South African way of suffering

With the release of Nelson Mandela and the election of a democratic goverment in 1994, the apartheid period that had scarred South Africa for decades appeared to have come to an end. But the longstanding conflict and hostility that that had built up over the years remained unresolved. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was set up in 1995 attempted to bring redemption and forgiveness for the terrible crimes of the past that it helped bring to the surface. Caught between the urgent need for change and the weight of irrevocable injustices, South Africans struggled to make sense of their world. William Kentridge’s art is an imaginative and highly distinctive expression of post-apartheid contradictions. Kentridge is perhaps the only South African artist to have reached such international exposure since the lifting of apartheid. Raised in a family of lawyers that were actively involved in anti-apartheid activities, Kentridge has evolved into one of the most compelling contemporary artists internationally. His work has been shown in major museums and at events around the world: His participation in the 1997 Kassel Documenta was followed by large exhibitions in the US and presentations of his work at some of Europe’s most prestigious museums. The work that attracted the most international acclaim is Kentridge’s handmade, animated films, made from a succession of his charcoal drawings. The artist photographs them in the process of their making and edits the various stages into a filmic sequence. The process of erasing and redrawing each image and photographing each stage builds up to the final film, a hybrid art form that combines traditional draftsmanship and photography (Kentridge has called the technique «stone-age filmmaking»). Each work requires months to complete. One of those films, «Learning to Play the Flute» (2003), is on view at the Kappatos Gallery at Kentridge’s joint exhibition with Penelope Siopis, a South African artist of Greek origin and of roughly the same age as Kentridge. Like Kentridge, Siopis is haunted by South Africa’s recent history. Her art unveils and denounces shameful crimes and injustices but its perspective seems more pensive and forlorn than declarational or protest-oriented. Guilt, responsibility, complicity and confession are concepts shared by both artists. This similarity, however, is not underlined at the Kappatos exhibition. «Learning to Play the Flute» by Kentridge is perhaps one of his least politically oriented works. («Stereoscope,» which is his work on view at the Synopsis exhibition at the Athens Concert Hall, openly deals with post-apartheid issues.) The work, which includes the projection of an animation film on a blackboard, and a large charcoal drawing printed on the torn-off pages of an encyclopaedia (Kentridge often combines drawings with animation films), was actually made in preparation for a production of Mozart’s opera that Kentridge will direct in 2005. It grew out of the artist’s extensive work with theater and opera productions both as actor, director and set designer since the mid-1970s. In the early 1980s, Kentridge studied mime and theater in Paris and has since worked with the Handspring Puppet Company. Although Kentridge’s social and political concerns can be detected in the symbolic language of his animated images, his video presented at the exhibition is not about post-apartheid. Siopis’s work is. Her installation is about the rape of children (apparently one of the most frequently committed crimes in South Africa) and the torture inflicted by whites on black South Africans. A series of small paintings arranged in a frieze-like manner across the walls of the gallery and below eye level (as if meant to be seen by a child) narrate in an almost filmic sequence – akin to Kentridge’s work – physical pain and humiliation. Red-and-pink colors predominate, evoking bleeding and the violation of innocence, while black suggests drama and death. Across the wall, Siopis has gathered instruments of torture accompanied by textual descriptions of each one of them. Both works are about exposing shame publicly, about depicting shame and recognizing it as a collective feeling among South Africans. The installation is about coming to terms with one’s conscience, both individual and collective, which is also one of the most central themes in the work of William Kentridge. In his films, Kentridge often blends personal memory and everyday, mundane activities with political and social events narrated in an elliptical, symbolic language. The image of a man petting a cat, drinking coffee or shaving is, for example, followed by or seen against the background of an outrageous act such as a dog’s head exploding into bits or bodies being beaten and shot. The images in the film unravel in a virtually stream-of-consciousness fashion, surreal and incoherent, through strange and clever associations that are entertaining and almost hypnotizing to watch (the soundtrack adds to this effect by building up to a rhythm) but strangely melancholy at the same time. This careful balance between wit and sorrow, making us feel victimized but culpable at the same time, is one of the aspects of his art that makes the films so compelling. Kentridge uses recurring motifs such as the camera (and its diverse connotations as a mechanism of control, surveillance or as an optical device that has made us perceive the world differently) as well as several stock characters: The Johannesburg magnate Soho Eckstein, portrayed as a middle-aged man in a suit, and Felix Teitlebaum, Kentridge’s alter ego, an artist and dreamer, are two of his central characters, each belonging to opposing worlds. One point that has been made about Kentridge’s art is that it explores the intervening space between memory and amnesia, what the artist has referred to as «the dulling of memory.» The act of erasing that he uses in his drawings is connected to this concern. Kentridge considers such issues with great insight and imagination. Just as his films arrive at no definite end, his art makes no moral statement. But his films manage to engage the viewer through their entire duration and to make him think not only about the condition of the world but about the frailties of human nature and one’s own share of responsibility. William Kentridge and Penelope Siopis, at the Kappatos Gallery (6 Aghias Irinis, 210.311.7931) through Saturday.

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