William Kentridge takes Africa to Hamburg

William Kentridge is South Africa’s best-known artist. But what makes his work so alluring? An exhibition in Hamburg finds out by tracing each stroke of his brush.
The question “What is African Art?” elicits myriad responses from each of the continent’s 54 countries. But in the context of South Africa, the question is especially complicated by its colonial past and the more recent Apartheid era.

Under the oppressive rule of that system, European styles were idealized in South Africa as the gold standard of art and traditional African techniques and designs were denigrated by the regime as “primitive.” But much has changed since the country’s transition to democracy in 1994, with black artists enjoying a lively renaissance. Though William Kentridge is a white contemporary artist, the South African trailblazer has sought not only to shine a light on the crimes of the Apartheid era with his prints, drawings and animation films but also to contextualize their background through storytelling.

The Deichtorhallen Museum in Hamburg is now showing one of the biggest Kentridge retrospectives ever, titled “Why Should I Hesitate: Putting Drawing to Work.” Following a successful run at the Zeitz-MOCAA Museum in Cape Town last year, the exhibition brings hundreds of Kentridge’s works to Germany, many of which will be seen in the country for the first time, recounting the career of one of the world’s most prolific contemporary artists.
Drawing being the basis of nearly all of Kentridge’s work, his depictions of various realities throughout African history are both abstract and representational of concrete issues, events, moments, places and people. Deichtorhallen curator Dirk Luckow says that Kentridge recounts “great dramas of history” with a sense of ease that is almost at odds with what he is actually depicting. The black and white nature of the vast majority of his works reflect this tension in a rather literal manner, yet the meaning and depth behind them are far from being monochrome.

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It hardly comes as a surprise then that the artist has also more than just dabbled in directing plays and operas — though the visual arts remain the backbone of his artistic work. This is why Kentridge’s signature style is practically impossible to replicate. He manages to build mystery and purpose onto even the blandest of landscapes in his drawings, paintings, tapestries, sculptures and installations, adding new dimensions to the parched industrial wastelands surrounding Johannesburg and Pretoria that often background his ouevre.

So while there is always a clear intention behind his works, the artist gives plenty of room for interpretation and reflection — as is the case with the 2018 video installation Kaboom! that deals with the colonial history of the African continent.

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Another feature of Kentridge’s signature style is his ability to evoke a sense of nostalgia for places and things that outsiders might not commonly relate to. From the assassination of director Pier Paolo Pasolini (Triumphs and Laments, 2016) to the exiled life of Russian revolutionary Leo Trotsky in Istanbul (O Sentimental Machine, 2015), his journeys tap into the shared consciousness of the human condition. Luckow calls these artistic journeys, “sensual time travel.”
The multimedia installation More Sweetly Play The Dance stretches across seven canvasses along nearly 40 meters, showing a procession of silhouettes that highlights various contemporary issues rooted in centuries of exploitation across Africa. Kentridge took inspiration for the work from Africa’s Ebola outbreak, but spins narratives way beyond this tragedy to offer a holistic perspective on contemporary Africa.

From disease to political strife to tribal dance to slavery, the massive artwork chronicles the history of an entire continent by projecting shadows onto an ever-changing “veld” that seems to be suspended somewhere beyond time and space.
Are these silhouettes descending onto Johannesburg, South Africa’s “city of gold,” to try to make as honest a living as they can in the mines? Or are they being chased by traumas of the past?
But instead of lamenting the suffering of the centuries, the slow drama unfolding on the screens is juxtaposed by a beautiful tune played by the African Essemblies Brass Band from Sharpeville — the site of one the biggest Apartheid-era massacres, located just outside Johannesburg.
Riding scales on various brass instruments and referencing kaiso rhythms in the music, the video installation will make its audience feel like they are revisiting a long-lost place they once knew. Simultaneously, however, this masterpiece also features that typical meditative quality of Kentridge’s works that invokes a feeling of only belong to the here and now — which is, of course, no single place or point in time at all.
“Why Should I Hesitate: Putting Drawing to Work” runs through April 18, 2021 at the Deichtorhallen Museum in Hamburg

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