William Kentridge is SA’s most famous and most expensive living artist. As he heads for 60 and as three important new shows open in Joburg, Charl Blignaut asks some difficult questions about the white male status quo in our art
I have two reasons to head to the Goodman Gallery on a drizzly morning in October.
The one is that I never did get to see the latest Sam Nhlengethwa exhibition. Sipping the gallery’s most excellent coffee, I’m arrested by the lurid collage and paint works, tributes to artists who inspired the urban master born in a mining community in Springs.
Alongside them are works depicting township life in stark, muted tones.
But today Nhlengethwa forms the backdrop to a pop-up William Kentridge installation that includes a TV screen, a magnificent tapestry and a giant drawing from The Refusal of Time, a celebrated new work of five projectors showing films of intense, smudgy animation and live action, dense sound design and a mechanical donkey in the middle driving it all.
This is my other reason for being here. There’s a genteel coffee-and-croissant press conference to announce that November in Joburg is, in effect, Kentridge month.
The Goodman will be showing new drawings, the Wits Art Museum will exhibit tapestries of Kentridge drawings and the Joburg Art Gallery will host The Refusal of Time.
We’re all here, all dutifully awed by the great man’s creativity, the mostly white art luvvies from the press.
It is Kentridge and croissants after all. I can’t help wondering how many of us would have come for a Nhlengethwa presser.
It’s a thought that returns as I’m heading towards Kentridge’s studio up against the hill on the grand old grounds of his home in Houghton for my allotted one- hour interview.
He spent time growing up here, the second of four children born to anti-apartheid lawyers Sydney Kentridge and Felicia Geffen.
Kentridge senior, a legal adviser to the likes of Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela, was far more famous than his son – until less than a decade ago.
Before moving here, Kentridge junior and his wife, Anne Stanwix, a medical doctor, lived in the industrial urban drug complex of Bertrams next to Hillbrow.
They were central figures in the leftie creative set when I first moved to Joburg.
Kentridge was a talented but struggling young artist working in the film and TV industry who feared he would amount to nothing.
He had been the kid who acted in school plays, who took classes at Bill Ainslie’s racially integrated Johannesburg Art Foundation, who studied politics at Wits University, helped start an anti-establishment theatre troupe and ended up studying mime in Paris.
Today, Kentridge is celebrated from New York to Tokyo and was one of Time magazine’s top 200 global citizens in 2009, yet he has lived his entire life in this 5km radius.
He and Nhlengethwa will be turning 60 next year, born months apart in 1955 in two diametrically opposite worlds.
I wonder if Nhlengethwa had enjoyed the privilege of land and education and the luxury to indulge in cultural theory, whether he would be on that Time list.
Is it because Kentridge is a better artist, whatever that may mean?
Or is it that he is better equipped to deal with the white patriarchal power plays of the global art world?
If you ask the artist, luck had a good deal to do with it. That and the fact that he is an obsessive hard worker, a studio floor-pacer. His output has been epic, crossing forms from charcoal drawings to entire operas.
“How did my work become a success around the world?” he considers when we’re chatting in his studio.
“There were two good fortunes. I was rescued in one sense by the cultural boycott, which meant that I was working quietly here with no expectation of being part of the global art conversation on my drawings and then on the animated films.
“Then in the early 1990s, when the curators started coming here, there was a curator [Catherine David] of the most important contemporary art exhibition, Documenta .
“She thought that in Africa you could find great cinema, but you couldn’t find interesting visual arts, so I kind of fitted with that perfectly for her.”
Kentridge had always been attracted to drawing in charcoal. The medium translates the scruffiness of Joburg, his grand muse. It is also egalitarian, just burn some wood and anyone can have an art tool...
Kentridge nods and interrupts.
“That is not why I was interested in charcoal, because of its Neolithic roots, the reason had to do with wanting to work on a relatively large scale ... to cover a drawing of 1 metre by 2 metres in pencil is an obsessive, slow, ridiculous activity ... Charcoal is very easy to apply, you can just give it a wipe with a cloth and it is kind of gone, so you can change it as quickly as you can change your mind.”
To Kentridge – who today works more commonly in Indian ink – charcoal lent itself to his themes of “change and transmutability and ephemerality”.
It also unlocked the key to his global domination: animation. He developed a unique style by drawing an image, photographing it, rubbing it out and then doing the next drawing.
His characters and images emerge from the scruffy art of erasure before being erased again.
His films, Felix in Exile and History of the Main Complaint, attracted huge attention at Documenta.
As The New Yorker wrote: “His timing could not have been better. Globalism was in flower and one of its manifestations was a surge of interest in new forms of art from countries outside Europe and the United States.”
His fame would be cemented by his Soho Eckstein films, which “follow the life and crimes of a white South African industrialist through the last years of apartheid and into the new democratic era”.
Kentridge’s political critique was subtle but profound, a reflection on the white industrial elite that built Joburg on the back of mine workers’ blood.
His is an art of darkness, a moribund yet quirky and humane procession of characters moving fleetingly across the planet, set to a rackety score, bursts of brass and searing opera.
Several critics point to his old-worldliness and nostalgic air. Nostalgia for the past among white South African artists can be an unfortunate aesthetic. Nostalgic for what? Apartheid?
But Kentridge’s political credentials have allowed him to seemingly avoid such criticism.
He went on to exhibit at almost every important gallery in the world and lift most of its top art prizes.
He was the face of post-apartheid contemporary art, always dressed in his black pants and white collared shirt, a literary visual artist who traded in the injustices of humanity.
“It became a relief when several other South African artists began to make big names around the world. I was no longer the sole representative. Now there were [David] Goldblatts and [Mikhael] Subotzkys.”
Now I interrupt. “But it’s mainly white artists still, and in tracking the history of the sales, I mean Nicolas Hlobo is starting to attract some very nice money. But here is the truth of it – the legacy is still playing out in white privilege the way it did with [Irma] Stern versus, say, [Gerard] Sekoto.”
Kentridge agrees and shares my frustration. When asked directly about white privilege, he is forthright.
About his work themed around the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he once said: “In many parts of the country, it hasn’t changed at all. Children in poor rural schools still get a miserable education. It’s also true that the main beneficiaries since the ending of apartheid are white South Africans.
“No sacrifices have been required. No one’s lost their beautiful house.” Including Kentridge, of course.
His many generous collaborations seldom feature black artists. He says this is just how it’s worked out – and he is hesitant to subsume other people’s work.
Arriving at his home, the domestic help is black, the friendly and madly conscientious staff are white.
Probably also just how it worked out, but it is perfectly possible to be a critic of the status quo while upholding it. It’s one of the contradictions that define the white left in this country. Does it make them less of a national treasure?
I am curious. There is a veritable library shelf of books on Kentridge’s work, but is there no biography?
“No, thank goodness,” he responds.
“Firstly, there is nothing to tell – a privileged, white, Johannesburg childhood, going to schools and universities and studios all within a few-kilometre radius ... The story is he goes to the studio every day and he works, but there is no real transformation in the biography so I do not think it would be interesting…”
So how is he feeling about turning 60? He almost smiles.
“It is certainly a case of, okay, this is who you are, make peace with it, you are not going to reinvent yourself.
“I always thought I would be an artist until I discovered what I wanted to do when I grew up – where now at 60 that is too late, I am now unemployable, I can’t get another job.”
And on the subject of Nhlengethwa, he says: “We are both turning 60 so we are doing a project together. It may just be a conversation, it won’t most probably be working on the same piece of paper. I don’t think any of us want to do that.
“But certainly I am very interested in that conversation and the very different growths, how each of us got into art – all the different routes and different things,” says Kentridge.