t is not often that an artist working in Africa receives international attention. But William Kentridge, raised in Johannesburg, has bridged the continental gap with his visceral animations of South African life. Incorporating diverse media into his surreal films, Kentridge examines—with disturbing intensity—how ordinary people can become deadened to the violence and inequity around them. Tonight at 6 p.m., he will discuss his work at the Carpenter Center in a lecture called in “In Praise of Shadows.”
Kentridge is an unusually versatile artist, with a background ranging from opera to politics. He was born into a Jewish family in Johannesburg in 1955. In an interview with writer bell hooks in the September 1998 issue of Interview magazine, he noted that “a central irony exists for South African Jews. To be Jewish was to be other…But in the present, we are absolutely not part of those most oppressed.” Kentridge’s fascination with otherness and the divisions within South African society led him to earn a B.A. in politics and African studies in 1976 from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He then enrolled at the Johannesburg Art Foundation from 1976 to 1978, where he taught etching and printmaking for two years. His first one-person exhibition of drawings and prints went up at the Market Gallery in Johannesburg in 1979.
The mid 1970s also saw Kentridge becoming heavily involved with theater as a set designer, actor, writer and director. In 1975, he helped found the Junction Avenue Theatre Company, based in Johannesburg and Soweto. Kentridge’s interest in theater then led him briefly away from Johannesburg to study mime and theatre at the Jacques Lecoq in Paris, France, from 1981 to 1982. In more recent years, he has collaborated with the Handspring Puppet Company, creating multimedia theater combining animation, puppets and live actors. In 1998, the Company staged a multimedia version of the opera Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria by Claudio Monteverdi.
It was in 1989 that Kentridge fused his interests to create the animated short “Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris.” The film introduces Soho Eckstein, a Johannesburg businessman physically modeled after Kentridge and ideologically based on his grandfather, seemingly oblivious to the chaos that surrounds him. Soho leads his daily life in cleanly boxed rooms that contrast the violence of the outside world. He is accompanied by his alter ego, Felix Teitlebaum, a dreamy character who competes for Soho’s wife.
Kentridge’s animation style is unique. Rather than drawing individual cells, he makes a charcoal sketch on one large sheet of paper and photographs it. He then modifies the sketch slightly, rubbing out old images and drawing in new ones, again photographing the result. Movement is produced by stringing together a line of these pictures. The result is animation in which the old images are never fully erased; a piece of paper flying across the sky retains a faint shadow of itself dangling in its wake.
The images range from the violent to the surreal, many borrowed from photographs in South African newspapers. These appear in stark contrast to the fluidity of the drawing style. The films are accompanied by carefully selected music, ranging from Duke Ellington to Dvorak. The overall formal effect mirrors Kentridge’s themes of memory and suppression, of guilt and unawareness. “I have never tried to make illustrations of apartheid,” Kentridge told revue noire, a magazine of African contemporary art. “But the drawings and films are certainly spawned by and feed off the brutalized society left in its wake. I am interested in political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain endings. An art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check and nihilism at bay.”
Kentridge went on to make seven more films in the Soho Eckstein series, each winning increasing international acclaim. In 1997, his work was featured in “Documenta X,” a cutting-edge art show in Kassel, Germany, which launched him into the spotlight. In 1998, filmmaker Reinhard Wulf and art historian Maria Anna Tappeiner filmed Drawing the Passing, a documentary on Kentridge’s creation of Stereoscope, the eighth film in the Soho Eckstein series. This documentary helped bring his work to wider audiences. Stereoscope premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in April 1999, was shown at the 48th Venice Biennalle and went on to earn the Carnegie Medal at the Carnegie International 1999/2000.
Kentridge comes to Harvard today through the efforts of VES Head Tutor Paul Stopforth, who is also from South Africa and was working at the Market Gallery in Johannesburg when it featured Kentridge’s first solo show. In addition to having work currently displayed in Manhattan, Kentridge is also a visiting artist at Columbia University this fall semester.
Kentridge plans on showing 20 to 30 slides of his work and several short videos, including his new animation Zeno Writing. Stopforth doesn’t know the exact content of the lecture, but remains enthusiastic. “The fact that he’s going to be here—I have no doubt that it’s going to be remarkable.”
Kentridge’s lecture “In Praise of Shadows” will take place today in room B04 as part of the Carpenter Center Lecture Series. Both the lecture and reception afterwards are free and open to the public.