More than a dozen years ago, William Kentridge's “9 Drawings for Projection,” a series of highly personal animated films focusing on South African society under apartheid, was screened for audiences in museums around the world. It was then that the artist, working since the 1990s, rose to international fame. Today, he continues to demonstrate his genius through multi-disciplined projects, many of which incorporate music, dance, poetry and drama.
Born in 1955, Kentridge was the son of Johannesburg lawyers who devoted their lives to fighting for the rights of victims brutalized by South Africa’s system of segregation. Later on, Kentridge and his wife, a physician, became activists who placed themselves in great danger by taking in and offering medical assistance to men and women hiding from the police. The artist’s own experiences are at the heart of his imagery; his Jewish heritage and values are implicit, but certainly perceived, and ever present. A printer, filmmaker, poet, dramatist and stage director, Kentridge has been influenced by wide variety of sources, including Javanese shadow puppet theater, German Expressionism, 19th century medical illustration and non-traditional art like graffiti.
Projects completed within the last two years have touched the lives of millions. In late 2015, Kentridge’s Metropolitan Opera staging of Alban Berg’s “Lulu” plunged audiences into Weimar, Germany’s nightmarish decadence. Garish color, skewed sets and crass pantomime revealed the persona of the opera’s central character, a prostitute, while projected visuals—period currency, newspapers with prophetic headlines, photos of world leaders, and the artist’s own animations, drawn and then erased before the viewer’s eyes—distilled the essence of a world on the verge of cataclysm. A finishing, and most frightening touch, was the box-like, cartoonish mask encasing the head of the principal dancer.
This year, Kentridge executed a site specific work, on view 24 hours a day, which is intended to draw attention to the neglected and polluted condition of the Tiber River and its environs. In the 1640 feet long “Triumphs and Laments,” silhouettes of Rome’s military leaders, political despots from ancient times to the presentand the people they have conquered, exploited and enslaved, parade silently across the high stone river embankment. The process was unique; the monumental figures were blasted out of the biological detritus and garbage that has accumulated on these natural walls. Without conservation, the figures will be overtaken by more growth, and will eventually disappear.
Kentridge’s world is not all gritty. Only recently, elegance has prevailed as the famed men’s haberdasher, Ermenegildo Zegna (EZ), unveiled Kentridge’s new tapestry, “Dare/Avere” (Credit/Debit), commissioned for its beautifully designed New Bond Street, London, location. Inspired by documents in the store’s archival holdings, the artist’s design brings together attributes which distill EZ’s 106 year history: an antique Italian map, an old accounting ledger referencing the work’s title, a sewing machine, the store’s trademark label. In characteristic Kentridge style, the dapper silhouette of Ermenegildo, who founded this family business, makes his entrance as part of the foreground procession.
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