William Kentridge Explores South Africa’s History with Charcoal and a Cell Phone

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A woman in William Kentridge’s studio is belting out an aria into a cell phone, surrounded by a swirl of sketches and drawings.

On the other end of the line is the renowned composer Philip Miller, sitting at a piano in Kentridge’s Cape Town home. The improvisational recording is just one element that makes up pieces like I am not me, the horse is not mine, which debuted at the 2008 Sydney Biennial in a video installation that featured an operatic score and Kentridge’s charcoal drawings.

The South African artist spoke to Art21 about how his experimental, often collaborative approach to art-making lends itself to an “understanding of the world as process rather than as fact.” Kentridge began his career making charcoal sketches that reflected on his country’s fraught history of apartheid and political instability, and in 1989 began to translate his prints and drawings into film.

Years later, Kentridge made his theatrical debut overseeing a production of the absurdist Russian story The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2010. Since then, he has continued to create works for the stage around the world.

This winter, the Park Avenue Armory will host The Head and the Load, a performance based on the largely untold stories of the almost two million African people who served as soldiers, porters, and carriers during World War I. Often, they were deceived into enlisting by politicians and generals, who offered empty promises of civil rights in return. The collaborative work, which debuted at London’s Tate Modern, features music by Miller, along with an orchestral collective, an ensemble cast, and video projections.

Production still from the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” Season 5 episode, “Compassion,” 2009. © Art21, Inc. 2009.

“How does one find a way of not necessarily illustrating the society that one lives in, but allowing what happens there to be part of the work?” Kentridge told Art21. “I think one does think with one’s hands…the seriousness of play is important in the work that I do.”

To gear up for this New York performance this winter, watch the segment, which originally appeared as part of the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” television series on PBS, below. William Kentridge: The Head and The Load will run at the Park Avenue Armory from December 4 to 15, 2018.

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