An analysis of 5 artworks done by William Kentridge prior to 1994.
In this blog post I will analyze 5 artworks done by artist William Kentridge prior to 1994.
This is the second video in this mini-series on South African artist William Kentridge. Please ensure that you have watched the first video before you watch this one.
As discussed in our previous video, William Kentridge has a long art career spanning over three decades. His work is generally divided into two parts. All work done prior to 1994, is classified as Resistance Art. All work done after 1994 is classified as Multi-Media or New Media Art. 1994 is significant because it marked the end of Apartheid in South Africa. This video focusses on artworks created dring the Apartheid era in South Africa.
In this post we will be looking at these 5 artworks.
5 Artworks you should know from this era include
- 1985 Conservationist Ball; Culling Game watching, Taming
- 1985 Luncheon of the Boating Party
- 1989 Casspirs full of love
- 1991 Mine (Film)
- 1994 Felix in Exile (Film)
Analysing an artwork
I use five levels of analysis when discussing an artwork . Watch my video about How to analyse and artwork here.
For the purpose of this video I am going to focus on the last three levels, content, context and opinions and beliefs supported by the facts. I won’t be covering the formal analysis in depth and might just mention it here and there when it has a massive impact on the atmosphere of the work and understanding the context of the work.
The Conservationist Ball; Culling, Game watching, Taming,1985
First up we have the artwork known as The Conservationist Ball; Culling, Game watching, Taming created in 1985 by artist William Kentridge.
Triptych – Telling a Story
This artwork is a Triptych which means it is made up of 3 panels. This is due to the influence of two international artists, Francis Bacon and Max Beckmann’s artworks, on William Kentridge. Here you can see both of these artists are fond of using triptychs. The reason for this is the storytelling and narrative opportunities provided by 3 panels. Think of it like a comic. The squares progress through time and the story unfolds.
We call this sequential art. Kentridge’s artworks are filled with complex narratives and layers of meanings, no wonder he is so drawn to triptychs in his own artworks. It allows him more space to visually depict the message and story he wants to convey. Back to the artwork Conservationist Ball, we now know that it is a triptych, that is telling us a story and that the narrative unfolds progressively over each panel. In this artwork, Kentridge has given each panel an individual name. Panel one is known as Culling, Panel two, Game Watching, the last panel is Taming.
These names give us clues to the story William Kentridge is trying to convey. We know that it is a Conservationist Ball, a ball that is trying to raise money for animal and nature conservation. This does imply good intent but let’s look a little bit deeper at the other names.
Culling is a reduction of a wild animal population by selective slaughter. This is our first hint of violence in the artwork. Game Watching is a form of entertainment watching wild animals. Taming means to domesticate an animal. To break them in, train them, subdue and enslave them. In short, make them less powerful and easier to control.
Ok great, so far we know that it is a story, an it is a story about animals and humans’ relationship with nature and animals. We are picking up contradicting intents, one of conservation and one of violence and control over animals. Let’s investigate even deeper.
In the first panel we see a couple getting dressed for the ball, Panel two we see people attending the event and Panel III, shows the outcome of panels I and II.
Scattered throughout the artwork we see various animals that are in captivity or have been slaughtered or shells that have been stripped from the ocean. This triptych contains many of the themes, metaphors, and symbols that appear throughout William Kentridge’s last body of work. The first one I would like to discuss is the duality.
Duality in both man and society
We see the duality of society with the wealthy white people attending the ball and the poor serving them. Various items signal wealth to us, like the beautiful chandelier, the fancy dresses and the fur coats. We also see the duality between being indoors and out in nature. As humans we have a desire to be a part of nature, yet we keep on bringing nature indoors, forcing it to submit to their environment. These characters are preoccupied and self-absorbed and not connected to the environment around them.
So let’s look at these various environments and locations of the three panels.
Locations and the use of Depth of Field
Each panel is set in a different environment. Panel 1 is set in the artists’ studio. Panel 2 is set in a cafe and the last panel is set in an alleyway in Johannesburg.
He studied Alberti’s Theories on vanishing points and perspective drawing and was even a draftsman for a while. However, in the first panel, the perspective is overstated, dramatised, and in some aspects contradicting each other. This is done on purpose and not for a lack of skill. It creates a sense of unease and instability in the artwork and adds to the tension and chaos. In the first two panels, we see deep receding interiors.
In the third panel, Taming, the setting is claustrophobic with a deep alleyway with steep sides of barricaded city walls, filled with wrecks of cars, creating a feeling of a post-apocalyptic scenario. It is clear that these 3 locations are not really fit for keeping wild animals.
But Kentridge also delves much deeper and shows us the duality of man in this artwork.
Kentridge often depicts himself in his artworks or includes a partial self-image. He includes his own self-image on all three panels. He is reflected in the mirrors of Panel I and also in Panel II. A ghost image of him is also slightly visible on the billboard in Panel III. To Kentridge the incorporation of his own figure, is never simple self-portraiture, but a means whereby he acknowledges personal and collective responsibility.
The artist’s reflection is a reminder to the attendees of the ball that a different reality lurks outside. Kentridge is the eavesdropping and observing the chaos and destruction they are causing. He is a witness to their careless actions. Kentridge forces our attention to the importance of self and our own inner turmoil and guilt.
A cohesive colour scheme
Kentridge uses a cohesive colour scheme. The artwork is done primarily in black and white using mainly charcoal. It can be seen as mixed media artwork since it combines charcoal drawing with a touch of gouache paint. The gouache is incorporated, which provides a minimal touch of colour. We see a deep rich red,a lot of ochre, that insinuates gold and wealth, as well as a fleshy pink, making us think of a slaughtered chicken or flesh. It ads to the tension and unease of the artwork.
Technologies of Looking
We can spot various Technologies of looking in this artwork. In Panel 1 we see a camera in Kentridge’s art studio. The camera lense is downcast and busy filming the floor. Not capturing the reality of the situation at all. In panel 2 we see Binoculars. They are not being used but just sitting on a table. This adds to the ignorance of the guests and their oblivion to their surroundings. It also symbolises the Apartheid Regime sencoring media and deliberately controlling the international view on Aparthied. They often hid the atrocities and violence of Apartheid.
In all 3 panels Kentridge uses wild beasts. Panel 1, Culling shows a Cheetah sitting next to the woman like a dog. She is petting it, loving it! It draws our attention to her hypocrisy since she is also wearing cheetah fur as a shall. Panel 2, Gamewatching, shows the trophies of the hunt. We see a carcass of a dead bird hanging from the roof.
On the cafe table in front of the man we see a small rhino, being treated almost like a little trinket. The rhino is a symbol for Kentridge of an exploitative, colonialist view of Africa. It is a symbol of a continent stripped of its natural resources for European benefit. In Panel 3, Taming we see a Hyena out of place standing on a car’s roof.
In contrast to the oblivious, disengaged people the hyena in Panel III stares out accusingly and meets the viewer’s gaze head-on. The Hyena’s awkwardness and out of placeness are emphasised by him wearing roller skates. The symbolism of hyenas in South Africa is associated with evil, dark spirits, and mischief. It is a scavenger, a symbol of repression and oppression, and often stood for oppressive authorities.
In Panel 1 and 2 we see a discarded Nautilus shell lying around. Maybe the lady from panel 1, carried it with her to the ball and then proceeded to hang it in her car as a little trinket. The Nautilus shell is a symbol associated with the divine ration also known as the golden ratio.
There is a fair amount of confusion and controversy though over whether the graceful spiral curve of the nautilus shell is in fact based on this golden proportion, nevertheless it remains a symbol of the golden ratio. The Golden Ratio is often seen in nature. Many artists and designers use its mathematical ratio to create aesthetically pleasing designs.
The discarded shells could just be more trinkets and trophies form the colonies, another way man is stripping its environment. It could also serve as a reminder of nature’s delicate balance, it divine design and focus our attention on how unnatural our relationship with nature has become.
Reference to famous paintings
Kentridge loves referencing famous paintings in his artworks. Panel 1, Culling references Diego Velazquez’s famous artwork, Las Meninas from 1656. The artwork is also set inside an artist’s studio. In both artworks we see the back of a large canvas. In both artwork we feel like an onlooker walking into a private moment. In Kentridge’s panel a naked man is walking away through the doorway to an adjacent room. We assume the man and woman in the front are married. We have stumbled upon a moment of human drama, a moment of infidelity.
Las Meninas is famous for its use of Gaze Theory. In short, it has many people looking directly at the viewer. Kentridge’s reference to this work tends to focus our attention on the fact that none of the people in his artwork looks directly at us, only the hyena. They are purposefully avoiding our gaze. This could be out of shame and guilt, knowing they are culpable, participants in creating the situation in South Africa.
In summary we see high society attending a ball on Conservation. They are culling, stripping Africa of its wild animals and using it as a form of entertainment – game watching. They are disconnected to their environment, and do not heed the subtle warnings of the havoc their ignorance is causing. The final panel shows us the consequences of their actions, an abandoned city left in an apocalyptic state.
The only living creature of this unnatural habitat is a scavenging hyena – a sole survivor stuck in an unnatural urban wilderness. The artwork depicts the consequences of human folly and serves as a stern warning to the South African society of 1985.
While Kentridge was commenting on the South African context, looking at this almost 30 years later it is clear that this message resonates universally as the struggle for conservation and sustainability heats up in the popular discourse.
Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1985
“Luncheon of the boating party” was created in 1985 by artist William Kentridge. This is also an artwork based on a famous painting.
Based on a famous painting
Kentridge is referencing the french impressionist Pierre August Renoir painting with a similar name “The Boating Party” (1985). The original painting depicts a group of Renoir’s friends relaxing at a restaurant along the Seine river in France. As opposed to the idyllic summer afternoon of Renoir, Kentridge’s scene has changed to one of horror.
Duality in Society
The artwork depicts the havoc caused by a seemingly-uninterested wealthy white society in Apartheid South Africa. Laid back diners are sitting at ease while the surrounding area is ravaged, torned and burned. We see a stark contrast between the upper class society and symbols of butchery and violence.
The Luncheon of the boating party is also a Triptych. This indicates a passing of time as the narrative unfolds. In panel 1 there is a woman sitting in a Café situated in an outdoor pavilion. The cafe interior was influenced by Renior, Dega and Toulouse Lautrec paintings of Parisian cafes. Kentridge recently left Paris and returned to Johannesburg, when he created this work. In Panel I, we see a wealthy woman cuddling a warthog, almost like a lap dog. She is being waited on by a waiter, bringing her an array of culinary tools in a mixing bowl. These include a whisk, a meat puller, and a roller.
In Panel II, we see that the warthog has been slaughtered and is busy being made into a meat jelly. A meat jelly is a bit of an outdated culinary dish but used to be popular. It is a time consuming process with lots of steps, but basically the meat gets cooked for hours, then pulled, then the stock of the meat creates a natural gelatine that gets strained, and then the meat gets casted into that gelatine. In Panel II we see the straining and preparation process for the meal. The naked female derriere suggests that we strip ourselves naked by culling, stripping and destroying nature.
Behind the back of the elegant woman a burning tyre falls. This is a clear reference to “necklacing” a violent method of execution used during Apartheid. It can also refer to riots where protesters burned tires for impact. It symbolises the violent political situation in South Africa during that time.
A cohesive colour scheme
The work is predominately black and white, using charcoal as the main medium. A touch of colour has been added here and there using pastel. The barriers that divide the different areas of the cafe and the pavilion are marked in turquoise green. Usually, barriers create a sense of order, demarcating certain areas away from each other. But here the barrier creates chaos and that is because of its diagonal composition.
They are lines that crisscrossing over the 3 panels. This adds to the uneasiness and violence of the work. It creates a sense of repetition across the 3 different panels. It also adds to the uneasiness of the violence. This could be a metaphor for how structure in society creates chaos rather than order.
Throughout history, we have seen various class systems such as in old Europe, India and China. These societies’ intent was to create structure within society however these systems did more harm than good. In the same way that the barriers do not create order but rather adds to the chaos.
These barriers could also depict the different sections of society. Parts of society are ignorant and oblivious to the truth. Another is cooking up violence and then serving it to a different section of society.
Today we look back at this painting and we appreciate and celebrate it because it is such an apt summary of the Zeitgeist of the time.The year of 1985, which is the year this artwork is created in, gives us a clue to the political tension that happened in SOuth Africa during that time. 1985 is significant because it signaled the beginning of the end of apartheid society and governance in South Africa. President PW Botha, declared a partial State of Emergency on 20 July 1985. This was due to an increase of violent and non-violent resistance to the racially-exclusive system of apartheid.
The apartheid government’s resorting to emergency measures was read by many as an act of desperation as the political and social climate of South Africa revealed that White-minority rule was not sustainable. In this artwork Kentridge toys with the idea of the dual society, the contrast between the white elite, the ruling class, enjoying luxury and being served, while the oppressed majority is absent.
Casspirs full of love 1989
“Casspirs full of love’‘ is a drypoint print made by William Kentridge in 1989. The artwork depicts seven disembodied heads inside a cabinet-like structure that also reminds us of a box. Next to the cabinet is the line scripted, “Casspirs full of Love.”
The Casspir is a South African armed vehicle originally developed during border disputes with Angola and Mozambique in the later 1970s. When the Apartheid government called a state of emergency, they started using Casspirs in the townships to enforce law and order. As a result, the Casspir became an emblem of the violence, oppression and injustice of the Apartheid system.
The Apartheid government became notorious for its use of State of Emergencies to exert complete control over Black, Coloured and Indian South Africans. Under president PW Botha, the apartheid regime would go on to use State of Emergencies as a governing tactic. You see, it allowed the state to ‘legitimately’ use the South African Police (SAP) and the South African Defence Force (SADF).
They could now use military vehicles to repress any resistance against the state violently. The Apartheid government militarised and heavily policed all aspects of South African society. This heightened feelings of mutual tension, paranoia and distrust between the white South Africans and Black, Coloured and Indian South Africans.
The structure and Symbolism
It is unclear what the structure containing the severed heads truly depicts. The structure was inspired by the yellow Kodak box little Kentridge found in his father’s office. The box seems to contain seven severed heads, like a showcase of small ornaments and trinkets. An obvious interpretation is that the heads belong to those killed in riots and demonstrations. The structure could also symbolise an array of other objects. It could represent a broken ladder, the structure could also be a cabinet.
In one of William Kentridge’s charcoal animations, Johannesburg, 2nd greatest city after Paris, we see the same image appear again. Here we Mrs. Eckstein, Soho Eckstein’s wife covers the cabinet with a linen sheet and gently erases all the heads. Suggesting that we are filing away the facts, enforcing Stalin’s belief “A single death is a tragedy a million deaths is a statistic”.
It could also represent a mine shaft, reminding us of Apartheid’s economic incentives. Kentridge often uses mines as a metaphor for the social-economical structure and conditions in South Africa. In general, it symbolises the capitalist system that was abused and maintained. There was very little consideration for social issues at the time.
In the bottom left hand corner of the artwork we see an outline of a hammer. The hammer is essentially a masculine force. When striking it, it represents justice and revenge. The hammer is not only a tool; it also symbolises might and can be linked to violence and manual labour.
Let’s look at the composition of the artwork. The artwork uses a shallow depth of field and not the vast depth Kentridge usually creates with his perspective drawings. It has a strong diagonal line cutting through the artwork. If this is indeed a ladder the middle step is broken. The slanted step throws off the balance in the artwork adding to the chaos and violence.
This leads us to questions such as “Where does the ladder lead to?” “Who is climbing?” and “Why is it broken?” The strong zig-zag line creates a feeling of discomfort in the artwork. On the print, we see scribble and jagged lines that create a sense of movement. The artwork is a drypoint print. Drypoint printing is different to etching. Etching leaves a crisp line while drypoints create blurred edges. The line quality adds to the feeling of instability and reflects turbulence in South Africa’s political environment at the time. The scratches and little quotes also remind me of Prison Cell graffiti.
Combining Text and Image
Kentridge is fond of combining text and image in his artworks. In this artwork we see juxtapositioning between text and image.The accompanying phrase is sarcastic and ironic. Kentridge first heard it on a radio show. On the show, a white mother wished her son well, who was serving in the South Africa army at the time. “I would like to send my son, Casspirs full of love”
It is an odd juxtaposition between love and death, between affection and violence. Kentridge captures the tension between violence and love. The texture of the print is coarse, yet the inscription is done in flowing cursive writing.
The words ‘not a step’ urges us to look deeper. However, the metaphor is ambiguous and doesn’t refer to only one event but multiple riots and protests happening in SA during that time.The words “Not a step” could refer to the irony that sometimes an idea or concept is presented as progress and sold as a solution. In hindsight it was in fact not progress but a trap. The heads also have various little inscriptions on them and a numbering system, which reminds us of the classification of races used in the Apartheid system.
This artwork was created in 1989. That is one year before the dismantlement of Apartheid negotiations started. In 1989 PW Botha resigned as president of South Africa. The new President FW De Klerk started a series of negotiations between the governing National Party and the African National Congress (ANC) These negotiations lasted for 3 years, 1990 – 1993 and eventually led to the first general election in South Africa.
Today this artwork reminds us of the intense military violence used in the townships at the end of Apartheid Era. May we remember these atrocities so that we do not repeat them.
Drawings of Projections – Series of Animation films
The two artworks I am about to discuss are part of a series of short animation films entitled Drawings of Projection. It is a series of 10 miniature charcoal animations that Kentridge created from 1989 to 2011.
- 1989 Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris (part of the Drawings for Projection)
- 1990 Monument (part of the Drawings for Projection)
- 1991 Mine (part of the Drawings for Projection)
- 1991 Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old (part of the Drawings for Projection)
- 1994 Felix in Exile (part of the Drawings for Projection)
- 1996 History of the Main Complaint (part of the Drawings for Projection)
- 1998 Weighing… and Wanting (part of the Drawings for Projection)
- 1999 Stereoscope (part of the Drawings for Projection)
- 2003 Tide Table (part of the Drawings for Projection)
- 2011 Other Faces (part of the Drawings for Projection)
- 2020 City Deep (part of the Drawings for Projection)
Five of these videos were created before or during 1994 and the other five after 1994. So for this video, we will be discussing Mine 1991 and Felix in Exile 1994 in more detail. Here is just a quick overview of what the rest of these movies entail.
In a series of short films, Kentridge introduces two main characters – Soho Eckstein and Felix Teitlebaum. Soho Eckstein is a property developer and mining boss in Johannesburg, South Africa. Felix is a sensitive artist and a dreamer. In the first video I made I discuss the meaning and duality behind these characters in more detail.
The first movie Johannesburg, 2nd the greatest city after Paris, 1989, introduced the two main characters. We see how Soho Eckstein’s power has a traumatic effect on both the landscape and the inhabitants. We also learn that Mrs Eckstein and Felix are having an affair while Soho is consumed with money and power.
The second film is Monument, 1990, focuses on the persuasive powers of the media and how it shapes human consciousness. It tells the story of Soho Eckstein’s public presentation of a monument to labour. An anonymous African Laborer sometimes referred to as ‘Harry’ in Kentridge’s notes and lectures. He is a labourer working extremely hard to erect this monument for Soho.
This brings us to the third movie in the series Mine, 1991, which we will analyse in a bit more depth.
The film, Mine 1991, portrays a day in the life of the mines in Johannesburg South Africa.
The first thing I would like to discuss is the movement in the film. The film opens with a strong horizontal movement that separates Soho, the mining boss, from all the workers below the ground. Soho’s realm is above ground in his bed, and his bed is the actual bedrock of Johannesburg. Below is the claustrophobic world of the labourers in the Mine. The horizontal split clearly demarcates above ground and below ground, almost like layers in an excavation.
We see Soho enjoying coffee in bed. The plunger is a symbol of luxury that comes from other people’s hard work. The plunger is the connection between wealth and suffering.
When Soho depresses the coffeemaker’s plunger, the journey to the centre of the earth begins, as well as a strong vertical movement. The plunger drills a deep hole into the earth. Each layer passed by the plunger is crowded with artefacts, natural and unnatural, bodies and things once covered. He suggests that history has to be excavated to reveal the truth.
The film contains various symbols scattered throughout. At the start of the film, below Soho Eckstein’s rock bed, we see a shovel forming and then a Konka. The shovel symbolises the manual labour of the workers. The donga is a massive metal drum with holes on the side. People make fires in them to warm themselves in harsh conditions. In the second scene, we see the konka being used in the mine communes to keep warm. It is a symbol of reality of the suffering, cold, death, and danger endured by the miners below.
When the coffee plungers start drilling into the earth it passes various artefacts, layers of history, natural and unnatural bodies as well as a Nautilus Shell. These artifacts symbolise Johannesburg Prehistoric history. Johannesburg is home to the Cradle of Humankind, a site that has produced a large number of the oldest hominin fossils ever found, some dating back as far as 3.5 million years ago.
The region surrounding Johannesburg was later inhabited by San people. They were hunter-gatherers who used stone tools. By the 13th century, groups of Bantu-speaking people started moving southwards from central Africa and encroached on the indigenous San population. Stone-walled ruins of Sotho–Tswana towns and villages are scattered around the parts of modern day Gauteng where Johannesburg is situated.
Many of these sites contain the ruins of Sotho–Tswana mines and iron smelting furnaces, suggesting that the area was being exploited for its mineral wealth before the arrival of Europeans or the discovery of gold.
The Nautilus shell the plunger passes reminds us of nature’s delicate balance and the golden ratio. Soho Eckstein, the Mine boss, digs up the social and ecological history of the earth and exploits both the land and the inhabitants.
The plunger finally reaches the compound where the mine workers are showering. They are naked with their backs towards us, showing their vulnerability and subjugation to the unfair political and economic system. Eventually, the plunger stops and starts drawing a slave ship diagram, showing the most economical way to transport slaves.
Various items depict Soho Eckstein’s might, power and wealth. He rings a bell to send all the workers off to work. Soho, lying in bed in a full pin-striped suit. The bell transforms into a money machine, and Soho obsessively calculates his profit. At this point, Soho’s Pillows start dancing around him, and the music reaches a crescendo of celebration.
The money machine transforms into the Mine’s lift, bringing all the workers to the surface. The anonymous masses of people blend into a mine dump, symbolising the masses that have died in the mines. The Miners lying in compartments with their heads towards us reminds us of Kentridge’s other artwork Casspirs full of love.
We see a minecart traveling through the film. This symbolises how One man’s loss is another man’s gain. When the mine cart discards its content onto the mine worker it cements him to the floor. Concreting in his arms leaving him helpless and motionless, however when the cart reaches Soho and dumps its content again; it becomes a high rise building expanding Soho’s empire.
In the film the miners hammer a African artefact into pieces. It reassembles itself in front of Soho Eckstein. The artifact they discovered is an ancient Yoruba Sculpture made with beautiful realism in Africa. Showing how Africa’s artefacts just become little trinkets and mementos to the wealthy.
As the narrative unfolds we see Soho Eckstein’s domain growing. He starts counting money vehemently. He now has a mine dump, a African Artefact and a series of high rise buildings in front of him. Out of the tall buildings, the cemented miner grows and emerges. He is trying to remind Soho of the destruction his wealth is built on.
The coffee press has now become a lift and starts moving up towards Soho, passing all the layers of time. Out of the lift, a small rhino exits as Soho’s reward. Soho dismisses and wipes away his entire empire, content and super chuffed with himself by watching the little Rhino roam around. Soho wipes away everything, almost like a messiah. It is a religious moment for him, a Damascus moment as the light wipes away everything.
He is saying all of this doesn’t matter, only this little Rhino matters. There is a deep irony here. South Africans have taken this land, sucked wealth out of it, damaged the environment, then built national parks to conserve nature. It is ironic that people that exploit environments support conservation. Conserving Rhino’s is a luxurious thing to do. Especially today, when we have super poor communities living around the National Park, that aid the poachers just to make a buck.
In the end the money machine morphs into pillows that arrange themselves behind Soho like a comfy throne or halo. It shows how Soho chooses to remain ignorant with no regard for the human and natural destruction he is causing.
Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old, 1991
I would just like to summarise the next films in the series narrative before we move on to the next film. This film depicts the collapse of Soho’s empire, which is represented as a modern city of skyscrapers that recall Johannesburg in the 1950s. The film returns to Felix’s affair with Mrs Eckstein and to the constant conflict between the two main characters.
This is the first film in which the urban masses are not depicted as passively submissive to power but rather they are a united crowd. They actively march through the city, taking destiny into their own hands. This is a direct reflection of the events in South Africa at the time. The lifting of the ban on political organisations 1990 and the relaxation of the State of Emergency regulations and restrictions in 1991 lead to various protests and marches across the country.
Felix in Exile 1994
We have now reached the final artwork to be discussed in this blog post regarding Ketridges oeuvre of work done prior to 1994.
The story – the importance of pain of remembering
This film was created right before the first general elections in South Africa. It examines all the suffering and sacrifices made for a democratic South Africa. In the film, we meet Nandi, an African woman surveying the death and destruction after a brutal massacre. Isolated in a simple hotel room, we see Felix. The hotel room has barren walls, and he is surrounded by a bed, a light bulb, a sink, a commode, and a mirror.
Felix is portrayed naked and alone. All the drawings and charts Nandi has made are in a suitcase on Felix’s lap. At the start of the film, the walls of the hotel room are bare, but as the narrative unfolds, Felix starts pinning the drawings to the hotel wall like a gallery.
Nandi carefully records the topography of the landscape and records both the present state and the past. The changes in the landscape are recorded in various ways with an array of equipment and marks. In her observations, blood pours from the wounds of a dead body, staining the ground below. Steel rods rise from the ground, encircling the body like a cage.
Sheets of newspapers, swept up by a gust of wind, flutter in the air, some fixing on the body, others floating to another part of this desolate landscape. The landscape threatens to absorb the bodies and erase all traces of their existence. A red chalk outline draws itself around the body, directly onto the barren land. Shrouded in papers, the corpse is absorbed by and transformed into the grim terrain itself. Ultimately, rocks, mounds of dirt, steel pylons, car tracks, weeds, and craterlike pools of blue water are all that remain.
Figures and structures are absorbed into the landscape and show us how the landscape can bear the suffering and crimes against humanity. This film warns that people are choosing to forget and cover up the realities of the past to create a new South African.
The film ends when Nandi half dressed, hands in her head, is struck dead and she falls to the ground. Her body undergoing the same transformation like all the others that came before her. Nandi becomes a heap of dirt surrounded by planks of wood, steel poles on the land overrun by tyre tracks. All traces of her existence are hidden. Nearby a pool of water fills a small chasm, and Felix is transported, from his flooded now barren room, to stand hip deep in the waters of Nandi’s remains.
The well-meaning, if the slightly ignorant artist, awakens from his naïve reverie to a fuller grasp of this harsh reality. Nandi serves here as a metaphor for the painful but necessary process of remembrance. Felix stares off into the distance, reflecting on what he has just witnessed while absorbing the layers of history of the terrain.
Autobiography and Duality
Felix is drawn in the artist’s own image. Nandi makes drawings that clearly resemble those of Kentridge, suggesting that Nandi is an alter ego and representing the artist’s role as an observer of the world around him.
The colours symbolic meaning
The colour red is used extensively in Nandi’s drawings of the landscape. She clearly marks the location of the corpses as well as their wounds. Here red symbolises, violence, blood and death. At the end of the film, when Nandi is shot, the blue water in the basin turns red. It confirms Nandi’s death to us. The red blood flowing from the corpse represents South Africa’s violent past.
Red can also allude to the Rooi Gevaar, the “Red Danger” Die Rooi Gevaar refers to communism. The apartheid administration feared a communist attack and went to great lengths to ensure that Die Rooi Gevaar would not threaten white South Africa’s diplomatic, political and economic relations with America and Britain.
The ANC’s socialist leanings and the presence of its cadres in Russia caused the Apartheid Government to conflate the ANC’s local fight for freedom with the global fight against Communism. They feared a creeping coup that would see the white-minority rule overthrown. Many of the crimes and violence commited during apartheid they justified by warding off Die Rooi Gevaar.
The colour Blue is associated with peace, waiting, hope, retrospection, and sorrowfulness. Bluewater can also symbolise redemption and hope. To me the water flooding Felix’s room represents buckets of tears as Nandi witness the crimes against humanity. The water levels also increases when we learn of Nandi’s death, capturing the artist’s sorrow for losing her.
Technologies of looking, observing, recording and navigation
Nandi uses various Technologies of looking, to observe, record and navigate the landscape. She uses a theodolite to measure and record on paper the evidence of violence and brutal massacre. Felix cannot directly “see” the landscape, nor the marches of protesters, nor the dying, bleeding bodies covered in newspapers. He sees only Nandi’s drawings, and through her eyes, he sees an indirect vision of the violence.
The seismograph registers vibrations in the ground, proof of the land activity for others to see. It serves as a warning to others. The seismograph readings intensify once Nandi’s corpse is also absorbed by the ground. This alludes to the vulnerability of the observer as well as suggesting that this cycle never ends.
The rotating seismograph also happens to resemble an old printing press, a possible allusion to the newspapers that serve as decomposing shrouds for the corpses. It is ironic that the newspapers, which are intended as permanent records of the news and truth, are disintegrating and disappearing.
By shaving at this hotel room sink, Felix erases his own reflection from the mirror, and Nandi appears and floods his room with water. Meeting eye-to-eye through a double-ended telescope, each can now see through the other’s eyes. At this point in time the ANC and the NP were negotiating the new South Africa. White people and black people were trying to see each other’s perspectives.
The forgetfulness of the landscape
Some of the most memorable sequences in this film is when the bodies are absorbed by the landscape. This phenomenon vividly illustrates one of the major themes running through Kentridge’s work – the forgetfulness of the landscape.
The landscape as a main character
Felix in Exile treats the landscape as the main character. It has a life of its own, constantly evolving from one form to another, devouring remnants left for its consumption. It seems to have no conscience and acts as a continuous force of change indifferent to consequence. For Kentridge, landscape acquires meaning over time through the history of human events and the traces these activities leave imprinted on the ground.
As Kentridge has stated,
“I am really interested in the terrain’s hiding of its own history and the correspondence this has with the way memory works. The difficulty we have in holding onto passions, impressions, ways of seeing things, the way that things that seem so indelibly imprinted on our memories still fade and become elusive, is mirrored in the way in which the terrain itself cannot hold onto the events played out upon it.”
The process of the landscape overgrowing the dead also recalls a 1922 etching by German Expressionist Otto Dix, in which weeds and flowers have grown around and through a forgotten fallen soldier. The decaying bodies in Felix in Exile were also influenced by Francisco Goya’s Third of May Painting.
The inspiration for Felix’s room was a photograph by Russian Suprematist Kasimir Malevich. Suprematism is an art movement focused on basic geometric forms, such as circles, squares, lines, and rectangles, painted in a limited range of colours.
The room was stark with a salon-style installation of the Suprematist drawings and one chair in the corner. The Suprematist art movement and the Constructivist influenced Kentridge greatly. Both movements believe that art has the power to change official politics. By showing the drawings in the room ultimately getting destroyed, Kentridge is questioning the role and power of art to change social and political life.
What is the bigger impact and message behind the artwork?
Felix in Exile alludes to how future generations will deal with the past. The film was made at a pivotal point in South Africa’s history, a moment of massive governmental and social change. The term “New South Africa” implied a rejection of things past. In Kentridge’s animations that follow on this one, the character Felix is notably absent.
Kentridge’s animated films definitely refer to South Africa and its tragic past. However, the bodies melting into the earth covered by newspapers also refer to other historical atrocities in histories such as the Holocaust.
Though Kentridge has located this work in the city of Johannesburg, it is not limited by place or by time. The issues he addresses – history, memory, geography, and identity – have a broad scope and relevance. The work is insistent on its open-endedness and can be associated with other moments of history, allowing viewers of different backgrounds and experiences to identify with the narrative and the images.
In fact, Kentridge was praised by a Romanian woman who was astonished that a South African artist not only knew so much about her country’s situation but could portray it so accurately and with such sensitively.
History has shown us that when some humans have power over other humans bad things happen. Throughout history we have seen genocides in China, Nazi Germany, Japan, Cambodia, Turkey, Yugoslavia, Poland, the Soviet Union, and Pakistan. There are also areas of suspected genocide: North Korea, Mexico, and feudal Russia. It is estimated that the Soviet Gulag State killed over 60 million of their own people.
This leads me to believe that we have a human problem. A power problem. The underlying principle is that the less freedom people have, the greater the violence; the more freedom, the less the violence. Thus, as Rummel says, The problem is power. The solution is democracy. The course of action is to foster freedom.
And that concludes my analysis of these 5 Artworks done by William Kentridge before 1994.
Please read our next blog analysing 5 artworks done by William Kentridge after 1994. And have a look at our Art History blog for more information on other great artists.