Artists are essentially the product of two interacting forces: the circumstances and experiences surrounding their lives and the ways in which they react to these forces and allow them to shape and inform their work. South African artist William Kentridge is no exception to this rule. In studying both his biographical background and his work, it is apparent that the two are intrinsically linked. If he were born elsewhere in a different historical moment, perhaps he would have still been an artist, but there is no chance he would have become the same artist he is today.
Born as a white child in South Africa in 1955, soon after the start of apartheid, Kentridge witnessed the full forty-six years of this system of institutionalized segregation in his home country. His father, Sydney Kentridge, was one of the country’s most prominent anti-apartheid lawyers and his mother, Felicia Kentridge, often worked along side him as an advocate. During his decades on the South African Bar, Sydney Kentridge represented notable anti-apartheid activists such as Nelson Mandela and Chief Albert Luthuli, took on the investigation into the murder of Steve Biko, and was a founding trustee of the Legal Resources Centre. I mention these particulars about his father to demonstrate the principles of courage and humanity which must have been instilled in young William. He grew up witnessing appalling injustice normalized by his country’s government and many citizens, but simultaneously seeing examples of those closest to him standing up and speaking out against these brutal inequalities. There is no denying how formative these forces much have been on his development.
Over the course of his career, Kentridge has focused his work around exploring the years before and after apartheid. His work is informed by his study of politics and African history at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and his study of Fine Art at the Johannesburg Art Foundation and the École Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Kentridge works in a range of techniques and media, including drawings, mixed media work, performance, and filmmaking. In a 2016 interview with The Guardian, he is quoted saying: “When I started out I tried to follow the, well-meaning and sensible, advice of all my friends who told me to do one thing and do it well. Just do drawing, they said. Just do theatre. Only make films because otherwise you get caught between them. For a long time I tried that, and I failed at all of them. Now I don’t even pretend to know what form an idea will ultimately take or what project it will end up in. I just get on with doing things knowing they will end up somewhere” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/sep/10/out-of-south-africa-how-politics-animated-the-art-of-william-kentridge). As an artist myself, I found these words enormously comforting. I have received the same advice many times over. I have so many different media which I enjoy exploring and often my work takes me in a range of different directions. I have been told that this is impractical, bad business sense, and not a way to have my work become recognizable to the public. As Kentridge says, this advice others give is sensible. But, sensible or not, quashing my internal inspiration and drive as an artist for the sake of being strategic and practical doesn’t feel quite right either. I love to see that when Kentridge allowed himself to freely explore a multitude of directions in his work, the result was a blossoming and strengthening of his work which was not happening prior.
I discovered Kentridge’s work because of my own interest in making my drawings move. Bill Fick pointed me towards him as a source of possible inspiration and I was in fact deeply inspired. His films are profoundly expressive, evocative, and moving, and rendered in a style which is entirely his own. In diving deeper into Kentridge’s life and work I have found even more to be inspired by. His films are only the starting point. Kentridge’s voice as an artist is the product of the life he given, the life he has chosen to live in the years since, and his willingness to unapologetically be himself in his exploration of creative expression. I hope that one day, like him, I can use my own life experiences as the raw material for honest and masterful works. I hope that, like him, I can learn and be inspired by both the pain and tragedy I have witnessed in the world, as well as the strength and perseverance of those I admire. I hope that I can hold on to my desire to freely explore in a range of media and not feel obligated to confine myself to one. I am going to continue to follow and study Kentridge’s work because I am sure I have much more to learn.