Africa: Drama On Canvas – William Kentridge Takes African Stories to Hamburg

William Kentridge is South Africa’s best-known artist. But what makes his work so alluring? An exhibition in Hamburg finds out by tracing each stroke of his brush.

The question “What is African Art?” elicits myriad responses from each of the continent’s 54 countries. But in the context of South Africa, the question is especially complicated by its colonial past and the more recent Apartheid era.

Under the oppressive rule of that system, European styles were idealized in South Africa as the gold standard of art and traditional African techniques and designs were denigrated by the regime as “primitive.”

But much has changed since the country’s transition to democracy in 1994, with black artists enjoying a lively renaissance.

Though William Kentridge is a white contemporary artist, the South African trailblazer has sought not only to shine a light on the crimes of the Apartheid era with his prints, drawings and animation films but also to contextualize their background through storytelling.

The Deichtorhallen Museum in Hamburg is now showing one of the biggest Kentridge retrospectives ever, titled “Why Should I Hesitate: Putting Drawing to Work.” Following a successful run at the Zeitz-MOCAA Museum in Cape Town last year, the exhibition brings hundreds of Kentridge’s works to Germany, many of which will be seen in the country for the first time, recounting the career of one of the world’s most prolific contemporary artists.

Facing up to tyranny

The artist was born in 1955 into a family of prominent “struggle-era” activists and lawyers who fought tirelessly against apartheid for decades. His father even defended Nelson Mandela and 90 others in the so-called Treason Trial of 1956, and 20 years later led the inquiry into the death of black activist Steve Biko after he was beaten to death by Apartheid regime state security officers.

Growing up in a Jewish South African family in the postwar era also likely helped William Kentridge see the world though a different lens than many of his contemporaries in his hometown, Johannesburg. He studied politics and African history to make sense of his life — only to discover that the answers he sought often evaded him.

Several of his family members meanwhile chose to emigrate from South Africa in the 1960s, unable to bear the injustices of the Apartheid regime. Kentridge was barely a youth at the time, but says that he decided that by leaving his country he would not escape the burden of taking responsibility for the tyranny in his homeland.

Exploring white privilege

Throughout nearly half a century working as an artist, Kentridge has sought to address how he inadvertently did benefit, as a white South African, from the exploitative Apartheid system.

Especially in his earlier works, Kentridge explores his unique place in the world, somewhere between being a victim of an evil system and yet being a part of its machinery. This questioning was apparent through his white alter-egos Soho Eckstein and Felix Teitlebaum — caricatures of white men in Johannesburg come alive through an animation he created.

Eckstein takes his privilege for granted and appears to recklessly consume the world around him no matter the cost, while Teitlebaum seems to benefit little and thus sympathizes rather with the underdog.

As the years progress, however, Teitlebaum and Eckstein discover that they have more in common than meets the eye: they actually are two sides of the same coin. They need each other in order to define who they are. They are placeholders for the “white guilt” that Kentridge and other felt and still feel to this day.

The artist as chronicler

Drawing being the basis of nearly all of Kentridge’s work, his depictions of various realities throughout African history are both abstract and representational of concrete issues, events, moments, places and people.

Deichtorhallen curator Dirk Luckow says that Kentridge recounts “great dramas of history” with a sense of ease that is almost at odds with what he is actually depicting. The black and white nature of the vast majority of his works reflect this tension in a rather literal manner, yet the meaning and depth behind them are far from being monochrome.

It hardly comes as a surprise then that the artist has also more than just dabbled in directing plays and operas — though the visual arts remain the backbone of his artistic work.

This is why Kentridge’s signature style is practically impossible to replicate. He manages to build mystery and purpose onto even the blandest of landscapes in his drawings, paintings, tapestries, sculptures and installations, adding new dimensions to the parched industrial wastelands surrounding Johannesburg and Pretoria that often background his ouevre.

So while there is always a clear intention behind his works, the artist gives plenty of room for interpretation and reflection — as is the case with the 2018 video installation Kaboom! that deals with the colonial history of the African continent.

Layers of drama

Kentridge likes to take his viewers on a journey — so much so that the term “audience” is more fitting for those who encounter his art. He produces layers upon layers of work on a single surface, using materials that can reach from chalk and charcoal to shoe polish and sowing machines. The erasure of layers plays as important a role in that journey as the creation of new layers does itself.

Meanwhile, many of his video installations in particular allow the viewer to actually partake in the creation process itself. Kentridge’s own fingers are seen drawing, painting and wiping off layers, adding a further level of drama to the narrative that is unfolding on whatever surface he is working on.

The perspective of his storytelling is always filmed from above, showing the artist’s hands and arms only. It’s a birds-eye view bordering on god-like omniscience, but also voyeurism.

Kentridge’s own hands also feel like they’re an extension of the individual viewer reaching into the projected videos. The audience thus becomes a co-creator in these cartoonish stop-motion video recordings, while following the plan and the path of the artist — much like a guided meditation.

This can be seen in works as Ubu Tells the Truth, a cinematic video installation accompanied by drawings from 1997 that was partly inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up to assess the crimes and human rights violations of the Apartheid era.

The master of nostalgia

Another feature of Kentridge’s signature style is his ability to evoke a sense of nostalgia for places and things that outsiders might not commonly relate to. From the assassination of director Pier Paolo Pasolini (Triumphs and Laments, 2016) to the exiled life of Russian revolutionary Leo Trotsky in Istanbul (O Sentimental Machine, 2015), his journeys tap into the shared consciousness of the human condition. Luckow calls these artistic journeys, “sensual time travel.”