Kentridge: master of his craft

7 July 2003

William Kentridge is not only South Africa’s best-known artist, he is also regarded as an artist of great importance internationally, with galleries around the world queuing up to exhibit his works.

With one exhibition, theatrical production or multi-media collaboration after another, his creativity seems unstoppable. Though he tends to use one specific technique, his trademark charcoal drawings, Kentridge continues to explore diverse media – from etchings, lithographs and silk screens to animated film, theatre with puppetry, opera and video – as vehicles for expression.

William Kentridge
He is best known for his animated films in charcoal drawings and his multi-media theatrical productions, like Faustus in Africa and Ubu and the Truth Commission, which he created in collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Company, using puppets, live actors and animation.

His works have a breathtaking power and boldness, compelling the viewer to take notice and interact with them. Kenneth Baker from the San Franscisco Chronicle had the following to say: “People tend never to forget where and when they first encountered the art of South African William Kentridge, such is its power.” And Guardian art critic Adrian Searle described his work as “so arresting, so unexpected and so unplaceable that it is truly refreshing”.

Johannesburg is still home
Though a global player in the art world, Kentridge’s inspiration remains Johannesburg, where he lives with his wife and three children. His works are profoundly political, but Kentridge steers away from the label of “political commentator”. Neither, he says, are his works expressions of “white guilt”, as some critics have argued.

“I have never tried to make illustrations of apartheid, but the drawings and films are certainly spawned by and feed off the brutalised society left in its wake”, he said in an interview. “I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures, and certain endings; an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check and nihilism at bay.”

Kentridge, who was born in 1955 in Johannesburg, is the son of Felicia Geffen and respected QC, Sir Sydney Kentridge, who was involved in several historically and politically important law cases in South Africa. He is one of four children.

Kentridge studied a BA in Politics and African Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand from 1973 – 76. For the next two years he studied art at the Johannesburg Art Foundation. From 1981 – 82 he studied mime and theatre at the Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris. He was a founder member of the Free Filmmakers Cooperative, and served as a member of the Junction Avenue Theatre Company from 1975 – 1991.

Exhibitions around the world
Kentridge has exhibited his works – both in solo and group exhibitions – at many prestigious galleries and museums around the world, including the Museums of Modern Art in Oxford and New York, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego and Documenta X1 in Kassel, Germany.

Several of his exhibitions have toured major cities around the world, including Barcelona, Brussels, Munich, Marseille, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington DC and Sydney. He has also participated in several biennales.

In 1998 Kentridge was a finalist for the Solomon Guggenheim Museum’s second Hugo Boss prize, and was awarded the Carnegie Medal at the 1999/2000 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in fine art from the Maryland Institute of Contemporary Art in Baltimore.

More recently, the Kentridge Retrospective has been on show at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and the SA National Gallery in Cape Town.

His latest collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Company, Confessions of Zeno, a multi-media production, was performed at the National Arts Festival and in Belgium and Germany last year. Zeno Writing, his exhibition of drawings, was on show at Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg in March 2003.

To order books or a CD Rom on William Kentridge’s works, click here.

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