The Bird Lady
In Search of Gladys Mgudlandlu

Kemang Wa Lehulere’s exhibition “Bird Song” is much more than an homage to the forgotten South African painter Gladys Mgudlandlu. The “Artist of the Year” 2017 brings his pictures and hers into dialogue and returns her work to art discourse. But who was Gladys Mgudlandlu? Oliver Koerner von Gustorf on a long overdue rediscovery.
In 1957, Gladys Mgudlandlu’s grandmother died at the age of 114. For Gladys, who grew up with her, it must have been both a loss and a liberation. In that same year, the art teacher began painting professionally. At night, in her modest home in the township of Gughuletu not far from Cape Town, the now 40-year-old painted scenes encompassing her whole life in the light of a paraffin lamp: memories of her childhood, of Fengu and Xhosa myths her grandmother related to her; landscapes, birds, shacks of townships spilling over the sides of ridges, gleaming in fiery ocher, white, and green. For the rest of her life she would continue to paint without electricity. Her bed and her dining-room table were her studio; the shadows that the lamp cast on the paper and canvases showed her the way. Mgudlandlu let herself be guided by them, developed her motifs from their course. Some nights, she painted dozens of pictures. She was not only a talented colorist; she made hills surge like waves on which houses float and tumble. Souls and personalities shine from the giant eyes of the birds she painted. No Life without Religion was the title she gave to a 1962 painting of a sea eagle whose white collar recalled a priest. She was not interested in reproducing reality, but in what she saw in it. Her painting style, Mgudlandlu said, is a mixture of Impressionism and Expressionism, but she would call herself a “dreamer imaginist.”

Gladys Mgudlandlu’s painted dreams went down well. In 1962, she was one of the first black women artists in apartheid South Africa to have a solo exhibition at a gallery, the Rodin Gallery in Cape Town. The husband of the gallery owner Jean Ra’hel Fuchs discovered Mgudlandlu’s art during a business trip thanks to the recommendation of a customer, and literally swept works by the artist out from under the bed and behind the oven. After her first show, she became a sort of media personality in South Africa. Newspapers reported on her paintings and exhibitions; ministers’ wives had themselves photographed with her. More than 2,000 people attended her first opening. The gallery was literally overflowing; crowds of people gathered on the streets. Fifty-eight of the 76 works exhibited were sold. Mgudlandlu, who was a very eloquent speaker, gave countless interviews, including with television. She was in the public eye for ten years. But in 1971, she was injured so severely in a car accident that she had to give up painting. In 1979, she died alone and impoverished in her house with the number 120 in which she had worked and lived for decades. Hardly anyone went to her funeral. The neighbors, who hated her, drove her children out of the house; the murals with which Mgudlandlu had decorated her living area were painted over. A few years later, she was almost completely forgotten.

What remains is not so much the memory of her painting, but criticism that overshadows the scant reception of her work. In 1963, in an article in The New African titled The Exuberant Innocent, Bessie Head, one of South Africa’s most well-known writers, called Mgudlandlu’s painting “childish scrawl,” “escapist,” and out of touch with reality. Head asserted that while Mgudlandlu painted her green hills, flowers, harvests, and chickens, she completely ignored the injustices committed against black people in a country in which “life and reality mean ninety-day detentions and banning orders and bang, bang, bang,” referring to the shootings of black demonstrators. According to the writer, Mgudlandlu aroused the impression that one simply had to leave things to God and everything would be okay in South Africa. Head wrote: “In her calm green valleys through which half-naked tribal women wend their peaceful way homeward in the late African sunset one can recline restfully with a cocktail and the past is the future and the present is the past...” Indeed, Mgudlandlu was pictured in a press photo that appeared in the South African daily newspaper Die Burger in 1964 wearing a festive gown during a visit by white ministers’ wives to her exhibition. Among them was the wife of the later Prime Minister Pieter Willem Botha, a vehement proponent of apartheid policy. On the same page, there is a report about the so-called Rivonia Trial during which Nelson Mandela and seven other leading ANC members were sentenced to life imprisonment despite the condemnation by the UN Security Council.

So why do the purportedly naïve works of this artist, who, as Head averred, did the apartheid regime a favor, appear a half century later in the exhibition of an artist who engages with the traumas of apartheid? In Bird Song at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Kemang Wa Lehulere does not simply show Mgudlandlu’s works, but his own works enter into dialogue with them. As in jazz improvisation, in which one musician answers the others based on the call-and-response principle, he hung his own pictures next to Mgudlandlu’s, letting them comment on one another and correspond. At the same time, the 33-year-old, who is regarded as one of the most important contemporary artists in his home country, searches for traces of Mgudlandlu. For this project The Bird Lady in Nine Layers of Time (2015), he and his aunt, who actually met Mgudlandlu when she was a child, exposed a section of the mural in the artist’s former house in Gugulethu. For his exhibition Bird Song, which also deals with land expropriation and forced resettlement, he and the Ilze Wolff went to Simon’s Town, a hilly district on the coast near Cape Town, where he tried to find remnants of Luyolo Village, a destroyed black settlement whose residents were deported to Gugulethu. Wa Lehulere is convinced that many of Mgudlandlu’s township pictures do not show Gugulethu, but the lost home of the residents who moved involuntarily to this settlement.   

Concealed behind the seemingly idyllic views is what is most probably the repressed history of an enormous loss. In his exhibition, Wa Lehulere paints a more complex picture of the Bird Lady, the epithet given to Mgudlandlu because of her love of birds, for which she was often derided. Indeed, many aspects of Mgudlandlu’s work and life are much different than they seemed to be for a long time. The media hype notwithstanding, we still know every little about her today. Other than the name of her father, scarcely anything has been passed on about her family. Neither the name of her mother nor that of her grandmother are known. Mgudlandlu’s children Malvern and Linda, which she long claimed were her brother’s offspring, have already died. Her granddaughter cannot remember ever hearing the name of Gladys’ grandmother. As the art critic Elza Miles points out in her meticulously researched 2003 monograph titled Nomfanekiso – Who Paints at Night, The Art of Gladys Mgudlandlu, the artist herself nourished the myths about her. She always said she was born in a different year: 1920, 1923, or 1925. But the date on her birth certificate is November 1, 1917.

Eliza Miles is likely the first art historian to give Mgudlandlu’s work the attention it deserves. She not only manages to reconstruct the life of this contradictory woman, but also shows why the reception of her works was so difficult and how she fell victim to racism and the arrogance of the academic art scene. When the artist and autodidact entered the public arena, she encountered a number of obstacles. There were of course the strict apartheid laws that affected all black people, deprived them of basic civil rights, and degraded them to second-class citizens. In the mid-1960s, when Mgudlandlu was at the zenith of her career, both blacks and whites were threatened with prison sentences if they drank alcohol together. Visits by whites to townships or blacks to residential districts had to be registered with the authorities. When the civil rights activist and entrepreneur’s wife Dawn Haggie visited a Mgudlandlu exhibition in 1964, congratulated her enthusiastically, and asked her if there was something she could do for her, the artist said she could accompany her to a toilet. She was not allowed to use the bathrooms in the building because of apartheid. The two women went together to a nearby railroad station. At the same time, Mgudlandlu undermined these racist chicanes. She invited black school choirs to her openings in white neighborhoods and, along with the traditional sherry, offered guests “umquombothi,” a traditional maize beer.

However, it was not only the blatant racism that prevented her art from being duly honored, but above all the Eurocentric and academic view of the art world. Although Mgudlandlu taught generations of pupils, students, and artists, was supervised by academically trained painters such as Marjorie Wallace, and attended exhibitions on a regular basis, she was regarded as a folk artist, as naïve or “primitive.” She was often compared to the aged American folk artist Grandma Moses and the French autodidact Henri Rousseau. That was the international trend at the time. After the horrors of the world war, the art world reflected on the primordial, on folk traditions, on so-called “naïve art.” People loved Dubuffet and Chagall, looked for so-called Sunday painters. Grandma Moses, who initially sold her New England idylls next to homemade jam at the at the roadside, was exhibited in the White House and created a stamp for the U.S. postal service. Mamie Eisenhower loved her pictures, seeing them as reflecting the quintessential American identity. Mgudlandlu took on the same role and was even called the “black Grandma Moses.”

But while her paintings adorned the living rooms of white people’s villas, no one saw that her works were more than just impulsive, primeval expression, reflecting a yearning for nature and rooted in indigenous traditions. It went unnoticed that Mgudlandlu’s painterly decisions were bold, self-assured, and intellectual; that her feeling for color, rhythm, and ornament led to absolutely contemporary formal solutions. In her semi-abstract compositions, she broke down birds, houses, and mountains into their basic geometric forms, dissolved landscapes into expressive and pointillist storms of color. And the processual aspect of her art was also ignored. “Their mark making is very incredible but also the fact that you are never really too sure what they actually show,” said Kemang Wa Lehulere in an interview with Deutsche Bank curator Britta Färber. “They almost feel like cropped images in the way they have been done. I don’t know why I am drawn to these birds. But they are surely something that I have meditated trough in my studio.” Indeed, after more than half a century, in Bird Song Mgudlandlu’s paintings are truly incorporated in art discourse for the very first time. It almost seems as though only in dialogue with Lehulere’s works can their full meaning unfold – and the ignorance they had to bear for so many years come to light.