Eesha Patkar takes a look at one of South Africa’s foremost artists and filmmakers
William Kentridge, one of South Africa’s leading artists and authorities on the subject of apartheid, has made his way to StoryLTD. For the next few weeks, we are featuring prints and posters from his art shows around the world.
Our collection of posters shows Kentridge’s continued presence in his hometown of Johannesburg where he exhibited steadily at the Goodman Gallery, but internationally as well, at Annandale Galleries in Sydney, Australia, and K20 Grabbeplatz in Düsseldorf, Germany. These are, of course, mere hints of the entire breadth of Kentridge’s achievements.
Between the mid-1970s to the late 1980s, Kentridge started and developed a reputation as a charcoal artist and printmaker. In the ’90s, he produced the first of his many animated films—Monument (1990), Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old (1991), Felix in Exile (1994), to name a few—a series of nine films that he eventually exhibited together as the “9 Drawings for Projection.” You can find the poster for this exhibit here.
Among others, we also have two posters that were once part of a limited edition triptych series. The posters themselves are designs for Kentridge’s six minute short film A Lifetime of Enthusiasm that was part of the installation “Telegrams from the Nose” at the Annandale Galleries in 2008. The third one remains elusive as of now, but those intent on possessing it and completing their collection can make a quest of it.
Kentridge’s works were hardly ever standalone pieces: when he focused on a project, he created a cornucopia of art work that he abhorred to waste. It all became part of his narrative somehow, either in the original piece that he was designing it for, or a retrospective afterwards. For instance, the 2005 poster “Preparing the Flute” was designed for the exhibition celebrating Kentridge’s operatic production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte/The Magic Flute that opened earlier that year at the La Monnaie theatre in Brussels, Belgium.
Likewise, with this poster designed for the 16th Sydney Biennale in 2008, featuring one of Kentridge’s famous collaborative pieces “Telegrams from the Nose.” The exhibit at Cockatoo Island, during which he worked with composer Francois Sarhan, consisted of a multi-projection film titled I Am Not Me, The Horse Is Not Mine (2008) and referred to a future production of an opera that he directed for the Metropolitan Opera of New York at the time.
The opera, which premiered in 2010, was a re-adaptation of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1930 opera The Nose, originally borrowed from the short story by the famous Nikolai Gogol.
I first read Gogol’s The Nose sometime in 2010 myself—in tandem with Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis—both stories evoking the feeling of absurd, a genre that was particularly relevant and heavily employed in literature, theatre and arts of early 20th century, post-war Europe. Of course, Gogol wrote The Nose much earlier in 1836, to be revived by Shostakovich a century later. There have been several reappropriations of the story over time, but it has never been more consistently experimented on and beautifully explored than in the works and art of Kentridge.
Kentridge, already well-known for his politically inflected work, sought to incorporate the absurdity of The Nose into a series of palimpsestic works of art that defied any clear medium. His charcoal drawings became stop-action animated films that turned into highly interactive multimedia installations. And practically everything that he worked on during 2007 and 2010 was gearing towards the grand pièce de résistance, the final opera.
Gogol wrote The Nose, like most of his short stories (The Overcoat), as a satirical device poking fun at the egotistical excesses of Russian politics during his time. In it, a barber named Ivan Yakovlevich finds a pale nose in the bread he’s about to eat for breakfast. It belongs to Kovalyov—“Major Kovalyov” as he pompously deigns himself—a member of the Municipal Committee. Afraid to be seen with a bureaucrat’s appendage, the barber throws it off the Isaac bridge in the Neva river below. Meanwhile, the Major has just woken up without his nose attached to his face, and proceeds to spend the rest of his day trying to find it and commandeering the local police to catch it for him.
Ludicrous in narrative, yet clever in form, Gogol transforms the nose as a metaphorical and synecdochical arc to puncture the flatulent grandiose of not just the Major, but his peers and superiors as well. The value of a socially acceptable and dignified appearance, given importance through sartorial mentions of uniforms, coats, and cloaks—or lack thereof, in case of the barber—is particularly striking. The Major’s appearance is marred (“flat as a pancake”) without his nose, leaving him impotent and unable to “snub his nose” at those he encounters daily. But I find the Indian idiom “naak kat gayi”—literary translated as “nose cut off”—far more apt here. To find one’s nose (figuratively) cut off, is to be humiliated, ashamed and beaten even. Which is exactly what happens to the Major: he hides, blusters in shame and doesn’t regain his confidence until his nose is returned to its rightful place. Of course, he fails to find any humility in the process and continues in his megalomaniac ways, reaffirming the story for the satire it truly is.
During his work on the opera, Kentridge saw parallels between the politics of Russian bureaucracy and South African socio-economic politics of his own homeland. He found the Absurd as a perfect vehicle for expressing and exploring this dynamic: “(t)he extraordinary nonsense hierarchy of apartheid in South Africa made one understand the absurd not as a peripheral mistake at the edge of a society, but at the central point of construction. So the absurd always, for me, is a species of realism rather than a species of joke or fun. And that’s why one can take the joke of The Nose very seriously.”
Kentridge was a genius. Whether he was deconstructing three dimensional reality through mirrored cylinders in installations such as “What Will Come” at the Goodman gallery, or reflecting on identity and individual choices in a politically conflicted landscape as he did through his films at the K20 exhibit—at the heart of it was always the voice of an artist striving to inform, interrogate and possibly change the world.