/ 24 November 2023

Kentridge comes up for air in Cape Town

Kentridge1 (1)
South African artist William Kentridge

William Kentridge, the Joburg artist famed for his black charcoal drawings and preference for white work shirts, is back in Cape Town with a new exhibition. 

Four years on from his concurrent takeover of Zeitz MOCAA and Norval Foundation, in what amounted to the largest-ever survey of his multitudinous art practice, Kentridge is showing new drawings and sculptures with Goodman Gallery.

In a city of immoderate colour palettes and lightweight lounge art, Kentridge’s fidelity to the colour black and investigating sober political themes make him something of an outsider. And yet he has long enjoyed a committed local audience. 

In 1991, aged 36, he was awarded the gold medal for his contribution to the final instalment of the Cape Town Triennale — never mind that his drawing of a crowd surging through the streets of Johannesburg carrying red flags from his award-winning film Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old offended some in Stellenbosch. 

Kentridge, now 68, remains a prolific drawer of political subject matter. His new exhibition includes portraits on green paper of a cohort of revolutionary Martinican intellectuals, notably Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon. The drawings are linked to a work-in-progress theatrical production The Great Yes, The Great No, about a historical ship journey from Marseille to Martinique.

In March 1941, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, German anti-fascist novelist Anna Seghers, art historian John Rewald and the surrealist movement’s great impresario André Breton, all fleeing Nazi-occupied France, boarded a ship bound for Martinique. Kentridge has taken this historical anecdote and, as is his manner, wondrously amplified and distorted it.

It is not all Sturm und Drang in the new exhibition. There is a whimsical series of sculptures made from redundant measuring tools dressed with pleated paper tutus. They evoke dancers and are fittingly titled in homage to artist Edgar Degas. 

There is also a suite of paper sculptures made from torn bits of coloured paper from an old Italian cashbook. The forms could be humans or trees.

The stouter bronze sculptures rehearse familiar motifs from Kentridge’s toolbox, including a coffee pot, pair of scissors and marching man with a megaphone head. 

There is a new version of the spiky feline that reappears across his prints and sculptures, and which also stands guard on the gate to the artist’s home in Houghton in Joburg. 

Kentridge’s exhibition is called What Have They Done With All the Air? The cryptic title is a fragment of a poem. In 1935, then exiled in south-west Russia, the dissident revolutionary Victor Serge wrote The Asphyxiated Man

Serge’s poem is set in a “little grey-board surgical hospital” and details the suffering of a patient with an “unsung martyr’s body”. 

It reads like a scene from a hospital in Gaza today.

Kentridge, along with novelist Damon Galgut and 704 other South African Jews, has signed an open letter calling for “an immediate ceasefire, an end to the occupation, and the release of all hostages and detainees unjustly held both in Gaza and in Israeli prisons”.

During a 2011 visit to Israel for a museum exhibition, Kentridge publicly criticised Israeli policy and visited the predominantly Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. 

He would not be drawn further on his thoughts about the current Israel-Gaza war and related calls to boycott Israel. 

“Every claim to certainty over history is a false claim,” says Kentridge in this wide-ranging interview about his practice.

William Kentridge’s bronze sculpture Pour, 2022

Last year, you had three international survey exhibitions. Given the retrospective nature of these exhibitions, and the demand to look back, how do you refresh yourself? Differently put, how do you decouple yourself from older modes of expression and maintain a present-future focus?

This is really a question about where do new ideas start from, or how does one keep renewing the work in the studio. The studio has to renew itself. For me, the work almost always starts out of a project I’ve done previously. 

There may be a detail or small element of a previous project that gets focused on or expanded and becomes a new body of work.

To use a botanical image, one follows a small bud or shoot in a previous work and grafts that onto different rootstock, and sees what that plant can become. 

In the case of the work in my exhibition — the drawings on green paper and sculptures — almost all come out of previous projects.

You think you’re making something new while you’re in the studio, and then about halfway through you think, ‘Oh damn, three years ago, or 10 years ago or 30 years ago, I was working on the same question.’ 

William Kentridge’s bronze sculpture Stroke, 2022.

The only hope then is that there is something new in what is being done or not identical to what you did before — or hopefully not worse.

One has control of what you do in the studio but much less control than you expect. Old habits of the hand, of thinking and seeing, are there to hold one back in terms of finding truly new modes of expression.

There are always two things that come together. One is the history of what you’re doing in the studio, in other words, thinking through the making, what the materials are around you. And the other thing is the images and impulses coming from the outside world into the studio. 

In so far as there is continuity in some of these impulses coming into the studio, there is of necessity themes that keep re-emerging. 

To take my jungle drawings on green paper: in immediate terms, they are all based on elements of our garden around the studio in Houghton, but also a mixture of 18th-century engravings of verdant foliage, either from jungles or gardens. 

Their point of origin is the film project Oh To Believe in Another World (2022), about [Russian composer] Dmitri Shostakovich and the Soviet Union. We filmed actors against a green screen in the studio. We were left with sheets of beautiful green-coloured paper. 

For one of the scenes in the new theatre project The Great Yes, The Great No, we had an idea to use a painted theatrical backdrop on green paper. I did a drawing of a verdant backdrop, which we abandoned in favour of projections. 

But the pleasure of working on the green paper, with these images of growth of trees and plants, of traces of architecture, continued and became the drawings on exhibition now.

It is a bit like rhyming slang — at a certain point you drop the reference and people looking at it may or may not know what its original corollary was. So, here you see an original series of drawings of garden, jungle or foliage, but their roots are in a theatre piece, which is not present, and is connected to an earlier film, which is also not present.

That sense of past histories, known and unknown, which exists in the drawing, is also how we have to understand the world. We have a current context or world, from which we can sometimes trace roots backwards, but they always get lost two or three generations back. 

And we have to construct a provisional coherence, a possible understanding of the world through those. These drawings act as that, as an image of those possible constructions. 

William Kentridge’s bronze sculpture Cut, 2021

Your Houghton garden, or some version of it, has increasingly figured as a subject in your mature drawings. What are the consolations of your garden? 

The garden started to be transformed when our eldest daughter, Alice, wanted to get married in the garden some 13 years ago. We started working on the garden then. 

Since then our two other children, Samuel and Isabella, have been married in the garden and various other friends also.

It has been an on-going project of growing the garden round the house. It is a verdant oasis or bubble in the middle of the difficult city that is Johannesburg. It has come into some of the work, particularly this work where I needed images of growth and greenery. 

You’ve previously spoken of the febrile intellectual culture at Wits University in the 1970s, where allegiances to particular Frankfurt School writers mattered. Thinking about your theatrical production The Great Yes, The Great No and related drawings in this new exhibition, as a young artist, theatre maker and activist in the 1970s did you read samizdat books by writers like Aimé Césaire, Leopold Senghor or Frantz Fanon? 

I read Fanon at university. I did not come across Césaire until 20 years later. But, in the 1970s, when what books could be read or studied was very much controlled, if you were studying political science at university, as I was, you had access to a special locked section in the library. It contained books by Marx, Lenin, Che Guevara, Fanon and other revolutionary writers.

It was part of my academic studies reading many of these authors. There was no secrecy about having to hide them in the university context. 

To have those books and live in Soweto, you would have been charged under the Terrorism or Suppression of Communism Acts. As a student, Wits University was a kind of blessed open space for consideration of these texts.

William Kentridge’s bronze sculpture Apron, 2022

What inspired you to return to these Martinican writers?

I reread Fanon while working on my theatrical production The Head & The Load (2018), but it really started in earnest when I read an article by my friend Ari Sitas about this ship journey from Marseilles to Martinique by Andre Breton, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Anna Seghers. Ari’s piece had references to Césaire and Fanon.

That was the spark that connected the work I’d been doing in the studio with the previous project, the green paper and paper masks, the idea of a chorus of women. 

Those two things meeting — an external history coming into the studio and the practices of the studio —are what make a project possible.

What is it about Martinique that has so influenced the world today? Martinique is a tiny island, the distance between Johannesburg to Pretoria but out of this island came the great poet Aimé Césaire, his school pupil Franz Fanon, and his wife, Suzanne Césaire, who was one of the founders of the Negritude movement in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. 

So, the journey from Marseilles to Martinique became a way of looking at this history and thinking, which is still very present and contemporary — not just in South Africa, but many places where questions of colonialism and its legacy are still germane.

In a 2012 memorial piece for Christopher Hitchens, recently dead, Salman Rushdie circled back to 1989, the year of The Satanic Verses and L’affaire Rushdie. The battle he was plunged into, writes Rushdie, highlighted everything he loved and valued: ‘Literature, freedom, irreverence, freedom, irreligion, freedom.’ What six words encapsulate everything you love?

Apart of from the obvious category of friends and family, for whom there is great devotion, I would say the things that I would defend — I don’t know if “love” is the right term — include the processes of the studio. 

The incoherent, often stupid, practical processes of the studio as a way of thinking in a material, as a way of getting beyond simply a rational analysis of a circumstance, but understanding that there are other intelligences that are possible. I would defend that. 

I would defend the collaboration that exists in the studio, whether it’s in the theatre or sculpture and print studios. 

I would defend the idea of the uncertain and the provisional against all claims to certainty. All claims to certainty always seem to me they have to be backed up by either actual or the threat of force. 

I would defend the question of finding the less good idea, of finding things one can recognise rather than things one knows in advance. 

Turning over a new leaf: Sculptures titled Paper Procession I to IV, made in part from torn bits of coloured paper from an old Italian cashbook, from South African artist William Kentridge’s exhibition at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town. Photos: Courtesy Goodman Gallery

One particular drawing in your new exhibition quotes dialogue by Clytaemnestra from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, including ‘The world is leaking’ and ‘The old wound dries, it bleeds again’. In the play, Clytaemnestra says of Cassandra she ‘will not understand until her rage and strength have foamed away in blood’. Wounds, rage, blood. What is your reading of the state of the world given what is happening in Ukraine, Gaza, Sudan and Ethiopia?

Wounds, rage, blood — that’s not a bad summary of the world. I think one has to understand that history is bloodbath and that the world is full of dishonourable histories. Someone’s triumph is always the cost of someone else’s calamity and disaster. This is the case if you look at Ethiopia, Sudan, Russia and Ukraine and the case of Gaza and Israel. 

I certainly don’t know enough of history — I’m not a historian — to know the exact relationship between the Crusades and the Ottoman Empire or the British Empire in the Middle East and its decisions in the 1920s, to give a coherent account of the connections. But I certainly know enough that every claim to certainty over history is a false claim. 

Paradoxes and uncertainties are there. History is something we construct rather than simply discover. As Voltaire wrote, there is your truth, there is my truth, there’s the truth and there’s what actually happened. 

But we know in the current circumstances all over the world, wherever there is conflict, rage immediately precludes any kind of thinking and reflection that could occur, in that there obviously has to be a simplification and obfuscation of what things cost to individuals.

Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska writes, “History counts its skeletons in round numbers. A thousand and one remains a thousand, as though the one had never existed.” 

This is the world we are living in. It is not a new world to be living in. But it is not quite as simple as Samuel Beckett saying, “The tears of the world are a constant quantity.”

I don’t believe in that, but to not be aware of the traumas in so many parts of the world and the continuities and dissimilarities between different wars being fought — wars both visible and invisible — is to get lost in amnesia of what our history is.