The Apartheid According to Kentridge
By Allison Lanzilotta
Although William Kentridge does not feel it is an artist's responsibility to delve into social issues, his exhibit at the New Museum in SoHo, "The First American Retrospective of William Kentridge," eloquently illustrates the current situation of apartheid South Africa using a blend of mediums which all originate from one simple source - charcoal on paper.
Kentridge, born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1955, was largely unknown until about five years ago when he became an international star, but this self-named exhibit is his first large-scale solo showing. His signature use of multiple mediums ambiguously portrays a divided nation, which he says is a strain of "paper shredders and photocopying machines." He uses several characters, such as Soho Eckstein, a business-suited factory owner and Felix Teitlebaum, a struggling actor, to exemplify the influence of Europe on South Africa, along with adding an autobiographical element to his work.
The first piece visitors of the New Museum encounter is the Shadow of Procession, which at first resembles an amateur puppet show. He demonstrates the genius of the piece by showing that the puppets represent refugees carrying their belongings from one place to another. He uses cut pieces of paper, which are moved along a translucent surface, to achieve his objective. The piece, which also uses an eerie soundtrack, lasts about seven minutes and is worth examining before moving on to the first floor gallery.
The first set of drawings are unrelated to the short films, but stick to his theme of the power of the bourgeoisie in South Africa, and the influence they have on the life of everyday people. The cloudy images emulate the uncertain future of the city, but as you walk through the rest of the gallery, the pictures and the films being to tell a clear story.
The short film located adjacent to the first floor gallery, Medicine Cabinet, appears to be an out-dated black-and-white cartoon, but in actuality it is a collection of charcoal drawings, continuously metamorphosing from domestic objects such as a birdcage to a kitchen cupboard. Although the piece seems as if it is portraying a changing human intimacy, Kentridge said one cannot always assume the meaning of his work. "You draw an iris and it's seen as a metaphor for the end of Apartheid. Sometimes an iris is an iris," he said.
The next set of drawings concentrate on his businessman, his wife, and the actor. The charcoal pictures are scarred with sporadic red and blue lines, along with eraser markings. The presence of the blue portrays the growing influence the Apartheid has on everyone in Johannesburg, as we see the blue lines beginning and ending with Soho. All the pictures are part of his six short films, which are running in the second projection room on the first floor.
These films were undoubtedly the gems of this exquisite exhibit. The audience stared in awe as charcoal images flashed before their eyes, telling the somber story of what happens when two people share the same land, but different cultures. Felix Teitlebaum, who is physically based on Kentridge, seduces Soho’s wife, who is emotionally disconnected to her husband. Meanwhile, the films show a cycle of development with power lines going up only to fall down, with intertwining sexual images and all the while showing the destructive effect the Apartheid has on those who have the most control over it. The films, which took Kentridge nine years to complete, do not only speak of the Apartheid, but express the emotions of the citizens, as the streams of blue connect all the solemn images. An example of this would be the image of women working as telephone operators. The phone wires are represented in the same blue coloring that started from the office of Soho, and then stretched out to reach factories, homes and people. We then see a sympathy-evoking image of Soho, as he is drowning in a sea of blue, which is flowing straight from his own body. The black population of South Africa may not agree with Kentridge pitying the Apartheid, but as a distinct observer of this culture, his criticisms are stronger than his support. As if the drawings are not touching enough, the music, which includes pieces by Duke Ellington, perfects the mood and adds an even greater amount of sensation.
With about an hour and a half of short films to view and over 75 drawings, the William Kentridge exhibit is not one to see in passing. The compelling, enigmatic drawings pull the viewers in, while simultaneously confusing them with smoky, abstract objects. To then watch the images come to life on a screen and create a powerful, lingering perspective of South African politics is an experience that cannot be rushed, overlooked or easily forgotten.
"All work that is done; whether it is a play, or a piece of music or a book is so dependent on an sympathetic viewer or listener or audience. The best piece of work in the hands of an unsympathetic audience dies and in the right context, completely ordinary mediocre work soars!" said Kentridge.
The William Kentridge exhibit will be at the New Museum until September 16, and it is co-sponsored by the New Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. The museum is located at 583 Broadway (between Houston and Prince Streets in SoHo), New York, NY 10012. Admission is $6 for adults, $3 for students and free for children under 17. For more information call 212.219.1222 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
ABOUT Allison Lanzilotta graduated Queens College with a degree in Media Studies, and along with being executive editor at a web site, she freelances for multiple publications, including the Greenwich Village Gazette. During her
time at Queens College she co-founded the official newspaper of the college,
The Knight News, and also interned at Time Magazine, where she worked as a
web producer. With primary interests in music and movies, Allison is hoping
to one day launch her own entertainment magazine.
Founded in 1977, the New Museum specializes in contemporary art from around
the globe. The museum has three galleries and a mezzanine where visitors
will see pieces not available in other museums. With an entire floor
dedicated to books, novelties and information about the artists, visitors are
invited to relax and read about the exhibits they have just experienced. The
New Museum believes that art takes on a social context, and with videos,
panel discussions and lecture series', they truly extend art into a larger
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