William Kentridge exhibits graphic art and films from the 70s to 90s, in Basel
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William Kentridge exhibits graphic art and films from the 70s to 90s, in Basel

A Poem That Is Not Our Own, William Kentridge’s first major solo exhibition in Switzerland, is on till October 13, 2019, at the Kunstmuseum Basel.

by Georgina Maddox Jul 26, 2019

It is amazing what can be done with paper, a stick of charcoal, an eraser, and a few camera edits. With a few strokes of genius, the landscape comes alive - a man appears to jump from one rock to another crossing an angry river, television sets march in a line on spindly legs, a white man looks into a mirror and sees a man of colour. A jumpy film captures men dressed in tutus with paper masks drawn on and stretched across their faces as they perform an absurd ballet. Welcome to the world of William Kentridge, where things are more than what they seem, where the critique on apartheid is couched in burning satire and the punches are delivered with deft strokes of his charcoal stick.

For those who may not know this behemoth of an artist, William Kentridge (b. 1955) has won international acclaim as a leading contemporary artist. In more than three decades, the South African visual artist, filmmaker, and stage director, has built a sizable oeuvre that spans a broad range of media including animated films, prints and drawings, theatre productions, and sculpture.

  • William Kentridge at his exhibition at Kunstmuseum Basel| A Poem That Is Not Our Own| William Kentridge| STIR
    William Kentridge at his exhibition at Kunstmuseum Basel Image Credit: Julian Salinus
  • Right Into Her Arms, video art work, William Kentridge, 2016| A Poem That Is Not Our Own| William Kentridge| STIR
    Right Into Her Arms, video art work, William Kentridge, 2016 Image Credit: Courtesy of William Kentridge
  • Dead Remus, charcoal on ledger paper, 47 x 66.5 cm, 2014-2016| A Poem That Is Not Our Own| William Kentridge| STIR
    Dead Remus, charcoal on ledger paper, 47 x 66.5 cm, 2014-2016 Image Credit: Courtesy of William Kentridge

As a tribute to his vast and amazing body of work, which is socially and politically relevant -today more than ever - the Kunstmuseum Basel is currently hosting a retrospective. The exhibition, titled A Poem That Is Not Our Own, is curated by Dr. Josef Helfenstein, who is also the director of the Kunstmuseum, and it features his early and current works. It was designed in close consultation with the artist, and showcases early graphic art and films from the 1980s and 1990s, as well as examples of Kentridge’s more recent oeuvre, including the first adaptations for museum presentation of elements from The Head & The Load, which premiered at the Tate Modern, London, in the summer of 2018.  Theatre Basel is also showing his Paper Music, a ’cross-genre performance‘, in which animations of his charcoal and ink drawings are screened, set to live music played on stage.

In his early films and drawings, the artist directly approached South Africa’s and Europe’s social and ethnic conflicts. In the 1970s and 1980s, he created posters, drawings, and plays that sharply criticised his native country’s apartheid regime. The play Sophiatown (1986–1989), produced in collaboration with the Junction Avenue Theatre Company, dramatised the forced removal of the residents of the Johannesburg neighbourhood of Sophiatown in 1955.

  • Libretto for <i>Waiting for the Sibyl</i> (LED-Frieze Neubau), William Kentridge, 2019| A Poem That Is Not Our Own| William Kentridge| STIR
    Libretto for Waiting for the Sibyl (LED-Frieze Neubau), William Kentridge, 2019 Image Credit: Julian Salinas
  • Studioroom, 1994-2018, include reconstruction of studio set for Drawing Lesson 50: Learning from the Old Masters (In Praise of Folly), 2018| A Poem That Is Not Our Own| William Kentridge| STIR
    Studioroom, 1994-2018, include reconstruction of studio set for Drawing Lesson 50: Learning from the Old Masters (In Praise of Folly), 2018 Image Credit: Gina Folly
  • Drawing for Sophiatown, 1998, Gouache on paper, 378 x 173 cm, William Kentridge| A Poem That Is Not Our Own| William Kentridge| STIR
    Drawing for Sophiatown, 1998, Gouache on paper, 378 x 173 cm, William Kentridge Image Credit: Thys Dullaart, Courtesy of William Kentridge

Another area worth paying attention to is In Praise of Folly (2018), the title of Drawing Lesson No. 50, which makes its debut in Basel. It is borrowed from the satirical speech that Erasmus of Rotterdam penned in 1509, a biting critique of the Catholic Church. Erasmus was a humanist scholar and is considered a major figure in the history of Basel, where he taught at the university and is buried. Sketches by Kentridge can be made out in the background in the film, which quotes painter Hans Holbein’s Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam, one of the most cherished treasures in the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung in Basel’s municipal art collection. The conscientious viewer can also spot sketches after other well-known works in the Kunstmuseum’s collection, including those by Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, and Matthias Grünewald, which grace the walls of Kentridge’s atelier like icons. In light of these works, In Praise of Folly addresses art history and the masters of the past as a source of creative inspiration for the artist working today. In an online interview, the curator Helfenstein reiterates that Kentridge is an important and relevant artist who addresses the ’unsolved wounds of history,’ from apartheid to slavery and forced migration of many South Africans of colour. 

  • A Praise of Folly (Drawing Lesson No. 50), 2018, April 2019| A Poem That Is Not Our Own| William Kentridge| STIR
    A Praise of Folly (Drawing Lesson No. 50), 2018, April 2019 Image Credit: Gina Folly, Pro Litteris, Zurich 2019
  • Backdrops made for Sophiatown, William Kentridge, 1989, Gouache on brown paper | William Kentridge| STIR
    Backdrops made for Sophiatown, William Kentridge, 1989, Gouache on brown paper Image Credit: Gina Folly

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About Author

Georgina Maddox

Georgina Maddox

Maddox is an independent critic-curator with 18-years-experience in the field of Indian art and culture. She blurs the lines of documentation, theory and praxis by involving herself in visual art projects. Besides writing on immersive art for STIR World, she is a regular contributor for The Hindu and Architectural Digest.

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