Catch up on William Kentridge's work at two new exhibitions in Cape Town

William Kentridge, one of SA’s leading artists, opens two complementary exhibitions in Cape Town next weekend. Tymon Smith asked him about the work that will be on show

18 August 2019 - 00:00 By Tymon Smith
William Kentridge at his home and studio in Houghton, Johannesburg. His two exhibitions later this month in Cape Town, staged simultaneously at two venues, the Zeitz MOCAA and the Norval Foundation, will be his biggest yet in Africa.
William Kentridge at his home and studio in Houghton, Johannesburg. His two exhibitions later this month in Cape Town, staged simultaneously at two venues, the Zeitz MOCAA and the Norval Foundation, will be his biggest yet in Africa.
Image: Alon Skuy

For a generation of South Africans the work of William Kentridge has been a constant presence and means of navigating the transition from apartheid to democracy over the past 40 years.

Kentridge’s animated Soho films, with their charcoal-drawn, mournful but historically aware and psychologically acute tales of capitalist fat cat Soho Eckstein and his doppelgänger Felix Titlebaum, became part of the aesthetic of the introspection that many middle-class white South Africans underwent amid the spectacular and rapid changes of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The works were produced from a definite and clear viewpoint that reflected Kentridge’s own status as a white, privileged, educated, Jewish South African who grew up in Houghton, went to school at King Edward School and studied at Wits University in Johannesburg.

They soon attracted widespread local and international acclaim. A relatively late starter whose career encompassed several different mediums including theatre, drawing and video, by the time he held a retrospective of his work in 2005 Kentridge was the country’s most recognised artist, both at home and abroad, and had cemented his reputation as one of the world’s foremost contemporary artists.

He has exhibited in every major gallery from Europe to the US, Asia and the antipodes, producing operas, plays and installations that have long since left the specific peculiarities of his homeland behind and found enthusiastic audiences wherever they land.

Next week a pair of exhibitions in Cape Town at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (focused on drawing, prints, video and tapestry) and at the Norval Foundation (focused on his sculptural works) will allow local audiences to catch up with the breadth and scope of what Kentridge has been up to in the past 14 years.

The largest exhibition to be held in Africa in over a decade by internationally acclaimed artist William Kentridge is set to open in Cape Town on August 25 2019 at the Zeitz MOCAA. Kentridge spoke on the upcoming exhibition, and his early work, among other things. Subscribe to MultimediaLIVE here:

Sitting in the garden of the home in Houghton where he has lived for the majority of his 64 years, Kentridge — who first began to show his work in the 1970s — says the two exhibitions should not be seen as a retrospective but as “a selection”.

The fact that the venues are in Cape Town is for Kentridge “a sorry indictment of the Johannesburg infrastructure”, but also just the result of two separate invitations from these institutions to exhibit.

He decided to use the opportunity to create two shows that, while focusing on different aspects of his practice, serve to complement each other. As Kentridge, dressed in his distinctive (somewhat ink-splattered) white shirt and black formal pants explains: “The exhibition is constructed with a view to the question of what are the things that a younger artist can see in terms of where things begin and how they develop. So that’s why I was keen to have early work — not all of which is wonderful but which shows where it can begin — and then to show the heart of the exhibition, which is the studio and shows all the different things that happen in the studio, with video and sculpture and drawings and print-making and notebooks.”

The experience of revisiting his archive and making the selections for the show has been revealing for Kentridge himself.

“The other thing, which is shocking, is that you think you’re doing something new now and then you look back and see that you used the same image 30 years ago,” he says.

“So the lack of moving on is one of the things that’s evident and then there’s sometimes the awkwardness of the early pieces, when you didn’t know what you were doing and you were inventing or discovering it, and you think it would be nice to have that innocence of invention and discovery.”

Though he is constantly travelling and showing all over the world, it’s still important for Kentridge that his work is seen in SA. “I work with a huge number of collaborators — tapestry-makers, people working on the sculptures, in the operas the people who work on the sound and the music — and so I’m always very pleased when it’s possible for them to see work of which they are part.

“There are early supporters of the early drawings from 40 years ago who will get to see the show, and so yes, there is a strong sentimental attachment and it’s not the same as showing anywhere else.”

His most recent project — The Head and the Load — produced last year in the US and London for the centenary of World War 1 and dealing with the experience of African soldiers who fought for their colonial masters, is a huge-scale production that mixes Dadaist spoken-word elements, music, dance and performance.

It will be shown next year in Johannesburg.

Kentridge says that he has been taken aback by the reception.

“I was astonished because in the group, while we were making it, we’d had these debates and we’d said surely we need a lecture to explain what this is about and what the story is.

“There was a feeling that at a certain point people would say, ‘Yes, you’re having fun, but what the hell are we meant to make of this?’

“So when people at the end both came out with a sense of the history, and more than that with an emotional response to the history, I was astonished and delighted.”

He’s reluctant to see his work as having played any significant role in the shaping of the post-apartheid South African identity or attitudes to race and politics, believing rather that this exhibition will show local audiences, if anything, “that what art does is that it reinforces or gives comfort to things you’ve seen and believe or understand”.

• Why Should I Hesitate: Putting Drawing to Work, shows at Zeitz MOCAA from August 25 to March 23. Why Should I Hesitate: Sculpture, shows at the Norval Foundation from August 24 to March 23

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