Art of Resistance

William Kentridge Animates the Soul of South Africa

Kentridge introduced his prime protagonist, Eckstein, in his first animated film, Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris, in 1989, and nearly killed him off seven years later in The History of the Main Complaint. In Mine (1991), the arrogant industrialist lounges in bed while his Italian coffee press plunges straight down to the mine shaft below, but by 1998, in Weighing and Wanting, Eckstein was picking through the debris of his life, haunted by his mistakes. In the course of a mere eight films, not one longer than nine minutes, Kentridge manages to squeeze in as many moral dilemmas and human experiences as a season of The Sopranos.

From The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Goodbye, Columbus to Maus and The Producers, there has been a long line of Jewish artists, writers, and filmmakers who have explored the more embarrassing or unsavory aspects of their ethnic identity. Still, when Kentridge's work was shown at London's Serpentine Gallery in 1998 and this year at the Hirshhorn, there were rumblings that the films seemed anti-Semitic. "He was completely thrown off guard," says curator Cameron. "In New York, there are writers and artists who have made these investigations in almost uncomfortable ways, but for Kentridge, identity has more to do with being white and his family's role as powerful players in a country that discriminated against the majority of its citizens."

Kentridge claims that his characters are both fictitious and semiautobiographical, often noting that he based Eckstein on a photograph of his grandfather. In point of fact, Eckstein bears a striking resemblance to the real-life South African insurance magnate Shlomo Peer, who vehemently supported the apartheid regime, equating Afrikaan nationalism with Zionism. Kentridge would have been intimately familiar with this loathsome character; Peer, who died of cancer in January 2000, threatened to sue Sir Sydney in 1989 when the lawyer publicly called him a disgrace to the Jewish community. Felix Teitlebaum, the films' antihero, is directly based on the artist himself.

Photo: Peter Rimell

"I never anticipate audience response," says Kentridge. "I always believed that if you start with the very specifics of an individual situation, only then do you have the possibility of reaching a broader audience on a purely emotional level." Today, Kentridge's audience is truly international. He exhibits regularly in New York, London, and Johannesburg. He just premiered Zeno at 4 a.m., an oratorio based on Italo Svevo's 1923 novel Confessions of Zeno, at the Kunsten Festival Des Arts in Brussels. His fifth collaboration with Handspring Puppet Company since 1992, Zeno is coming to Lincoln Center this fall.

However, the question remains: Is it fair for a white artist to be the most visible representative of post-apartheid South Africa? "William is already a midcareer artist, extremely prominent throughout South Africa during the 1980s," explains Cameron. "It would be premature, if not impossible, to expect a black artist of the same generation to meet these criteria." Kentridge, who fully acknowledges the privileges and advantages of his position, in no way wants his artwork to erase or alleviate his sense of political responsibility: "Any white looking back at the apartheid era has to say, 'I could have done more.' "

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