DEPENDING on which side of middle age you fall, stepping into the first room of William Kentridge’s show is either a jarring personal time machine back to the 1980s’ visceral political landscape, or a technically and artistically brilliant response to recent history. The retrospective on South Africa’s greatest living artist is a reminder of how political art can be.
Toward the end of the show, Drawing for The Refusal of Time (Unbind the Artist2010) shows twin gramophone speakers, mounted on a pithead prop over a desolate landscape, underlining Kentridge as a lone voice, with art that refuses to look the other way becoming as endangered a species as the wild animals in his work.
Kentridge’s charcoal drawings from the mid-1980s are small compared with later works, but mighty in gut punch. German Expressionism and Hogarth are influential in the forensic unearthing of everyday grotesque. Kentridge is the son of Sir Sidney Kentridge, the anti-apartheid lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko’s family, and Felicia Greffen, who founded the South Africa Legal Resource Centre, and his early work is saturated with the turmoil and injustice of apartheid’s endgame .
In The Conservationists’ Ball (1985), European settlers in evening dress partake in café society among leopards, hyenas, and a rhinoceros. Echoing an altarpiece, the charcoal-on-paper triptych’s narrative progresses from a couple relaxing at home to a widescreen café scene in the center panel, and culminating in a gridlocked, nature-depleted landscape presided over by a hyena.
Untitled (Warthog and Necklace) from the same year shows a warthog crowned with a burning tire, referring to the vigilante punishment for informers. And it is hard to disentangle from reflections Anglicanism’s vocal opposition to apartheid, counterpointed by the Dutch Reformed Church’s slow rejection of its discriminatory doctrine.
Rooted in Kentridge’s life-long home town, Johannesburg, the work is autobiographical. His studio is in the garden of his parents’ former home. Framing his decision to stay in Johannesburg as a perpetual question, Kentridge says: “I stay in Johannesburg because I can imagine not staying here. It would be manageable. I have the ability, the passport and the resources not to have to have to be here, which makes it a less urgent question. But it — my staying here — does exist as a question.”
In the Soho film series, Felix Teitlebaum is the artist’s lookalike alter ego, a counterpoint to Soho Eckstein, a ruthless property developer intent on using South Africa’s upheaval for his own gain.
In the animated movie tide table (2003) the pinstriped figure on the beach is inspired by a photo of the artist’s ensuited grandfather, in a deckchair, reading a broadsheet. And a woman in a white headdress is based on Kentridge’s nanny. She stands apart from the group of women who have crosses and Stars of David on their backs, as they enter the waves to be baptised. The baptismal party is a depiction of the church choirs who sing on South African beaches and main streets at weekends.
Tide Tables score is by Philip Miller, who based the sound on the country’s open-air church choirs and roadside preachers. Cattle are a feature of South African beaches, being herded from one pasture to the next. One of the cows is singled out and shown in the next frame, hanging from its hind legs, waiting to be butchered. Kentridge’s method of filming charcoal drawings, then creating animation through erasing and redrawing allows a gentle flow through Tide Tables story.
The short movie Ubu Tells the Truth (1997) is based on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It is only fully understandable through wall text explaining that Ubu’s wife suspected him of having an affair, but was relieved to find out that his nightly absences were due to torturing political opponents.
Using a motif evident across Kentridge’s work, the human melds with mechanized figures. Then the figure is subsumed into a black blob with rudimentary facial features. As human Ubu showers, severed body parts roll off his skin and into the plughole. Kentridge’s love of Dada shines in the cartoonish blob, and an eye’s transmutation from drawing to camera flashbulb and then to close-up of a cinematographic eye, weeping gelatinous tears.
Notes Towards a Model Opera (2015) ends the show on a high note, as a dancer and point crosses three screens, dressed as Maoist Red Guard and waving a red banner. She is both Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People and a symbol of China’s growing economic interest in Africa. As ever, the viewer is confronted with multiple perspectives, but no easy options.
“William Kentridge” is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1, until 11 December. Phone 0207 300 8000. www.royalacademy.org.uk