The Reluctant Spokesman

William Kentridge was born white and affluent in Johannesburg, South Africa, seven years after the enactment of apartheid laws in 1948. For better or worse, Kentridge's nationality has become his work's defining characteristic. While democratic elections brought an official end to apartheid there in 1994, its victims bear deeply etched scars -- social, economic, psychological and in many cases physical. Like any place where a segment of the population has been systematically oppressed and maltreated, the stench of discrimination lingers, continuing to taint the society as a whole.

There is a sense that the art world would like to make Kentridge a spokesman for the South African condition. It's true that his work is permeated by guilt and melancholia. But the best thing about Kentridge, other than his work, is that he resists the role.

Raised in a politically aware environment, Kentridge knew early on that things were wrong, something many of his friends, with families who supported the status quo, didn't figure out until later on. While his father, an attorney, represented families of the victims of the Sharpeville massacre, Kentridge describes himself as only "marginally politically active." As an artist, he works within his own experience and acknowledges but doesn't seek to appropriate the suffering of others. His point of view is as a member of the privileged class living in a dysfunctional society, aware of and disturbed by the injustice around him. That Kentridge is the only South African artist most people have heard of is a testament to the inequities of the art world.

Kentridge has described his work as "stone age filmmaking." He creates poetic animated films by photographing his charcoal drawings, documenting the different stages as he erases, reworks and adds to their images. His films are composed of several heavily altered drawings rather than hundreds of cartoon cels. A bird flutters over the screen, drawn, erased and redrawn in consecutive movements. The images bear the ghostly residue of what came before. The black pigment on the white page is the last word in simplicity, and it creates a spare, somber mood, although it's sometimes powerfully interspersed with brief flashes of Yves Klein blue and vivid red. Eleven of Kentridge's animated films are on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum, along with the charcoal drawings and videos of opera and theater productions the artist has worked on.

Kentridge's protagonist in the films is Soho Eckstein, a pinstripe-suited wealthy industrialist based loosely on his grandfather. Soho's alter ego, Felix Teitlebaum, looks like Kentridge himself. Felix is always depicted naked and vulnerable, a stocky figure with a generous gut, in love with Mrs. Eckstein. In the early films, Soho is a gross -- in fact George Grosz-like -- caricature of an obese, vulgar capitalist in the vein of early Soviet posters. Felix is the sensitive, artistic one; his "anxiety flooded half the house."

In the 1989 film Johannesburg 2nd Greatest City after Paris, Soho stuffs his face, salaciously licking the excess food off his chin. Poor people form an infinite line extending across the landscape, and an irritated Soho pelts them with food. But Kentridge's later films are less blatant, the characters more ambiguous. As his work evolves, it becomes less satiric and more mournful. Soho begins to look more like the artist, becoming a flawed figure with emotional complexity. In the 1999 film Stereoscope, blue water pours out of the pockets of Soho's suit, filling the room with a vivid liquid sadness to rival that of Felix.

Because Kentridge has worked extensively in theater, it comes as little surprise that his work here has such a dramatic quality. In film he uses sound to powerful effect, from chirping birds to churning mechanical noises to South African choral music to a Dvorák quartet; no matter the source, the tone is almost uniformly poignant. In his drawings, he returns again and again to a visual undercurrent of atrocity. Casspirs Full of Love shows stacked heads in a cabinet, their facial features obscured and frozen in anonymous death. The title for the work came from a radio program Kentridge heard, in which an adoring mother called in to send her son far away in the military "Casspirs full of love." The Casspir was an icon of torture, an armored military vehicle that struck terror into townships. The mother was oblivious to the irony.

Landscape is a key element for Kentridge, although it's always marked by human interference. The dramatic expanses of the veld are scarred by industrial structures; surreal cranes and coffee plungers bore deeply into the ground past images of toil and loss. The earth itself is contaminated by the abandoned bodies of the murdered, which melt into its surface, invisible save for their psychic residue.

The basic physicality of the human condition is another stream in Kentridge's sensibility. Kentridge's wife is a physician, and her expertise seems to have informed his unromanticized but affectionate depiction of the body. In self-portraits, he exaggerates his belly, and the middle-aged Mrs. Eckstein is drawn with a zaftig sense of beauty.

Ulisse. echo scan slide bottle (1998) consists of three separate projections: In one, Kentridge films close-ups of his own flesh folds, wrinkles, pores, stubble and curling, graying body hair. This footage is interspersed with animated stethoscopes burrowing into skin; pulsing vessels segue into film of tornadoes and other natural disasters, a fluttering heart sonogram becomes the flapping wings of an owl, a scalpel excises flesh. In the center screen, a respirator bottle clicks and gasps, the forced breathing set to a Beethoven quartet, with the beeps of a heat monitor interrupting. Another windshield-shaped screen shows Soho's eyes in the rearview mirror, looking back with regret.

Ultimately Kentridge is dealing with the human condition, in the climate of the culture in which he was raised. But as his work progresses, the focus is less on judging than on understanding the humanity within everyone, no matter how inhuman their actions may be.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer