Graham Lang (1955 - ) was born in Zimbabwe. His family moved to South Africa in 1965 where he studied at Maritzburg College. He completed his tertiary education at the University of Natal where he studied art and later completed a Master of Fine Art Degree at Rhodes University in 1987. He taught sculpture at the Carinus Art Centre, the Technikon OFS and the University of Durban-Westville before emigrating to Australia in 1990. He lectured for twenty years at the University of Newcastle, NSW, where he completed a PhD in 2007.
Lang’s career as a visual artist spans three decades during which he has exhibited extensively in South Africa and Australia. His art predominantly involves traditional forms of painting and sculpture but has also included mixed-media drawing, photographic narrative and site-specific installation. Essentially biographical in its attempt to evoke both the external and internal realities of place and being, much of his early practice reflects the political and existential anguish prevalent in apartheid South Africa, particularly during the 1980s. Similarly, the broad-ranging work produced during his time in Australia centres most prominently on themes relating to migration, cultural identity and the umbilical connections linking Australia and Africa. Since his departure from academe in 2011, he has tended toward a more intuitive approach, exploring a diverse array of subjects, many derived from his literary interests.
Lang is the author of three novels – Clouds like Black Dogs (2003), Place of Birth (2006) and Lettah’s Gift (2011). On his interest in writing he told the project:
At some point in my education I felt the need to write instead of just read. I also felt that writing offered a powerful creative parallel to my endeavours as a visual artist.
His novels explore shifting notions of postcolonial southern African identity, dispossession and dislocation, triggered especially by the deeply conflicted issue of land. Each work reflects a different aspect of the maelstrom of change in Zimbabwe and South Africa during recent decades – love across the crumbling racial divide during the final bloody decade of apartheid (Clouds like Black Dogs); a family’s tragic confrontation with ‘war veterans’ on a farm in Zimbabwe (Place of Birth); learning the true lesson of African suffering (Lettah’s Gift). Yet each novel is also united by the common theme of an émigré’s return to a completely transformed ‘home’. Through the eyes of these flawed prodigals we gain insight into the limbo experienced by many among southern Africa’s growing diaspora.
Each of his books has received positive critical interest. The Pretoria News described Clouds like Black Dogs as a “vivid and often violent story of loss and redemption”. Place of Birth was commended for having the potential to “make one appreciate that they live in a country filled with hope” and show that people can achieve a lot if they “stop seeing the colour of [their] skins as a threat”. The book went on to be longlisted for the Sunday Times Prize in 2007. Lang’s latest novel, Lettah’s Gift, was praised by Ian Lipke for being a “stark, moving tale”. Cheryl Critchley agreed, giving the novel a “moving” verdict in her review.
Lang now lives in Tasmania where he writes and paints full-time. He has kept strong ties with southern Africa, frequently returning on creative projects.
Photograph: Caroline Flood
Excerpt from Place of Birth (2006:57-58):
To add something more about Rex and the psyche of the Rhodesian male: Rex had also tried to teach me to hunt, but I lost interest after my first kill, an event that was meant to ‘blood’ me. Being blooded was a farm tradition started by my great-grandfather where all the Bourke boys would be anointed by the blood of their first kill. I was nine years old when my turn came. I’d been looking forward to it – at the time I wanted nothing more than to be admitted into the exclusive world of real men like Rex. Gus had already shot his first buck, a young kudu bull, and he wore the blood on his face for the whole day.
The debacle of the experience is forever etched in my memory. I shot an impala while it was drinking at a water hole, about eighty metres away. I fired in a kneeling position, resting my elbow on my knee, as Rex had taught me. But the rifle was too heavy and the sights wavered. I squeezed the trigger nevertheless because I didn’t want to disappoint Rex and Gus who were crouching behind me, watching. We heard the thwack of the bullet as it struck. The impala reared up, staggered a bit and fell. The sound of it bleating in agony made me lose my composure. I threw the rifle to the ground and ran over to where the gut-shot animal lay, horrified by what I had done. Stupidly, I tried to comfort it. Wide-eyed, bawling, it thrashed around on the ground trying to get to its feet. I started blubbering. Behind me, I heard Gus laughing contemptuously and say, ‘Ah, Vaughn! You big bloody sissy!’ Then Rex came up and pulled me away from the impala. He gave me the rifle and told me to finish the job. Never leave an animal to suffer, he said. Put it out of its misery. He pointed to where I should shoot - at the heart. By this time the buck was just lying there looking at us, seemingly resigned to its fate. I finished the job, but ran away when Rex tried to smear blood on my face.
2003. Clouds like Black Dogs. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers
2006. Place of Birth. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers
2011. Lettah’s Gift. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press