What does it mean to be a white person living within—and benefitting from—a system of inequality, racism, and state-sponsored violence? This is the question asked repeatedly by William Kentridge in his career-spanning survey at the Broad museum in Los Angeles.
The exhibition, which opened in November, includes more than 130 works, from drawing and animation, to printmaking, sculpture, and theater, that reflect on the tortured history of his native South Africa. Across these works, he explores how histories are constructed and fabricated through images, maps, monuments, and movies.
Kentridge initially garnered acclaim in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with his stop-motion animated films, painstakingly created by a process of drawing and erasure that leaves behind a buildup of images. Based around fictional characters like Soho Eckstein, a ruthless developer, and artist Felix Teitelbaum, these films chronicle the upheavals of post-Apartheid South Africa. The Broad show, titled “In Praise of Shadows,” features these films, which are shown in a faux screening-room, but it also showcases Kentridge’s ability to bring together a wide range of disparate cultural sources to construct new narratives and challenge old ones, from his fascination with early cinematic pioneer Georges Méliès, to Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 satirical story “The Nose,” to early 20th-century revolutionary art.
In conjunction with the exhibition, REDCAT hosted the premiere of Houseboy, a theatrical adaptation of Ferdinand Oyono’s 1956 novel, produced by the Centre for the Less Good Idea, an “interdisciplinary incubator for the arts” founded by Kentridge in 2016.
Shortly before it opened to the public, ARTnews sat down with Kentridge to discuss the exhibition, the Centre for the Less Good Idea, and what it means to mount this show in Los Angeles, the global capital of cinema.
ARTnews: I’m curious how you chose Oyono’s novel, and why you made it as a performance as opposed to an animation or series of drawings.
William Kentridge: This is a production that comes out of the Centre for the Less Good Idea; it comes out of a season [about] text. So there was a text by Conrad, by Kafka, by Mayakovsky, and this text by Ferdinand Oyono. Most of the time, we work with short-form fragments at the Centre. We’ve never done a long-form piece.
It’s a novel that I had known since I was a student. I’d always been struck by it. In fact, when I was just out of university, I tried to get the film rights, but fortunately, I never got the rights—it would have been a very bad film if I made it. And so, when we started working on this project with text, I remembered this novel. I said, “Let’s go back to it.”
It’s good for us at the Centre, because it uses a lot of the different resources and people that are there, a range of actors. At the Centre, just because of the demographics of South Africa, I would say 80 percent or 90 percent of performers are Black. In this piece, there are three white actors and nine Black performers. There are many wonderful, colonial novels, but this is one written by a colonial subject, not a colonist, so it has a different view. It’s a very interesting view of the politics of colonialism and also of the real politics of when knowledge is power and when it’s a liability. So there are themes in it that are very interesting, but it’s also very light and witty in its writing. And it gave us a chance to look at a different form: it’s neither just a reading nor is it turning a novel into a play. And so, along the way, we found different ways of dealing with this mixture of someone reading a book and being inside the book.
Maybe we could talk a little bit about the Centre. How did that come about?
The Centre for the Less Good Idea’s name comes from a Tswana proverb which translates to: “If the good doctor can’t cure you, find the less good doctor.” When the grand ideas no longer work, find smaller ideas. In other words, it privileges recognition of information as you do it rather than knowledge in advance. It’s about recognizing things that come toward you as you’re doing a rehearsal rather than knowing everything before you start.
That means that not everything that we do is wonderful. Sometimes the less good idea just becomes the bad idea and gets abandoned. But over the six years there’ve been just over 700 performers that have taken part, and 400 different things produced by the Centre and a very wide range of directors and artists.
We invite different curators to curate different seasons and then invite the actors, directors, performers, artists to make a season of work. During Covid, for a year and a half, we couldn’t have live seasons, but we did a number of virtual projects.
Collaboration is an important part of the practice.
Collaboration is what I’ve done a lot in all the theater and in the film work, and in a way, the Centre was to show to other people that the energy that comes from that kind of collaboration. So it was taking the practice which had emerged over the years of me doing it in my own work, and saying it actually can be very encouraging and rich for people to work in this way. It’s a community organization, but the community is a community of artists, of actors, rather than a geographic community around which the Centre is located.
The Broad show focuses a lot on the history of South Africa itself. I’m wondering if you see parallels between South Africa that you’re working with and the U.S. now.
I mean, there are ways in which there are obviously commonalities of racial politics in the United States and South Africa, but there are enormous differences, the main one being that in South Africa, between 80 percent and 90 percent of the population is not white. In the United States, it’s kind of inverted. In the United States, it’s a minority trying to find their space and find justice, and making sense of the history. In South Africa, it’s a majority of people trying to get what is theirs. So there is a Black government, the laws that were there under Apartheid have changed, but long-term histories of wealth distribution and of access are not that transformed. The Black middle class in South Africa is now numerically the same size of the white middle class. But that still means if you’re the other 60 percent of the population, you often face unemployment, no resources, bad education. It’s a very complex and unequal society.
I guess I’m just thinking about the political role of art.
It’s maybe a choice that American artists might make: “Is my work going to be political or not?” In South Africa, it’s very hard for that not to be in the world in which you’re working. It’s possible, but it’s much less easy. For me, it would feel unnatural to say: “Let’s close my eyes to this huge amount of what’s happening around me in the world and only look inside the studio.”
You can look at this exhibition in two ways. You can look at it as a series of works, a lot of which reveal elements or are connected with the elements of South African life. But you can also look at it as a body of work that has to do with: How does one think of cinema, of making film inside a studio, of the artist in the studio? And you can also look at a series of different formal ways of approaching the same subject.
Speaking of cinema, you’re in L.A., and film has a special resonance here.
It does. For the curator Ed Schad, it was an important starting point. So there’s the big camera at the entrance, and the first triptych is very early drawings I did, which are kind of Hollywood shattered and gathered together a bit like a movie poster. And the heart of it is the work about Georges Méliès, one of the fathers of moviemaking. So that’s in the big poster and the proto-projector bicycle wheel.
But the actual films themselves—the animated films which are, in terms of material, the heart of the exhibition—are made in a very different way to Hollywood films. One has a sense, maybe a false one, that Hollywood films need to start with the slogan on the poster. Who is the audience? What do they need to hear? When the film is made, you’ve got a whole period of preview audiences testing it and marketing it. And then you go back and you feel that you know why every decision can be a business decision, and you end up with the script which has got the final tagline of the poster in its head. Which is the kind of filmmaking I thought I wanted to do when I started out.
But at a certain point I understood, with those films, trying to get them made, that I would spend half my life or nine-tenths of my life, trying to jump through all the hoops you need to make a film—particularly in South Africa. In a way, the animated films were a response to that. Is there a way of making a film where the day you want to start making it, you can do it? You don’t need anyone’s leave, you don’t need a crew. It’s the camera, a roll of film, and a piece of paper. That’s how the films started. In more recent years, it was slightly more complex—there’s more complex editing. Sometimes, there’s even a cameraman, and once or twice even a sound man, but essentially the animated films are me and the paper and the camera.
A lot of your work deconstructs narratives or the way we receive narratives. Cinema has a huge role in constructing false narratives.
It’s just about [my] incompetence. I tried to write scripts, I tried to do storyboards for the film. I spent weeks trying to do them, couldn’t drag anything out of my imagination and then realized: Alright, I’m trying to work out what the story is. Let me start drawing. Once that started, it took on its own logic.
After the second film, I stopped being anxious about not having a script. If you have a whole crew, you need to tell them what to do. At one point, I said, “Let me do the animation with an assistant in the room who can actually shoot the frames.” But then three things happened. One, I started drawing too fast because I was anxious about the person waiting around doing nothing. Second, instead of walking back to the camera to look at it, I would simply step to the side, so I missed looking back at the drawing constantly as it evolved. And third, I suddenly started performing being an artist because there was someone else in the room. So I didn’t quite put on a beret, but I might as well have. After that, for the animations, there was no one else around.
Have you been to the Academy Museum?
I haven’t, but I should.
They have a lot of historical …
…Pre-cinematic devices. I’m actually a member of the Academy, although I’ve never actually taken it up or voted in the animation section. I’ve seen many exhibitions of different pre-cinematic devices, but I’m always a sucker for them.
The Broad exhibition is laid out in a very specific way. For somebody who doesn’t know your work, what would you say is a good approach to understand it?
The first thing is not to feel that you have to know the references. The Soho [Eckstein] films chronicle a history of South Africa, but it’s really not essential to know that history. What happens when you see films like these is like what happens when reading literature. Even if you don’t know the context, as humans we’re very good at inventing possible contexts, constructing fragments into a meaning, which may not be the final meaning or the meaning that the person who made them had in his or her head, but which have a kind of coherence. Very often there’s a very specific reference which someone in South Africa may or may not know: “This is a drawing done of that particular beach. I can see the mountains from this beach, and the beach huts from that beach, and the cars from another part of the country.”
If you’re watching the film, you may not know those references, but hopefully, you will say, “Okay, but this must be based on something, there’s something idiosyncratic about it.” So I would say there’s an openness of viewing. The films shouldn’t make you feel foolish for not understanding.
That’s a great thing for an artist to say.
I think it’s vital, otherwise you’ll look at it defensively. Very often, younger children, who don’t have that anxiety, are a very good audience. An intelligent 9-year-old’s question is always better than a 40-year-old’s question that’s tired and bored.