Menzies Art Brands



The art works of William Kentridge arise from the inner promptings of humanitarian sentiments. His upbringing in South Africas Johannesburg (that rather desperate provincial cityhe later called it) placed him in the uniquely strained situation of seeing social injustice at first hand. This must be taken together with the fact that his lawyer parents, Sydney Kentridge (who went on to defend Nelson Mandela) and Felicia Geffen-Kentridge (whose mother, Irene Geffen, became South Africas first female barrister in May 1923), were famous for their support of oppressed people who were victims of Apartheid. From an early age he was in the rare position of being able to witness and appraise both sides of social problems.

In short, his familial background gave the young Kentridge a very keen sense of the differences between what was and what should have been; between how people chose to avert their eyes from injustice and how they should have behaved. In lived reality there were grim distinctions to be seen and felt. Kentridge recounts, in an interview with the famous American art critic Calvin Tomkins for the New Yorker magazine, how at the age of five he sneaked into his fathers study looking for lollies and opened a desk drawer to find a folder of eight-by-ten photographs of black people who had been shot by the police in the Sharpeville massacre.

It was certainly a shock to be expecting to find chocolates and see these photographs, he recalls. But it was even more of a shock to see the difference between an entry wound, just a dark little hole in the back of someones jacket, and the next photo of the person rolled over, with an exit wound that was the whole chest exploded. I never mentioned to my father that I had seen them, not until years later. That the adult world could be this violentit didnt fit any conceivable notion. It was one of those moments when ones understanding of the world turns a sharp corner. (authors italics)1

It was a sad and sorry understanding and a deeply felt personal sense of jarring injustice. It was sharpened by his assimilated third-generation experiences of being a South African Lithuanian-Jew (they were once named Kantorwitz) and all that this entailed in its at-a-distance otherness. In this context, Kentridge was almost preconditioned to become an onlooker within his own society.

In other words, Kentridges artistic content and aesthetic force are generated from the vantage point provided by an outsider perspective. Kentridges artistic position is that of the outsider looking in. This places him in a similar position to that of some of historys most celebrated free-thinking liberal artists that is, artists with an offended conscience; artists who had social content to convey such as William Hogarth (1697-1764), Francisco Goya (1746-1828), Honor Daumier (1808-1879), George Grosz (1893-1959) and Kthe Kollwitz (1867-1945).

Its oppression, unkindness and inconsideration always the methods of tyrants and autocrats that cause outrage. For Kentridge, inhumanity is the target. The great satirist, Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), famously advised to use the point of the pen and not the feather to fight outrage. The point is clear: insight invites incisive action.

Kentridge uses the podium, the film and the image on paper - all of them traditional mediums for fighting social oppression. However, Kentridge neither preaches nor takes sides; rather he attacks hardheartedness at a tangent; that is, indirectly and analogically there are no agitprop images and no blatant messages. His content-laden images whisper rather than shout. Instead he uses metaphor, analogy and displacement all of which are procedures that aim at a different type of persuasion: that of subtle allusion.

For example, Kentridges Latopolis shows a fine use of this type of indirect connection. Latopolis, a large multi-media work on paper, created circa 2004, depicts two differently rendered images of the same Egyptian temple. The red sandstone hypostyle building with four large frontal columns (there are twenty-four in total) topped with varied floral capitals is now known as the Temple of Knum at Esna, on the West Bank of the River Nile about 770 kilometres South from Cairo in Egypt. In ancient times the area was known as Latopolis and named in honour of the ritually worshipped freshwater Nile River Perch, which flourished in the nearby river and may be found mummified and interred in a cemetery near the temple. The large temple has foundations that have been dated back as far as 180 BC. A large frontal hall incorporating earlier Egyptian hieroglyphic friezes and carvings from circa 300 AD was added during the time of the Roman Empire and a long loading quay to the Nile was constructed during the time of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD). For 500 years the ancient ritual temple of Latopolis served as an important seat of social and political power.

With all this in mind, Kentridges Latopolis gives the viewer reason to ponder its analogic content and parallels with contemporary issues. The mixed-media work depicts two near-identical temples, save for the fact that one is predominantly white in tone and the other black. The inference that may be made is that one establishment of social rule (the white) is connected to, perhaps even prefigures, the other (the black). This interpretation is bolstered by the red line that connects their separate foundations and by the upper line that swoops from the image on the left and connects with its counterpart on the right. Likewise, two diagonal lines extend from the temple image on the right across to the left as if it has the other in its sights. Additionally, the two seats of power are connected as photographic positives and negatives images, as though one was dependent upon and engendered the other and the whole was laid out like pages of the same book.

Kentridges comments, made in 2010 just six years after his work Latopolis was created, bear out the subtext of this interpretation:
One of the strange things about post-apartheid South Africa is that so little has changed. In many parts of the country, it hasnt changed at all. Children in poor rural schools still get a miserable education. Its also true that the main beneficiaries since the ending of apartheid are white South Africans. No sacrifices have been required. No ones lost their beautiful house. Theres lots of violence around, but you had that before - now you have more of it. Thats the price of extreme inequality. There may not be a correlation between poverty and crime but theres a very clear one between extreme inequality and crime, and a whole history of reasons why its as nasty and violent as it is. In South Africa, there is never an assumption that a calm and gentle death is ones birthright.2

Kentridges Latopolis is a type of pictorial parable. Its bifocal images recall the complex type of political contingency that stresses the way things are, rather than the way things should rationally be. Its twinned temples act as stand-ins for compromised change and the bleak hopelessness of institutional progress. Its stereoscopic split-screen view is a metaphor for understanding or coming to terms with transitional political and social change its art with attitude; an art of sober conviction.

In the end, Kentridge stays because South Africas compromised society reflects and nourishes his work. My work is about the provisionality of the moment, Ive become very suspicious of certainty. First comes understanding the value of doubt. For me, thats how we go through the world.3

1. Tomkins, C., Lines of Resistance, New Yorker, Profiles pages, 18 January 2010
2. ibid
3. ibid

Cameron, D.; Christov-Bakargiev, C.; Coetzee, J. M.; William Kentridge, Phaidon Press, New York, 1999
Cole, W., On Some Early Prints by William Kentridge, Print Quarterly, vol. XXVI
no. 3, 2009
Edmunds, P. William Kentridges SANG Retrospective, Artthrob: Contemporary Art
in South Africa 65, 2003
Kasfir, S. Contemporary African Art, Thames & Hudson, London, 1999
Taylor, J., William Kentridge: Spherical and Without Exits: Thoughts on William Kentridges Anamorphic Film, Art & Australia, Sydney, vol.45, no.4, 2008
Tomkins, C., Lines of Resistance, New Yorker, Profiles pages, 18 January 2010

Associate Professor Ken Wach
Dip. Art; T.T.T.C.; Fellowship RMIT; MA; PhD.
Emeritus Principal Research Fellow and Head,
School of Creative Arts
The University of Melbourne

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