Kemang Wa Lehulere

I cut my skin to liberate the splinter: Act 1


Not on display

Kemang Wa Lehulere born 1984
Reconfigured wooden school desks, 96 glass bottles with cork tops, steel bath, acrylic tank, acrylic pipe, water, moulded plastic valves, metal flutes, sand, paper and ribbon
Overall display dimensions variable
Purchased with funds provided by the Africa Acquisitions Committee 2019


This is one element of a large-scale multi-part work that comprises six sculptural installations – I cut my skin to liberate the splinter Act 1–5 and I cut my skin to liberate the splinter: Please remember on my behalf, all 2017 (Tate T15274T15279). They can be shown individually or together as a single work, as they were on their initial presentation during Performa 17 Biennial in New York in November 2017, which earned the artist the fourth Malcolm McLaren Award.

I cut my skin to liberate the splinter is Kemang Wa Lehulere’s most ambitious work to date and is wholly representative of his practice, encapsulating many of the themes he has explored over the past decade while incorporating his signature use of found materials that refer to his experiences growing up ‘coloured’ in apartheid South Africa. The work addresses issues relating to history and memory, home and exile, and longing and displacement, by referencing a range of issues in recent South African history including the forced removal of black South Africans initiated by The Native Land Act of 1913, the voluntary and involuntary exile of those who opposed apartheid, the student uprisings of the mid-1970s and the build-up to the first democratic elections in 1994. In explaining the title, Wa Lehulere has said that ‘to cut oneself to liberate that which hurts is a poetic act towards generosity and [a] desire for freedom’ (correspondence with Tate curator Kerryn Greenberg, 9 May 2018).

The piece was partly inspired by Cosmic Africa (2003), a documentary about African astrophysicist Thebe Medupe’s search for further understanding of the cosmos through his investigations into ancestral knowledge as he travelled across Africa. As Medupe came to discover, artworks in Africa have historically played a central role in preserving and communicating knowledge, a point Wa Lehulere reinforces in his own work.

The work can be activated by an accompanying performance in which elements of the sculptures become used as make-shift instruments. Wa Lehulere worked with theatre director Chuma Sopotela to choreograph actions and movements borrowed from children’s games. The lighting should be low and dramatic during such performances. When the work is not activated it is silent and lit in a more conventional manner. Critic Ian Bourland, reviewing the performance of this work at Performa 17, wrote:

The tightly blocked movements of Kemang Wa Lehulere’s I cut my skin to liberate the splinter – an array of playground set pieces and rude musical instruments, apparently built from refuse – conjured the innocence and terror of youth, adapted to the violent games of our modern age. The exhausted performers’ bodies and elegiac gestures linger in memory weeks later, from a mournful trumpet solo to the delay-pedal dirge of a fearsome, improvized [sic] harp and Wa Lehulere’s declaration of his own name, which hung in the air like an incantation.
(Ian Bourland, ‘Performa 17’, frieze, no.193, March 2018, online 14 December 2017,, accessed 10 May 2018.)

The six parts of the work are as follows:

I cut my skin to liberate the splinter: Act 1 2017 comprises a right-angled triangular form, over three metres high, constructed out of salvaged school desks. Wa Lehulere frequently utilises school furniture in his work to address questions around how knowledge is imparted, and to refer to student activism during apartheid and contemporary struggles for access to, and transformation in, education. Wa Lehulere has said: ‘I believe the education system is the most important aspect to begin with because it is where people are shaped. At the moment and for a long time the education system [in South Africa] has not produced people that think critically, but rather people who fit in the system.’ (Quoted in Aïcha Diallo, ‘The Desire to no Longer Be Silent’, Contemporary And, 31 March 2017,, accessed 9 May 2018).

Completing this sculpture is a clear acrylic tube fixed to the diagonal side of the triangle, connecting a transparent rectangular tank at the apex with a round steel bath filled with water at the base. Ninety-six glass bottles sealed with cork stoppers and containing sand and blue paper scrolls tied with ribbon are arranged in a grid in front of the bath. When activated during a performance, the bottles are slowly fed into the acrylic pipe and – by way of pressure controlled by three gates – travel up the pipe to the tank where they are fished out of the water by a performer atop the structure who reads out the messages in the bottles. At other moments bubbles are blown into the water pail with one of five metal ‘flutes’. The flotation and chamber system Wa Lehulere has created in this work is based on the water shaft theory, which postulates that the Ancient Egyptians used pressurised water to move the massive limestone blocks used in constructing the Giza Pyramids.

I cut my skin to liberate the splinter: Act 2 2017 is made up of three rubber tyres and four wooden crutches. Attached to the tyre treads are short lengths of metal tubing, salvaged from the legs of old school desks and welded together. As with the school desks, the rubber tyres are a childhood motif for Wa Lehulere. In impoverished areas of South Africa, children frequently play with abandoned car tyres. In wealthier communities, tyres are often repurposed into children’s swings. While this material is associated with the innocence of childhood, in the South African context it also recalls burning tyre blockades and the practice of necklacing, a particularly gruesome form of mob justice (a car tyre would be forced over the head and around the arms of the suspect before it was drenched in petrol and set alight) reserved for those thought to be government collaborators or informers during the apartheid era. The modified tyres and crutches symbolise injury and injustice, but also hold the promise of mobility and play. When activated, two performers use the crutches to wheel around the tyres, while at other moments a single performer stands on top of one tyre and uses the crutches to move around. Meanwhile three porcelain dogs stand by.

I cut my skin to liberate the splinter: Act 3 2017 includes a birdhouse fabricated from salvaged school desks on top of a metal structure. Two wooden drumsticks balance on the side of the roof, while a further four drumsticks are neatly arranged on the floor below the structure. Twenty smaller birdhouses, also constructed out of old school furniture, are stacked around the main element. In Wa Lehulere’s work, bird houses are a recurrent theme and symbolise entrapment, forced removal, homelessness and migration. Wa Lehulere was raised in Gugulethu, a residential area created in the 1960s for black people who were not permitted to live in Cape Town and were forcibly removed to the township. During the performance, the larger birdhouse is played like a drum while the smaller birdhouses are rearranged, increasingly frenetically, by a single performer who proceeds to lie down and thread the structures onto her limbs, transforming the performer’s body into a hulking, immobile form.

I cut my skin to liberate the splinter: Act 4 2017 echoes the triangular shape of Act 1. A school door with a window provides the vertical plane of the right-angled triangle, which is supported by poles made from old school desks. Piano wire is strung between the door and metal A-frame structure. Like the other sculptures that comprise this work, Act 4 becomes an instrument that is played with a violin bow when activated.

I cut my skin to liberate the splinter: Act 5 2017 consists of four birdhouses, one of which is placed on the floor, while the other three are connected by metal pipes (from salvaged school furniture) to each other and to two further elements. A desk-like panel is attached to a horizontal metal pipe facing downwards, rendering it impossible to use, while an additional form resembling a desk has been transformed into an mbira, an African musical instrument consisting of a wooden board with attached staggered metal tines, played by plucking the tines with one’s thumbs. Two leather suitcases, one filled with sand and another containing growing grass, complete the scene. During the performance, the mbira is played, brightly coloured feathers are blown from one of the birdhouses and a performer stands inside the suitcase filled with sand dancing to the sound of a trumpet before filling his pockets with sand. A further porcelain dog looks on.

I cut my skin to liberate the splinter: Please remember on my behalf 2017 comprises twenty-six porcelain dogs, twenty-four music stands, twenty-four resin-cast hands and six chalkboards, carefully configured in an orchestral-type arrangement. The porcelain dogs, which appear elsewhere in this piece and across Wa Lehulere’s work, are mass-produced souvenirs that, according to the artist, adorn many South African homes (correspondence with Tate curator Kerryn Greenberg, 9 May 2018). Like many of Wa Lehulere’s chosen materials, the porcelain dogs stand in for a range of experiences, histories and meanings. During apartheid, German Shepherds were the breed of choice for the police; these dogs were trained to be aggressive by their white handlers and were feared and hated by black South Africans. Interspersed between the dogs and music stands are enlarged white resin casts of hands signing the words ‘please remember on my behalf’, alluding to issues around accessibility, but also to empowerment and memory. Wa Lehulere cast these pieces from the hands of his Aunt Sophia Lehulere, who had been involved in the student uprising of 1976. Wa Lehulere has explained that he intended these hands to be an ‘homage to a larger cohort of students, both those who survived and especially those who didn’t survive the violence’ (correspondence with Tate curator Kerryn Greenberg, 9 May 2018). The chalk drawings on green boards meanwhile represent pedagogy but, with the marks obscured and rubbed out in places, also speak to the fallibility and transience of memory.

Further reading
Kemang Wa Lehulere, exhibition catalogue, Stevenson, Cape Town 2015.
M. Neelika Jayawardane, ‘Bad Education’, Even no.5, Autumn 2016,, accessed 10 May 2018.
Kemang Wa Lehulere, Bird Song: Artist of the Year 2017, Berlin 2017.

Kerryn Greenberg
May 2018

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