by Vatsala SethiSep 24, 2022
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.
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.
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.