulted weren’t exactly helpful: most entries for enculturation read, “see socialisation”. I eventually gave up when I ended up in a fundamentalist Christian website where God and Noam Chomsky where being quoted to explain how social norms are vested in young children. As it turned out, Lemaoana had been quite clear: “Rugby is like a religion.”It is perhaps unusual Lemaoana makes work about rugby. Unusual because here we have an articulate young black man interested in producing sly, ironic statements – using photomontage and sometimes decorated fabrics – to comment on your average whitey’s preferred sport. “In the art world I face pressures to produce certain kinds of work,” he frankly counters. “Often I am asked to do watercolours, shacks and what not.” He squeezes out a sly laugh. “Then I present this.”Issues of permissiveness aside, his interest in rugby is not entirely without autobiographical resonances. “I played provincial rugby for a while, for Highlands North, Soweto, and then at my highest point for the Gauteng Lions u/18 at Craven Week 2000,” he explains. “I played flank.” Although slowly shedding its elitist (white) image, rugby is still marred by numerous problems as it lumbers into the non-racial present. Playing at a competitive level, it was unavoidable that Lemaoana found himself drawn into the realpolitik of the sport. Using his work Hierarchy of Colour (2006) as a reference point, he recalls a letter containing the names of players selected for the Lions. Some of the names were marked with an asterisk.”It worked out to be all the black guys,” he clarifies. “At the bottom, the letter explained the quota of black players required. It made me question myself. If we are the players of colour what are the other guys? What are they The One, 2006, digital print on canvas, 42 x 29.7cmcalled? What category do they fall into? At the time it wasn’t a sensitive issue, I just wanted to play, but when I started doing my art I questioned these issues.”It is not just sport that informs Lemaoana’s practice. His exuberantly coloured photomontages and fabric works also take a sideswipe at South Africa’s exaggerated masculinity while expressing an interest in decoration and adornment. “Most of my work is layered,” he says of the photomontages. “You have perhaps four different layers that have been reduced.” Aside from photographing friends and landscape scenes in Mpumalanga, he also lifts images from the internet, botanical magazines and Shangaan fabrics. The outcome, in his photomontages, is “a fictional landscape, a dreamlike space, a constructed space”.When I raise a point that his work might look vaguely kitsch, he simply smiles. Her points me to his work The Discussion (2005), a camp refashioning of Da Vinci’s mural The Last Supper. It won him the Absa L’Atelier’s Gerard Sekoto Award in 2005. “If you go to any home in Soweto, you will find the Da Vinci image.” Negotiating the “change of scenery between Soweto and the city” – an expansive statement latent with possibilities – he decided to revisit this image. The outcome recalls Yinka Shonibare filtered through the lens of a Catholic Tretchikoff. Somehow it works. Given his pointed commentary on rugby and its inelegant grappling with the issue of race, I ask him how it felt to win an art prize very consciously designed to address a quota imbalance in South African art. “Didn’t it make you feel like a player of colour?” I ask, using the title of his Alliance Française exhibition as a reference point.”For me it was just another way of creating special categories,” he says. “It ties in with rugby so much. The standard line [in rugby] was that, ‘You have people that have been doing this for many years, generations and generations.’ Our argument was, ‘What about talent?'” I joke that maybe it is time black artists started entering competitions under the guise of being white – a refinement, if you will, of white artists doing the converse, Wayne Barker/Andrew Moletsi and, less charmingly, Beezy Bailey/Joyce Ntobe. “Maybe,” he chuckles. “You have to constantly negotiate your way.”
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