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William Kentridge Photo

William Kentridge

South African Animator, Theatre Designer, Performance Artist, & Sculptor

Born: April 1955 - Johannesburg, South Africa
Movements and Styles:
Video Art
"I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures an uncertain ending - an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check, and nihilism at bay."
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William Kentridge Signature
"To say that one needs art, or politics, that incorporate ambiguity and contradiction is not to say that one then stops recognizing and condemning things as evil. However, it might stop one being so utterly convinced of the certainty of one's own solutions. There needs to be a strong understanding of fallibility and how the very act of certainty or authoritativeness can bring disasters."
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William Kentridge Signature
"When I went to art school, the idea was that if you were going to be an artist, you had to paint with oil paints on canvas. I discovered I was very bad at that, so it was an enormous relief to discover that there already existed a strong tradition of drawing as a primary medium of art-making."
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William Kentridge Signature
"I am only an artist, my job is to make drawings not to make sense."
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William Kentridge Signature
"The absurd, with its rupture of rationality - of conventional ways of seeing the world - is in fact an accurate and a productive way of understanding the world."
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William Kentridge Signature
"It's always been in between the things I thought I was doing that the real work has happened."
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William Kentridge Signature
"Forgetting is natural, remembering is the effort one makes."
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"To say that making art is a conversation between the maker and the paper is to oversimplify - it is a series of attractions and repulsions that may begin with intention and end with analysis but the real meaning (the truth of the work) I arrived at in the processes and moments of making."
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William Kentridge Signature
"The drawings don't start with 'a beautiful mark.' It has to be a mark of something out there in the world. It doesn't have to be an accurate drawing, but it has to stand for an observation, not something that is abstract, like an emotion."
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William Kentridge Signature
"The theme and the image come together, where the world meets the act of drawing halfway."
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"The studio is filled with possibilities and objects waiting to come into being. One could think of the studio in that sense as a kind of enlarged head, in the same way you have an idea sparking from one synapse to the next."
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"There's a nostalgia built into the way the world works now. Technology has become more and more invisible. We are now more than ever before connected by lines of communication. They are all invisible."
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"The work is an invitation to the visitor to see if they can find points of connection that overlap between their memory, their experiences and desires, and what they see on the screen and hear. It's not as if the piece is an emotional journey plotted for an audience. That requires a cynicism in thinking on behalf of other people. And a knowledge of knowing who other people are. Neither of those things I would claim."
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William Kentridge Signature
"I started using old newspapers and books as scrap paper because it is cheaper, you don't have to take care whether I spoil it or not and these papers have already a wonderful texture, I don't have to prepare the surface. The machines are also a transformation of the drawings in my films and collage work. It all has to do with transformation and metamorphosis."
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William Kentridge Signature
"Most children draw. I just forgot to stop."
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William Kentridge Signature
"I have a strategy for never writing a script nor a storyboard or a proposal. The piece comes out of the physical process. If you've got too clear a mind, there's no space for peripheral thinking."
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William Kentridge Signature
"There is a desperation in all certainty. The category of political uncertainty, philosophical uncertainty, uncertainty of images is much closer to how the world is."
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"One can always write ones biography in the terms of the failures which have saved you."
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Summary of William Kentridge

William Kentridge stands assured as an exciting visual artist, a profound philosopher, and a subtle symbol for peace. He always wears a crisp white shirt and quotes the angelic Reverend Desmond Tutu - a person with compassionate awareness of human fallibility from the self outwards - as one of his greatest influences. Born, raised, and still living today at the heart of Johannesburg, South Africa, Kentridge's identity is intrinsically bound within the complex history and injustices of his homeland. To say that he is primarily a political artist however is in many ways a misleading starting point from which to consider Kentridge's practice. As a human who cares deeply and one who is connected to his surroundings, current and contemporary happenings do appear in the artist's work and these can include incidents of violence, racial prejudice, and traces of the apartheid system.

Overall, Kentridge's tendencies towards poetic, philosophical, and theatrical ways of thinking are all stronger than any specific political mindset. Recurrent themes are timeless and universal; these include an interest in self, in relationships, in time, and in the cycle of life. Indeed Kentridge is so determined to mimic the "real" experience of being human that he moves fluidly between, and combines many different genres, of art. He uses drawing, printmaking, film, and performance and collages these different fragments of media together looking to achieve a more honest depiction of human experience than any sort of singular, linear, and tightly framed version of art. People are presented as uncertain, divided and chaotic, living in a world with much the same characteristics. Kentridge consistently well illustrates that any overarching view of life is likely non-sensical and impossible to follow, but interesting to consider all the same.


  • As a characteristically philosophical artist, Kentridge constantly reflects on the unanswerable question of what it means to be human. Starting with rigorous personal interrogation - often in the form of self-portraits - he successfully gives insight to a shared human story and recognises the importance of returning to one's origins in order to do so. As such the artist uses basic charcoal as his primary medium and always holds onto the childhood impulse to draw.
  • Typically sombre and relatively dark in mood, Kentridge's work is rooted in the Expressionist tradition and recalls images by the likes of Käthe Kollwitz and Francis Bacon. For Kentridge however, the tragedy of the human condition, inevitably parading towards death, is often balanced by some aspect of humour. Indeed more and more in recent stage works, slapstick comedy becomes an important part of the artist's practice, comparable to the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
  • Kentridge quotes that he learnt more from his time studying mimic and mime in a Paris theatre school than he ever did at art school. He thus reveals his influence base to be extremely varied: moving between actors, artists, philosophers, writers, scientists, and spiritual teachers. He successfully combines all of these inspirations to reveal that he is interested in getting to the bare nuts and bolts of an idea, by whichever multi-media technique necessary.
  • Although highly intelligent, Kentridge is adamant that it is his body that leads his practice. He says that he always encourages "the hand to lead the brain", and that overall his work is a physical undertaking. Again this corresponds to the artist's love for theatre and movement on stage, but also to his lifelong interest in Dada, the group of German and French artists who successfully combined works on paper with dance and comedic action. Kentridge even sees his own studio as a sort of extension of his own body, comparing a walk across one part of the room to another as a similar journey from one synapse in the brain to another.

Biography of William Kentridge

William Kentridge Photo

In a way, Kentridge transcends his own time. As art critic Jonathan Jones once said: “His melancholy carnival of an exhibition is the most convincing attempt I have seen by an artist of this century to meditate on the history of the last.”

Important Art by William Kentridge

Progression of Art

Arc/Procession: Develop, Catch Up, Even Surpass

A motley crew of mysterious figures move backwards from right to left across Kentridge's large, drawn arch. Various characters can be seen, including South African miners wearing head torches, a wounded man on a crutch and a suited man shouting into a large megaphone. In the center, a man in a suit exposes his bare chest with outstretched arms as if offering himself up for sacrifice. There is likely a reference here to Goya's The Third of May 1808 (1814) painting, and one wonders if this is the figure of the artist, of Kentridge himself. At his feet a hyena prowls below, mirroring the young hyena strapped to the man's back behind him. Though mostly monochrome, small touches of blue bleed through as though sprinkles of water falling from showers overhead. Overall, there is a sense that Kentridge reveals art historical influences here - Goya, Dürer, and Picasso - whilst at the same time, using an arch of paper, makes an interesting early link to the roll of film.

Kentridge made this drawing before his work was particularly well known, as one of many charcoal drawings in a series that explore the political unrest in his home of South Africa under apartheid rule. In excerpts of hidden text, underlying political content slowly reveals itself - the words "Develop", "Catch up" and "Even Surpass" run from left to right. These words were lifted from a text on the downfall of anti-colonial leader Haile Selassi, former emperor of Ethiopia; as he struggled to maintain power, Selassi's staff called for Ethiopia to "develop, catch up, even surpass" Western, capitalist society.

Interestingly though, Kentridge criticises the damaging effects of trying to impose a supposedly superior, colonial culture onto South Africa. The idealistic slogans run from left to right, in opposition to the figures, who seem to be going culturally backwards from right to left, towards a barren wasteland, rather than progressing forward as hoped. The drawing has a sardonic quality akin to the acerbic social commentaries produced by William Hogarth and later George Grosz, both important early influences for Kentridge. The work also satirises the form of the classical triumphal arch, built to commemorate the material achievements of Roman armies acquired by violent victories. Writer Michael Rothberg reflects on Kentridge's subversion: "Kentridge's cryptic and decidedly non-triumphalist procession nonetheless involves not imperial booty, but rather the detritus of the dispossessed."

Charcoal and Pastel on Paper - Tate Collection


Felix in Exile

This film still is taken from a short animated film, made from 40 drawings by Kentridge, featuring music by Kentridge's long-term collaborators Phillip Miller and Motsumi Makhene. The central two characters, seen here, are Felix Teitelbaum, an artist, and Nandi, an African woman who documents the violence and massacres happening around her in South Africa with various art forms. As the film progresses, Felix emerges as a humanitarian character lamenting the evidence presented by Nandi's documentation in a lonely hotel room. The two characters observe one another, in a two-way mirror, and then through a double-ended telescope, seen in this image, before Nandi is shot and falls away from view, as an epic, Biblical flood of blue water drowns Felix's hotel room.

Kentridge says, "Felix in Exile was made at the time just before the first general election in South Africa, and questioned the way in which the people who had died on the journey to this new dispensation would be remembered." In drawing attention to the character of Nandi, Kentridge highlights the importance of preservation, facing up to the realities of racist colonial rule as an attempt to prevent such future occurrences, arguing, "There's a question of people disappearing, of memory disappearing, and how do we hang on to things that we should feel so strongly, but which get weaker and weaker with time?" Kentridge highlights the important role his film also plays in this process, revealing the factual information included: "This film uses a lot of images, which are really forensic photographs of people who died ... in the run up to the election." The flood which consumes and concludes the film could be read as a mass tears shed in collective pain and grief, yet there is also a shred of hope, with the Biblical flood offering up the chance to begin again.

35mm Film - Tate Collection


Sleeper - Red

Amongst a searing sea of blood red, a naked man stretches out before us, slumped onto a hard, wooden bench. The figure's body is serene and relaxed, as if blissfully unaware of the drama around him. In many of his drawings, etchings and animated films Kentridge explores the emblem of the recumbent sleeping male figure. As action rages outside, there is always the sense that there is a private and hidden theatre unfolding in the mind of the individual.

Central to Kentridge's practice are ideas around remembrance, particularly in relation to difficult, painful experiences from the past. The sleeping male figure is a powerful symbol for our latent human desire to forget; in Kentridge's world, if a figure is sleeping, they could be in a state of ignorance and denial. More specifically, in linking the concepts of sleep and denial, Kentridge may be addressing the latent guilt prevalent in white South African society over their horrific abuse and exploitation of African people. As Kentridge often points out in his films however, a moment of awakening must occur eventually, however challenging, in order for society to move forward and progress towards acceptance and peace. Furthermore, there is also the possibility that Kentridge associates the mode of sleeping as the time in-between consciousness and unconsciousness when the artist may receive good ideas. Far from a negative state, sleep could be equated with the "open field" that Kentridge highlights as important, the moment in life when there is no clear plan and ideas can really grow and develop.

The figure seen here is remarkably similar to another character who appears in some of Kentridge's films called Ubu, a symbol for apartheid, who appeared in the film Ubu Tells the Truth, (1997) and a suite of etchings of the same title. The painting also makes clear reference to Kentridge's early interest and love for the work of British painter, Francis Bacon. Kentridge's roots as an artist are here revealed as developed from the linage of highly charged expressionist works, starting with the likes of Francisco Goya, and moving through to the brilliant and challenging smeared and writhing scenes of George Grosz and Francis Bacon.

Etching, Aquatint and Drypoint on Paper - Tate Collection


I am not me, the horse is not mine

This still photograph documents Kentridge's film installation I am not me, the horse is not mine, comprised of eight, six minute projections played simultaneously in the same space on a continuous loop. The films were made in the build up to Kentridge's operatic production of The Nose, a reworking of Shostakovich's famous, absurdist satire in which a bureaucrat's nose leaves his face for a new life, refusing to return.

The titles of the eight films are: His Majesty Comrade Nose, Prayers of Apology, A Lifetime of Enthusiasm, Country Dances I (Shadow), Country Dances II (Paper), The Ridiculous Blank Space Again (A One Minute Love Story), Commissariat for Enlightenment and The Horse is not Mine. Each film retells, or re-imagines aspects of the original story through experimental, nonsensical elements of animation, shadow puppetry and drama, set to a soundtrack by composer Phillip Miller, Kentridge's long-time collaborator.

Kentridge conceived these films as a series of homages to Shostakovich, and the entire Russian avant-garde era he belonged to, with its playful spirit of adventure, particularly referencing Soviet film making from the 1920s and 30s, as well as the Constructivist geometry of El Lissitsky. Yet he also draws attention to the Russian avant-garde's untimely demise, a vision of utopia that had a spectacular fall from grace, describing the works as, "...an elegy ... for the formal artistic language that was crushed in the 1930s and for the possibility of human transformation that so many hoped for and believed in, in the revolution." Once again this is an example of that big dramatic idea causing chaos, and a call to look more to the margins for "the less good idea" and thus a more stable society.

Video, 8 Projections, Color and Sound - Tate Collection


Second Hand Reading

Second Hand Reading is an animated short film Kentridge made by drawing on the pages of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, which turn as the film progresses through time. As a narrative unfolds, Kentridge appears as a drawn character in his trademark white shirt and black trousers, wandering aimlessly through the book with hands in pockets as birds, trees, and typewriters are drawn, rubbed out and torn up as if bringing the book's content into three dimensional life before dissolving it back into the text. The film is accompanied by a melancholy, emotive soundtrack from South African musician Neo Muyanga.

This work is one of a series in which old books become 'second-hand' when filmed and transformed into a new, non-linear narrative. Much like Max Ernst's Surrealist collages in Une Semaine du Bonte (1934), this film takes an object from the rational world of reason and transforms it into the illogical and absurd, highlighting the importance of play, experimentation and the risk of failure in the creative process. Kentridge refers to these actions as, "taking sense and deconstructing it, taking nonsense and seeing sense can be constructed from it ... This leads to the question of mistranslation, and the pressure that imperfect understanding gives to the act of imagination."

His attraction to second hand books began around this time and continues today, as a way of reworking something that is dying out by breathing new life into it, as he explains, "There's the sense of the end of an era for these physical repositories of knowledge, and (the book) becomes, now, like mind - completely abstract, immaterial substance." The book is also a tactile and highly sensual object to behold much to the contrast of much digital media created today. Furthermore, by drawing himself within a book, Kentridge marries the love of mark marking with the ongoing quest and thirst for learning. He rightly re-situates the artist as an intellectual and realigns and reminds the viewer of the importance of the mind and body relationship.

Flipbook Film from Drawings on Single Pages of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, HD Video, Color, Sound


The Shrapnel in the Woods

A crooked, dry old tree sprawls outwards with a complex network of branches amidst a barren, abandoned landscape, seeming to bristle and crack under the weight of its own history. Drawn with Indian ink, Kentridge's scene sits on a grid-like arrangement of pages ripped from an edition of Crabb's Universal Technological Dictionary printed in 1826.

This work is one in a series of ink drawings featuring large, indigenous South African trees drawn in Indian ink onto found, encyclopaedic pages. Kentridge links the lineage of these drawings back to his childhood. When he was a young boy, his father talked of working on Nelson Mandela's "Treason Trials", which the four year old Kentridge had heard as "the trees and tiles", making him think of the trees in his garden and the tiles on his family table-top; hence when he draws trees, they are put together in a tile formation. Kentridge also derived the title of this drawing, "The Shrapnel in the Trees", from a phrase in German forestry, relating to shrapnel from explosives left behind in forests after World War II bombings.

In drawing attention to hidden meanings beneath the apparently picturesque surface, Kentridge highlights the ways social and political history infiltrates into all aspects of our daily lives, as writer Margaret Koster Koerner points out, "Trees of the knowledge of good and evil, neither they nor the forest they inhabit is innocent."

As with many of his artworks Kentridge also emphasises the importance of process in this work, composed of separate tiles that are worked individually and collectively in a push-pull process of discovery akin to the natural growth of a real tree, as Koerner points out, "Patching the pages together, the artist shifted, layered, tore, and added ink-marked pages, with the idea that before a thing as complex as a tree, an artist does better to evoke than to copy." Ultimately in his tree series, Kentridge is quilting together so many aspects of history, some intrinsic to his own family, and others experienced in faraway lands. As the artist has always expressed, he feels that the most fitting way to present multi-layered human experience - with views to the past, in the present and also to the future - is to honour the fragmentary nature of the experience by using the disparate method of collage, albeit of his own variety.

Indian Ink on Crabb's Universal Technological Dictionary, 1826 - Marian Goodman Gallery, New York


More Sweetly Play the Dance

In one of his most ambitiously scaled projects, this 8-screen film installation presents a moving pageant of figures as they march towards an unknown fate, to the sound of a trumpeting brass band (with the pageant quality making reference to much earlier works). In a similar style to the cut-outs of Kara Walker, Kentridge's characters appear as faceless silhouettes before us, with only the possessions they carry giving us clues on their identity; some pull along intravenous drips suggesting chronic illness, others carry enigmatic objects including bird cages and classical busts, while others wave victorious flags into the wind or hold up funereal lilies.

In contrast with his earlier work, which at times directly addressed South African apartheid, in more recent works Kentridge has widened his subject matter to encompass more ambiguous territory relating to themes of displacement or marginalisation, no matter where this may be. He writes, "My concern has been both with the existential solitude of the walker, and with social solitude - lines of people walking in single file from one country to another, from one life to an unknown future." In light of the recent refugee crisis, this work has taken on greater poignancy, suggestive of the many thousands who have had to flee from their home country into new, unfamiliar territory.

The work also makes reference to the medieval danse macabre, a literary, pictorial, or theatrical representation of a procession or dance where living and dead figures from all walks of life are led in a morbid dance together towards the grave, revealing death to be a great leveller that comes for us all in the end. There is also the suggestion that these figures could be ghostly spectres from the past, whose lives were marred by injustice, serving as a reminder of the struggle so many have faced and lost. Whilst the light bulb seemed to recur as an important motif in Kentridge's earlier work, the megaphone appears more often in recent pieces, both constructed as art and actually, as a prop in stage productions. Indeed, Kentridge has always been interested in emblematic and symbolic objects. It seems that both the light bulb and the megaphone have developed particular weight and meaning for the artist. This is a personal language so without Kentridge's direct translation we can only speculate that the light bulb, often present in early works represented a time of generating and collating ideas, whereas the megaphone, now used regularly, is a sign that the artist is ready to speak and disseminate his ideas.

8 Channel Video Installation with 4 Megaphones, Sound - Marian Goodman Gallery, New York


Drawings for 'The Head and the Load'

In this series of monochrome drawings we see an array of menacing insects including wasps, scorpions, mosquitoes, and fleas, all drawn in Kentridge's signature charcoal onto the pages of a second-hand book. When scaled up larger than life and softly rendered in rich black and white tones they take on a strange, grotesque form of beauty, yet we are also forced to consider the misery and uncontrollable disease such tiny creatures can cause.

Kentridge made these drawings as part of his ambitious commission, The Head and The Load for 14-18 NOW, a UK based programme commemorating the First World War's centenary. He chose to raise awareness of the plight faced by millions of African porters and carriers who served in British, French, and German forces during the First World War by producing a dramatic stage production at Tate Modern's Turbine Hall. The show featured elements of film, projected drawing, music, mechanised sculptures and shadow puppets, all brought together as a series of complex and multi-layered performances, described by writer Juliet Hindell as, "as much a living sculpture as a traditional play."

It was Kentridge's friend and long-time collaborator, South African TV and film director Catherine Meyburgh who suggested Kentridge include the images of insects seen here as a part of this project, which when projected onto theatrical backdrops on a 40 foot high scale, highlight just one part of the overwhelming malaise that the enlisted porters endured daily; as strong men forgotten by history enduringly carried equipment and supplies, these seemingly tiny and insignificant creatures sadly carried the diseases that could kill them.

Kentridge lifted his title for the show from a Ghanaian proverb "the head and the load are troubles for the neck", drawing attention to the vital role these unsung heroes played, through performing backbreaking, endless, Sisyphean efforts. Hindell writes, "...this show expands, in both form and content, the horizons of what a performance can encompass." The work is at once beautiful, muli-layered, and ambiguous, as well as connected to a particular moment of human suffering, a typical bittersweet Kentridge recipe.

Charcoal on Found Pages - Marian Goodman Gallery, New York

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Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
William Kentridge
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
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    Catherine Meyburgh
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    Phillip Miller
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    Motsumi Makhene
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    Tacita Dean
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    Katy Dove
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    Luke Fowler
Friends & Personal Connections
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    Wayne Barker
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    Hasan and Husain Essop
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Rebecca Baillie

"William Kentridge Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Rebecca Baillie
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First published on 22 Jul 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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