“The mulberry tree in the garden where I grew up, the taste of a white Cape peach in the summer, the beach at Plettenberg Bay,” says William Kentridge when talking about his childhood in South Africa. The words are simple, but they speak of memories that a great many people who have grown up in South Africa share.
He spoke the words casually in conversation, but they read like the opening lines of a novel. It’s a reflection of his power as an artist: he has the ability to craft such enormously powerful description, expressed so simply, while evoking serious nostalgia.
Two Kentridges, William and his father Sydney, have achieved international success at the pinnacle of their vocations, and both have been driven by South Africa’s political climate, and a desire to do what they can to correct the iniquities they see around them. Sydney Kentridge is one of the world’s leading jurists. He fought against the strictures of apartheid law in South Africa, representing the family of Steve Biko in the inquest into the death of the South African hero. He was also a key member of the defence in the Rivonia Treason Trial, when he defended Nelson Mandela and the other political figures who ended up on Robben Island. Later in life he moved to England and served as an influential member of the English bar.
Dinner-time conversation in the Kentridge household, needless to say, was not typical of the average white 1950s South African family. One of William Kentridge’s earliest memories is of his first visceral exposure to the true nature of police brutality in apartheid South Africa. At the age of six, the innocent activity of opening a yellow box – that Kentridge assumed contained chocolates – was transformed into one of brutal shock. Photographs of Sharpeville victims, with blown-out chests and twisted limbs, waited instead of chocolates. Kentridge’s father was working as a lawyer defending the victims; the photographs were evidence in the case.
“That was quite a transformation of the world: the change from expecting the chocolate to finding an exit wound of someone with their chest blown up,” he says of the memory. The experience had a decisive effect on Kentridge, and – if it’s possible to say such a thing about a six-year-old – marked the awakening of his political consciousness.
People who are from Johannesburg love the city. People who move there learn to love it. People who visit it don’t understand the fuss. William Kentridge has lived there his entire life. To say that he loves the city would probably be stretching the truth, but to say that it has had a deep effect on his work as an artist is an absolute fact. The title of his first film, after all, is Johannesburg: 2nd Greatest City after Paris.
The film was part of the series Drawings for Projection, and marked the first public display of what would become his signature technique: animated charcoal drawings projected onto screens. Instead of doing a series of drawings on different sheets of paper, Kentridge produced each drawing sequentially on the same sheet, thereby devising a method of animation that retained the marks and smudges from previous frames. The films live their own history as they happen.
It’s not all drawing and film, however. His work across artistic forms includes opera (as a director and designer, not a performer), printmaking and sculpture. He has worked closely with the Handspring Puppet Company, as a director and set designer. All of this has led to the creation of an enormous body of work, and his pieces sell for some of the highest prices ever reached by a South African artist.
He is an artist whose work pushes against definition and heavy-handed didacticism: hesitation and uncertainty are the roots of his artistic expression. Questioning – of both his audience and himself – is a constant across his work. The blasted landscapes and radically distorted figures that appear throughout Kentridge’s work are unsettling and force the viewer out of a comfort zone, to a place of re-evaluation and searching.
The eclectic nature of his artwork is reflected in the diversity of his experiences as a teenager and a young man: he has studied both theatrical mime and political studies, has worked as a set designer on television shows, and at the age of 17 he was chosen as junior mayor of Johannesburg.
In conversation he is genial and restrained, not given to flaky pretentiousness; as an artist, his body of work is comprised of some of the most dynamic, energetic creations ever produced. It’s earned him serious recognition: he’s been awarded the Kyoto Prize – Japan’s equivalent of the Nobel – and has exhibited in both the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
“What I have learned from my work is that the best work, or the most interesting things, has always happened in spite of myself. Things that I thought of as faults, as weaknesses, in the end, other people pointed out as being the most interesting,” he says of his approach to his own creations. “So I’ve learnt not to trust my own good judgement.”
It’s a statement that makes sense, given Kentridge’s signature gesture: one of hesitation, ambiguity, and moral questioning. He is an artist who is able to use self-doubt and channel it into extraordinary productivity: the anxiety that goes into his work results in its incredible vitality and complexity.
“I think there are a lot of difficult questions for anyone working in South Africa now to come to terms with. The hardest one is to separate one’s own, unnoticed, deep-rooted anxieties and prejudices from rational criticism of what is happening,” he says of being an artist at work in South Africa today. It’s something that he has managed to do throughout his working life, which is far from over.
He is one of the most successful artists South Africa has ever produced, and at the age of 58, he is only really just past the midpoint of his career: there is plenty more to come. Not only has he been one of the most successful and influential artists of the last half-century, he has contributed to South Africa and has enriched the nation. He could very easily have left, lived with the elites of the art world in New York or Paris, but he hasn’t: Johannesburg is his home and where he has stayed, living all his life within the same five kilometre radius. He is a South African treasure, and his story is only growing: right now, we are witnessing one of the world’s great artists operating at the peak of his powers, living and working in South Africa.