William Kentridge is undoubtedly one of Johannesburg’s most successful artists working today. As a multi-disciplinary artist, Kentridge works in a wide variety of mediums. These range from charcoal drawings to opera! In some of his most recognisable pieces, elements of theatre, music, film, and performance are brought together by his distinctive style of drawing, and coalesce in stop-motion animations that reflect politics and process as major themes. My Italian Link took the opportunity to learn more from the artist about his outlook…
“I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain ending. An art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check, and nihilism at bay.” ~ William Kentridge
- Most of your work is monochrome. Is there a reason behind your decision to work almost exclusively in black and white?
When I work with charcoal, which is of course a monochromatic medium, it’s about thinking on one’s feet. Thinking aloud in the charcoal. Charcoal gives an ease of transition, of transformation. I think it’s that which led me to work this way.
- Could you elaborate on the nature of process and erasure in your work?
Starting with a mid-gray on a sheet of paper, you can work in two directions. You can add dark charcoal and make it black, or you can work with an eraser. This pulls the white of the paper back through the charcoal. Erasure is a way of making the drawing, but also a way of changing one’s mind.
- Johannesburg and its surrounds are central to much of your output. When did you begin to notice the hold the city has on you?
I noticed the hold Johannesburg has on me at forty or fifty. I think it has to do both with the people I work with, and the nature of the city. Johannesburg is a bastard city made up of different traditions. It acknowledges that it has always been made by the wide variety of people who live here. From migrant workers, to people from other parts of Africa, to people from Europe. The changeability and the mixed nature of the city have been very much part of the art I’ve made.
- To many, opera may seem an unusual creative outlet for a visual artist such as yourself. What made you want to branch out into opera?
There is an incredible richness given to you by opera. It’s an astonishing privilege and pleasure. – let’s not forget the pleasure of working in opera. There’s nothing as spellbinding as being in a small rehearsal room with a piano and the magnificence of a fabulous opera voice in such a confined space. It’s as if you’re stuck inside the heart of the music, which rebounds all around you.
- You’ve exhibited in Italy a number of times. Do you have any special connections with the country?
I was taken there as a six year old child on my first visit to Europe from South Africa. I discovered this extremely different world, where there was outdoor living, where there was a kind of ease. My parents had great enthusiasm for all things Italian. In South Africa, we had a number of Italian friends – people who’d left Italy after WWII.
- Are there any Italian artists who have influenced your style?
Donatello, Bramante, and the great artists of the Renaissance and Rococo eras. One can even go further back, to Giotto. In terms of contemporary artists, there are some whose work I like. Though, none that have felt particularly close in sensibility to what I do.
- Your public art is very recognisable in Johannesburg, and forms part of the city’s landscape. What dialogues do you hope to create between the city and its inhabitants with your sculptures?
I hope people are intrigued by the way that the Firewalker can disintegrate and reconstitute itself. Much in the way that the city does. I understand that for most of the people walking past it every day, it’s neither seen as a coherent sculpture. Nor is it seen as an abstracted fragmented figure. Some do find coherence in the Firewalker, I’m happy for that as a gesture of how the city works.
- In 2012, your sculpture Il cavaliere di Toledo was revealed in Naples. Do you feel that public art operates differently in South Africa, in comparison to in Italy?
Italy has a long tradition of public sculpture and civic architecture, where functional needs became part of civic pleasure. We’re nowhere near that in Johannesburg. Regarding the horseman in Naples, I was very happy to have The Nose riding on horseback. It’s a less grand example of an equestrian statue, in a city so full of grand equestrian statues.
- April 2016 saw the unveiling of Triumphs and Laments: A Project for Rome. Your monumental frieze along the river Tiber. Was the decision to create something relatively fleeting in the Eternal City deliberate?
Washing away the dirt on the walls of the Tiber meant the work would be ephemeral. As the walls got dirtier, the pictures would fade back into the stones and remain only as photographs. Memories of what they had been. A kind of a demonstration of the fleeting memory of history.
*All of William Kentridge’s projects have been facilitated by Galeria Lia Rumma.