Arts / Museums

William Kentridge Examines the Shadows of South Africa and Takes On Apartheid in a Powerful MFAH Exhibit

An Artist Who Understands Both Life and Art Are Full of Chaos

BY // 09.08.23

At times, it becomes almost easy to view South African multidisciplinary artist William Kentridge as an uber-smart, omniscient god-like figure. But the truth is, he is much more down-to-Earth.

Kentridge likes the idea of chaos and mess in art. He is someone who gets nostalgic when it comes to the erasure of certain landmarks in his native Johannesburg. He laments the destruction of art deco buildings in his city during the 1970s. Cinephiles everywhere could probably relate to his heartfelt commentary about the demise of the Top Star Drive-In cinema.

Kentridge is also an artist with a deep conscience. Through his work, he offers critiques of colonialism, capitalism, whitewashed history and, in the case of South Africa, Apartheid regimes and practices. His 100-year-old father, retired attorney Sir Sydney Kentridge, defended Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Chief Albert Luthuli and activist Steve Biko’s family.

The exhibit “William Kentridge: In Praise of Shadows,” which is on view at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through this Sunday, September 10, offers glimpses into Kentridge’s thought processes, convictions and deep, expansive imagination.

William Kentridge's <em>Cursive</em>, 2020, at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. This work consists of 40 bronze sculptures. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)
William Kentridge’s Cursive, 2020, at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. This work consists of 40 bronze sculptures. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

Instead of following his parents into the legal profession, Kentridge made the choice to pursue visual arts and film. He was inspired conceptually and aesthetically by French illusionist Georges Méliès, director of Le Voyage dans la lune (1902), and he created the films 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, Day for Night and Journey to the Moon in tribute to Méliès.

Two recurring characters in animated films created by Kentridge named Soho Eckstein and Felix Teitlebaum were once alter egos of each other. These days, however, only Eckstein remains. Eckstein is a complex figure, variously described as a miner, capitalist, or industrialist who sometimes appears in the Highveld Grasslands. He is represented throughout this Houston museum exhibit, presented in different scenarios.

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The exhibit also delves into Kentridge’s take on opera. Kentridge re-staged two operas originally created by Second Viennese School composer Alban Berg: Wozzeck (1925) and Lulu (1937). The set design of Wozzeck has the classic Kentridge touch — projected charcoal drawings, the color gray and atmosphere.

Sometimes, Kentridge uses opera to make a point about philosophical movements that faded away. In a conversation with Rosalind C. Morris, he said: “A lot of the work I have done is about the failures of the Enlightenment, from The Magic Flute to Black Box to The Nose.”

The 2017 premiere of artist William Kentridge's production of Alban Berg's <em>Wozzeck</em> (1925), staged at the Salzburger Festspiele, Salzburg. (Photo by Ruth Walz. Courtesy Kentridge Studio)
The 2017 premiere of artist William Kentridge’s production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (1925), staged at the Salzburger Festspiele, Salzburg. (Photo by Ruth Walz. Courtesy Kentridge Studio)

But while Kentridge is clearly intrigued by opera and film, he also has an affinity for other mediums. The interconnectedness between different forms of art is a strength of the MFAH show.

The cinema rooms, painted black, pull the viewer into Kentridge’s world and aesthetic. Drawings dominate the first exhibit gallery, whereas prints and sculptures make profound statements deeper into the exhibit. Many of the drawings tell stories about Apartheid, particularly one featuring barbed wire.

The sculpture Singer Trio (2019), one of the latest works in the survey spanning three decades, is a highlight. Frequent Kentridge collaborator Nhlanhla Mahlangu provided organic, captivating vocals to complement the machinery, which includes three sewing machines.

William Kentridge's <em>City Deep</em>, 2020. This still from the video<em> City Deep</em> features Soho Eckstein, a recurring protagonist who has appeared in numerous Kentridge films. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts Houston)
William Kentridge’s City Deep, 2020. This still from the video City Deep features Soho Eckstein, a recurring protagonist who has appeared in numerous Kentridge films. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

Although Kentridge clearly has a sense of humor and doesn’t always take himself seriously, he does embrace his role as truth teller. There is a poignancy inherent in some of the work in this MFAH exhibit. The drypoint etchings Casspirs Full of Love (1989, printed 2000) and 100 Years of Easy Living (1988) critique Apartheid-era South African society.

Kentridge’s mind blowing body of work, even viewed on a smaller scale, is both challenging and inspiring. There is so much to discover and contemplate here.

Considering the subject matter, perhaps the MFAH film department should have arranged screenings of Lionel Rogosin’s Come Back, Africa (1959). This important Apartheid-era film was directed by Rogosin, the son of Jewish textile merchants. Kentridge, who comes from a Lithuanian-Jewish background, was just a little boy when the movie was released.

Rogosin surreptitiously shot this film, tricking South African authorities into believing it was a totally different project. It features a young Miriam Makeba and sublime music from Chatur Lal, the tabla-playing precursor to Ravi Shankar.

Overall, however, the William Kentridge exhibit is a great introduction to his work for Houston audiences. It is a powerful display of humanity on the right side of history.

“William Kentridge: In Praise of Shadows” remains on view through this Sunday, September 10 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Get more information here.

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