Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Redrawn and Remembered

William Kentridge and the art of righting history’s wrongs

Print Email
William Kentridge, Still from Invisible Mending from 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, 2003. (Photo: John Hodgkiss, courtesy the artist, and the Museum of Modern Art)

The 54-year-old South African artist William Kentridge was born into a family of lawyers: a grandfather who was elected to Parliament, a grandmother who was the first female barrister in the country’s history, and liberal Jewish parents who were powerful anti-apartheid figures in Johannesburg’s legal community. And so when Kentridge—who had dabbled in performance, theater, and even mime—decided at age 30 that he would commit fulltime to his drawing, he was, in effect, turning his back on the family business. But the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. In the body of work Kentridge has created over the past quarter-century—much of which is on view now at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in a retrospective titled William Kentridge: Five Themes—the artist has essentially put his homeland on trial, as he’s explored the richly complex, morally complicated landscape that emerged from apartheid and its wake.

It isn’t easy to describe Kentridge’s work succinctly. His media range from monotypes, etchings, and aquatints to sooty charcoal drawings on paper to torn-paper shadow progressions pasted on the pages of old encyclopedias to full-blown theatrical productions, the most recent of which—a staging of Shostakovich’s 1930 opera The Nose—finishes its run at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on March 25. Then there are the literary and historical references—MoMA’s second-floor galleries ricochet with the artist’s allusions to William Hogarth, Luis Buñuel, Kara Walker, Georges Méliès, Jean-Luc Godard, and others. But the work is wholly his own, and the MoMA exhibition ably traces a line from Kentridge’s earlier pieces on the social and political ramifications of apartheid through the years in which he was consumed by the deconstruction of the art-making process itself to his latest fertile period, which has found Kentridge exploring what constitutes an identity, both personally and universally.

At the heart of the exhibition is a series of nine animated films Kentridge created between 1989 and 2003. Called 9 Drawings for Projection, they offer a glimpse into Kentridge’s creative process and an examination of the themes that recur throughout his work. The films revolve around two characters: Soho Eckstein, a cigar-smoking, espresso-drinking, square-jawed, pinstriped industrialist who regards his wife and the scads of poverty-stricken miners who work for him with indifference, and Felix Teitlebaum, a sensitive, nude, alter ego who is involved in an affair with Mrs. Eckstein, Soho’s wife. (Kentridge has claimed that the Ashkenazi surnames came to him in a dream and mean nothing beyond that, though one could read into them the confusion Kentridge felt from growing up white, Jewish, and privileged in a strictly segregated Johannesburg.)

Kentridge created the films using what he calls “stone-age animation”: A 16- or 35-mm camera shot frames as the artist drew, erased, and altered strokes of charcoal on paper, creating a living document complete with smudges and phantom marks. As the Italian curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev explains in the exhibition catalog, Kentridge “uses erasure as a metaphor for the loss of historical memory—the complete amnesia with which society confronts injustice, racism, and brutality.”

And it is here that Kentridge’s work approaches the universality that has in part made it so appealing to an international audience since the cultural boycott against South Africa was lifted in the early 1990s. His films, depicting images of violence, a desolate landscape, and people who cannot be free in their own country, reverberate with a host of potential associations: Namibia’s Herero and Namaqua Genocide, American slavery, Stalin’s purges, and the Holocaust.

But this all makes Kentridge sound very grim, and, in fact, part of the joy of the MoMA exhibition is the way it demonstrates Kentridge’s ability to move easily from tragedy to comedy, and from the merely comic to the absurd. These qualities are most fully on view in his staging of The Nose, the story of a Russian bureaucrat who awakes one day to find his rather prominent Baltic schnoz missing from his face. After a mad search, he confronts the appendage in a St. Petersburg cathedral, only to realize that the nose has achieved a higher rank than he has, and it refuses to pay him any attention. Luckily the same fate won’t soon befall Kentridge: Between the MoMA exhibition and the opera, a small show of his etchings on view at New York’s David Krut Projects and a forthcoming exhibition at New York’s Jewish Museum, the whole world is paying attention to South Africa’s most famous artist.

Jill Singer is a New York-based freelance writer and the co-founder and editor of the online magazine Sight Unseen.

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

Rivka says:

It is awesome, what the Jewish people have achieved — one by one.

Hiya, I’m really glad I’ve found this info. Nowadays bloggers publish only about gossips and internet and this is actually frustrating. A good web site with interesting content, that is what I need. Thank you for keeping this web-site, I’ll be visiting it. Do you do newsletters? Cant find it.


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Redrawn and Remembered

William Kentridge and the art of righting history’s wrongs

More on Tablet:

A Tale of Three Twitter Feeds: Hamas Tweets in Arabic, English, and Hebrew

By Aaron Magid — Analysis of the social-media messaging of Hamas’ military wing reveals distinct voices for the West, the Arab Middle East, and Israel