Contemporary art: William Kentridge, total and unclassifiable artist

Iimpressive: that’s the first word that comes to mind to describe the 40-year retrospective of works by South African artist William Kentridge at the Royal Academy of Art in London. William Kentridge is one of the most productive and internationally recognized artists. Artist pampered by the biennials, multi-awarded, his drawings, his animated films, denouncing political violence, set out to conquer the world of art. His work is haunted by the specter of oppression, apartheid, colonialism and social injustice.

A protean artist, his practice ranges from engraving, drawing, collage, film, sculpture to tapestry, including theatre, opera, dance and music. The exhibition unfolds his work over time, from his first drawings and paintings in the 1980s to his animated films which bring his drawings to life, but also large tapestries, produced during the Covid pandemic, which question cartography and the colonial history. Tirelessly, the artist follows his common thread. His work is political.

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A dive into family history to understand the artist’s universe

Born in 1955, in Johannesburg, his committed artistic career is also linked to a family history. Great-grandson of a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, who fled the pogroms of the early 20th centurye century, his parents were both lawyers and engaged in the struggle against apartheid. His father, Sydney Kentridge, represented Nelson Mandela during his trial for treason in 1958-1961, and in 1978 he defended the family of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko. Her mother co-founded the human rights organization Legal Resources Centre.

After a degree in political science and African studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1976, he studied for two years at the Johannesburg Art Foundation before going to Paris in 1981 to join the Jacques Lecoq International Theater School. Back in Johannesburg, he became an actor and director at the Junction Avenue theater company in Johannesburg.

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Drawing, the essence of William Kentridge

It was in the early 1980s that he sketched his first charcoal and pastel drawings for posters and theater sets. His practice evolves towards larger formats, diptychs, triptychs. The subject revolves around everyday life. Finally, a very often frightening life where wild animals, hyenas, warthogs, or cheetahs symbolize the representatives of the apartheid regime. In The Conservationists’ Ball (1985), Kentridge caricatures the carefree and selfish bourgeoisie with which jackals, hyenas and rhinos mingle, symbols of greed and corruption that plague society.

In other drawings, the artist depicts brutalized miners, lines of starving black workers. Tirelessly, the artist denounces violence and injustice, which brings him closer to engravers and caricaturists like Francisco Goya, Honoré Daumier or German expressionists like Otto Gleichmann.

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Another step is taken with the film

At the end of the 1980s, he developed a particular technique transforming his drawings into animated films. He gives them the name “drawings for projection” (drawings for projection). His technique consists of drawing in charcoal, photographing, then erasing, reworking the charcoal drawing which he photographs again, and starts again, thus creating successive images which come to life. The movement in the image is created manually by the artist, the camera only serving to record its progress. The eraser leaves traces, shadows of the past which weigh on the present and the future.

After the large rooms which present the first drawings and the “drawings for projections”, the visitor enters a huge gallery transformed into a cinema where 5 films are projected in parallel, out of the 11 he has made since 1989. Johannesburg, Second Greatest City After Paristhe first film, but also Monument, Tide Table, Other Faces but also the last made in 2020, City Deep. These films depict, in the city of Johannesburg and its outskirts, the life of Soho Eckstein, an unscrupulous white tycoon, who reigns over the city and feeds on the work, the sweat of black workers. Among the supporting characters are the neglected businessman’s wife, Mrs. E., and her occasional lover Felix Teitlebaum, a stocky, balding artist, her alter ego.

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A total and unclassifiable artist

Black Box (Black room2005) is a mechanical theater piece including puppets and projections, which questions the history of the massacre of the Herero people in Namibia, today considered as the first genocide of the XXe century.

In the adjacent room is projected Ubu Tells The Truth (Ubu is telling the truth, 1997), an animated film referencing the play ubu king by the French symbolist writer Alfred Jarry. What begins as a whimsical cartoon turns into a bitingly darkly humorous tale about the atrocities and crimes of the apartheid regime revealed during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In the room where the film is shown, Kentridge made a wall drawing.Notes Towards a Model Opera, 2015, a projection on three screens parodies the operas created by Mao’s wife, Yiang Qing, to the glory of the Chinese cultural revolution. A storm of images and sound on three screens. Drawings of birds in flight, images of the dead and starving, who could be Chinese or African, a black ballerina, dressed in a communist uniform, brandishing a gun whirls around, a black man, waving a red flag… Revolutionary ideals and disasters of the revolution are brought together in this show where the ghosts of the past still haunt the present.

This monumental retrospective can make the visitor’s head spin, so many works, images, music that respond to each other, complement each other and question each other. Undeniably, Kentridge is one of the great artists. The exhibition catalog is also a good way to discover the work of the artist who never stops.

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* Exhibition, William Kentridge, Royal Academy of Arts, London, until December 11.

Contemporary art: William Kentridge, total and unclassifiable artist