I’ve only just met William Kentridge, not in person, but on CBC Radio with Eleanor Wachtel’s Writers and Company. I listened spellbound to his insight, as he explained his artistic talent in humble terms. Such wisdom, I thought to myself, as I gave his age credit for amassing such an understanding of life, his voice gravelly and textured. Turns out William was born the day before me, on the day my Grandpa Stewart always thought I was born, and the fact that I know next to nothing tells me it is his life experience that gets credit for his profound awareness, not his age. When he was three, William wanted to be an elephant while I wanted to be a flying pony. Next was wanting to be an opera conductor while I wanted to be a spy, looking for the answers in the shadows with my Secret Sam Spy Kit. He got a little closer to his childhood goal while I haven’t broken up a single terrorist cell.
William was born of two mighty lawyers who fought for those harmed by apartheid in South Africa, their remarkable work heard around the world. Three of his grandparents were lawyers, all with a deep understanding of justice and the role lawyers play in the pursuit of such. He is often asked how it was he didn’t follow that same path. A child naturalizes what she/he grows up with, William explained, so he knew injustice was not to be tolerated or accepted, feeling fortunate to have come from such a foundation. Instead of following in his parents’ footsteps, William chose another medium to engage with colonial injustice in the world – art. The Royal Academy of Arts lists his skill in drawing, writing, theatre, puppetry, opera, film, dance, sculpture, tapestry, and performance. It would be impossible to discuss all the artistic achievements of his 67 years, but I must name some.
In 2016, William founded The Centre for the Less Good Idea, a wonderfully playful name with serious intent, welcoming artists from around the world into his Johannesburg studio. The centre is meant for “creating and supporting experimental, collaborative, and cross-disciplinary arts projects”. He sees the space as an “incubator”. His studio is his “safe space for stupidity”. Art begins in the meandering and wandering as ideas germinate; it is “the slow dance of gathering the fragments of thought and energy for the moment of creating”. Some ideas are just that – less good – but others need space and time to find their greatness.
The Head and the Load was first performed in 2018, named for a Ghanaian proverb – the “troubles of the neck”. Two million Africans were used in the First World War as porters, to move the tools of war across the continent. Some joined up with the hopes of having their civil rights recognized after the war, but instead were given a bicycle and a coat. Most were involuntarily conscripted by the French, British, and Germans. The question is posed of what it means to serve on behalf of a colonial occupier. William went on to say, “if we’re going to claim it as a world war, it’s about time we start thinking about its global ramifications”. William wrote that colonial logic is framed as “lest their actions merit recognition, their deeds must not be recorded” and nothing was recorded or archived of the experience of Africans. William changed that. He relied on the Imperial War Museum and its “photos, letters, copies of military instructions” and searched out African oral histories for the truth.
Williams’ Self-Portrait as a Coffee Pot saw its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in the fall of 2022. Though his voice is austere, there is a playfulness about him and his work. The International Documentary Film Academy (IDFA) describes the film as William’s “playful philosophical thoughts on the impossibility of knowing oneself” in a dialogue with himself. This nine-part film series work came out of the pandemic, during lockdown, while confined to his studio as he focussed again on inspiring a discussion of importance.
Charcoal is his most used medium. His animation started as a method to see the progression of a charcoal drawing and being able to determine when it was at its best. The animation with charcoal drawings shows the passage of time through the technique itself, the erasures becoming “traces of memory still there”, William says.
He credits the Dada art movement formed during the First World War in Zurich as a “negative reaction to the horrors and folly of the war” for the direction of his art. Though the movement was relatively unsuccessful, “all visual artists of today are the beneficiaries and heirs of what the Dadas made possible”.
William has drawn countless rhinos but has never drawn a hippo. He said if he picked up a piece of charcoal today, he would be inclined to draw another rhino and he supposes what speaks to our creativity then may not be as random as we think. I believe it was Jonathan Franzen who said we keep writing the same thing until we have figured it out.