Kentridge: Weighing white privilege

August 20, 2019

Everyone wants a piece of William Kentridge and they can have one... Even at the RMB Turbine Art Fair this year there was one for sale this year at David Krut’s stand. Kentridge is the most well known contemporary artist in this country. The most well-known South African artist on the international art scene. The Kentridge season is about to hit Cape Town with exhibitions of his works opening at Zeitz Mocaa and the Norval Art Foundation. As the artist has remained a loyal Joburger, that city has been lapping up his art for years. In 2015 for example two Kentridge shows opened in Joburg: Tapestries at the Wits Art Museum and the filmic installation The Refusal of Time at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. The story below, first published in The Sunday Independent in that year reflects on that body and the theme of ‘accountability’ and white-guilt in his art and how it manifested in the 2014 exhibition at the Goodman, Joburg titled, Drawings: East Rand Proprietary Mines Cash Book. 

Kentridge's international fame and his popularity at auction and with locals - he may be the only contemporary artist some South Africans are familiar with - puts his work above approach in a way.
As a result his work isn't "weighed" in the same manner as most other artists. It also helps that he keeps producing interesting and compelling work, expanding his repertoire so to speak - as with the large tapestries at Wam - exploring new collaborations, as with The Refusal of Time, which is a highly ambitious and impressive installation (there are six screens and action moves across them, or is sometimes confined to them, as Kentridge segments and joins "time-frames"). Exactly how collaborative these “collaborations” are is debatable; Dada Masilo’s distinctive vocabulary is glaringly obscured in the Refusal of Time.

 

Due to his ubiquitousness, the art intelligentsia here take Kentridge's work for granted. It is rarely dissected in academic circles or is a topic of conversation informally, although his discourse on white privilege, which is hugely fashionable, is probably unparalleled on our art scene. He has persistently weighed our history and the violence wreaked by white privilege stemming from the colonial era - and how he has been a beneficiary of it - he has always figured himself in his work.

Accountability is a tricky business. It can be reduced to numbers. This comes to the fore in Kentridge's drawings at the Goodman Gallery. The theme of "weighing and measuring" quite obviously haunts this collection, executed on old ledger pages from the East Rand Propriety Mines Cash book and Refusal of Time at Jag.

I'm a little frustrated that the drawings obscure the information on the ledger pages - which date back to the early 1900s - because I'm curious about a mine's running costs in those early days. These are historical documents and Kentridge is (partially) concealing this history with his characteristic charcoal landscape drawings and then redating them as he transforms them into documents of another kind - adding substantial value to them in doing so.

There are some works where the drawings don't completely obscure the information on the pages and you can read the list of costs. And, if you are really curious about that era, Rosalind C Morris expounds on the details in Accounts and Drawings from Underground, a publication linked to the exhibition.
There is a distinction between European and Native workers, which reveals how time and humanity were quantified. Kentridge has always been fixated with time and disturbing its chronological order - this is what attracted him to film in the first place and to working with musicians and composers like Phillip Miller and dancer and choreographer Masilo in The Refusal of Time. These two artists work in fields that pivot on timing.

At the centre of the installation of The Refusal of Time is a large moving sculpture that looks like a steam punk creation. It is dubbed the "breathing machine" or "elephant" and resembles an invention used in Paris in the late 1800s to keep clocks ticking. It looks like a large set of lungs or a contraption to aid mass production, serving as a reminder of how industrialisation involved commodifing time - reducing it to a measurable entity that had intrinsic fiscal value and which defined the individual's status within the "machine" - the system - as was (and is) the case with mine labour.

 

Kentridge's drawings at the Goodman are centred on quantifying a number of things real and abstract, such as the land itself - these are landscape drawings, after all. Land has value and physical properties that can be quantified, yet there are also elements that can't be measured: the psychic and political costs tied to its ownership and, more important, the tragic events that take place on it.

A mine dump is featured in one drawing and shaftheads in some of the others, but largely the landscapes look undisturbed by miners, colonial settlers or Africans. As a result the ledgers not only are the only visible evidence of what was taking place at a subterranean level, but map the early beginnings of an industry that has come to symbolise white supremacy and the exploitation of people and the land. As such the ledgers contain information that the land cannot.

As the drawings cover the ledger pages, it's as if the lines, calculations and figures operate as the framework on which the land is suspended, articulating the invisible system imposed on it and the inter-connectedness of the past and the present. They are inseparable.
In one drawing, Kentridge has scrawled the name "Marikana" (presumably referring to the setting), directing our attention to ways in which the present echoes the past and how these seemingly benign landscapes are connected to dark realities.

As with his early filmic works, red lines appear on the drawings indicating errors, a disturbance, and at times these red lines are linked to specific items in the ledger, forcing a relationship between them.
"In history, mistakes may be acknowledged, but not eliminated. Every attempt at erasure leaves its mark," observes Morris. As a result the ledger has unwittingly come to catalogue evidence for these "errors"; presenting costs that aren't listed and which can't be ‘counted’.

That the information in the ledger pages is partially obscured hints at an effort to erase the past and replace it with something more pleasing, such as the landscape genre of painting or drawing that was particularly popular with colonials and which remains a politically loaded motif in South Africa's art history, from Pierneef to Goldblatt. Kentridge problematises this art motif  and ensures that overwriting the past remains a transparent process.

Kentridge doesn't begin with a clean "slate" so to speak - in the making of these artworks.  He has to negotiate the history denoted by the pages that are the backdrop for his drawings. This isn't something new in his practice and it implies that South African artists cannot purely embark on an imaginative journey, given that their starting point is never neutral, never fresh or new. They have to work with what came before.

Kentridge embraces this on every level; apart from the archaic filmic mode he adopted in his animations, his entire aesthetic is made to appear dated; old pages from books of all kinds, ancient maps. In Refusal of Time, he employs the silent-movie mode so it looks like the film(s) is from a bygone era. There is a sense that he is not only caught but trapped - not only by history but by the absence of a language to deal with it.


At a very basic level, based on all his exhibitions on show in Joburg, Kentridge is fixated with the burden of history. As with the ledger pages and his animations and the maps of cities in Europe that form the backdrop for most of the tapestries, Kentridge makes work "with history" - he is constantly engaged in that most fashionable of pursuits dubbed "confronting the archive" or perhaps measuring it.

From the beginning he has been preoccupied with a different form of checks and balances; that is, weighing how he has profited from the culture of exploitation that underpins South Africa's skewed colonial and apartheid history. In other words, confronting the "guilt" of the past and searching for ways of being "accountable". This is why he is a recurring character in his work - his pursuit is personal. In one of his untitled drawings, Kentridge, recognisable by his "uniform" - a white shirt and black trousers - is pictured walking, with his head down, as if in contemplation, as he crosses the page of a ledger.

He has placed himself in this terrain and is trying to reconcile with his position in it. It's as if he yearns to be "accountable" but doesn't know how. Given that his work has become so valuable and that he is a financial success must complicate this; cashing in on white guilt is perversely profitable. Privilege can't be shirked. Even if Kentridge renounced all his money, withdrew from the world and lived on the street he would be tethered to a legacy of privilege.

The ledger pages create the illusion that the damage of the past can be calculated, but it can't. Kentridge has been dealing with this incalculable "debt" throughout his career. This motif was driven home in his films - often denoted by rising water levels that evoke the acid mine water in Joburg, a consequence of mining, the residue of exploitation haunting the present, but also a kind of natural abundance that swallows up the usually white male subject - for example the fictional Soho Eckstein, a wealthy white businessman.
In this way Kentridge's art centres on confronting white privilege and the inability ever to transcend it. He remains tethered to his European roots and the baggage this entails.

He, and we, are like members of this elegiac procession silhouetted against the backdrop of historical maps in his large mohair tapestries. These flat, black silhouette figures are faceless because they represent us all. The victims, the oppressors. They loom as these universal effigies that could be from any time or place; they could be African refugees, they could be Jews, anyone and everyone - not only is the world's history defined by mobility, but it is one where migration brings about conflict. We are all haunted by history.
Immigrants hold on tight to their origins to shore up their identity in a new land, so, while there is this sense that European, colonial roots are a blight on the South African identity, there is also a compulsion to hold on to it tightly. Kentridge does so through the visual vocabulary he adopts. In this way his language of communication can only turn in on itself.

Kentridge's small sculptures in the Goodman exhibition evoke fragmented subjects. He adopts a modernist language that brings Picasso and Gris to mind; the multifaceted profile meets the collage. Collage has been a useful vehicle for Kentridge to articulate the sense of conflict that haunts his subjects - perhaps himself - who have yet to figure out a way to make peace with all the parts of themselves.
In the Refusal of Time, Kentridge appears to have found a way to navigate around this dilemma by altering time itself, so that one is never certain what is the past, present or future. It's a space where accountability can be truly achieved; by going backwards in slow motion and gradually undoing each action. The only problem is the result: erasing the (erroneous) act in question. Every effort to be accountable is eventually reduced to a denial.

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