|Artist William Kentridge is one of Johannesburg's most famous residents. His art, now selling at prices few can afford, commands respect around the globe. Though he's been criticised for hogging attention as South Africa's most famous artist, a pale and privileged male at that, not even his detractors are indifferent to the power and bold energy that resonates in his art, nor do they deny his right to international acclaim.|
Kentridge is busy as usual - gearing up for his "9 Drawings for Projection", a series of animated short films he's created over the past 14 years. The work is being shown at the Old Fort - the site of the Constitution Hill development - in three special screenings from Monday 22 to Wednesday 24 March, featuring music by Philip Miller, performed by the Sontonga Quartet and pianist Jill Richards. The films are rich with images of Joburg and depict the city's changing face over the past 15 years.
Speaking of the city, Kentridge has often referred to his birthplace as his source of inspiration. Although he spends several months every year hosting exhibitions around the world, he always returns to home base, where creativity flows.
"It's a part of the world that makes sense to me - having lived here for 48 years," he says. "Joburg has a roughness. It is not disguised by 'picturesqueness' like Cape Town. I see this sense of roughness as appropriate to the nature of our society. One doesn't have the feeling that the city offers a false view of society. Cape Town as a bucolic paradise is great but it's not great to work with - you know you are working with a lie: Joburg's ugliness, its brutish landscape, is appropriate.
"The city has value to me as an artist - it has shaped the way I draw," he adds. The fact that Joburg's landscape is constructed and therefore malleable and changeable is ripe fruit for an artist: "It's artificially constructed, it draws itself … just like a child's drawing of a mine dump … and you can erase the drawing, the land gets redrawn all the time. If one thinks about it, the very reason for the existence of the city - gold - is invisible, its three miles underground.
"The architecture in the centre of the city, the 1910 to 1940s buildings, have a distinctiveness that meets drawing halfway, they're really good to draw. Also, I work with charcoal rather than with colour and the city is colourless - this translates well."
Although Kentridge lives with his wife and three children in the Houghton home he grew up in, and works in a studio in the garden surrounded by greenery, the 'leafy suburbs' don't really inform his artistic sensibility. "It's a lovely park to live in but I don't have illusions about it. It's not the heart of the city."
Kentridge was born here in 1955, eldest son of respected QC Sir Sydney Kentridge and Felicia Geffen, also a respected lawyer, who both played key roles in the struggle to end apartheid.
His childhood memories of the Old Fort, the backdrop for his latest project, are still vivid: "I remember this mound of earth with a wooden door in it. I had an image of people being locked up in the ground," he laughs. As lawyers, his parents were familiar with Joburg's infamous prison where many political prisoners were incarcerated. His grandfather was held there during the 1922 mineworkers strike. With the legal background of his family, Constitution Hill - home of the new Constitutional Court - holds significance for him. "I think it's an extremely interesting project. But I'm still waiting, like everyone else, to get a sense of how it all fits together."
Kentridge went to the all-boys King Edwards School, of which he is now "strongly supportive", although his children all attend Sacred Heart College. He then completed a BA in politics and African studies at Wits University. After studying art at the Johannesburg Art Foundation and mime and theatre at the Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris, he helped found the Free Filmmakers Cooperative and joined the Junction Avenue Theatre Company from 1975 to 1991.
Though drawings are always his starting point, Kentridge works in different media, including film, theatre, puppetry and mime. His many exhibitions, prizes and accolades make for lengthy reading and can be found on any number of websites.
Over the past few years Kentridge has exhibited his works at prestigious galleries and museums around the world, including the Museums of Modern Art in Oxford and New York, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego and Documenta X1 in Kassel, Germany, to name some. Familiar with the regeneration projects of other cities like Bilbao, Spain, Kentridge is blunt in his criticism of what's happening here.
"It's easy for me to say - I'm not responsible for funding, imaging or implementing it. But I'm also not one of those who's saying that what's going on is fantastic. It's not enough and it's happening too slowly."
Kentridge believes the changes taking place are piecemeal and decorative, rather than transformational. He also cites a reluctance to spend money. "The idea that you are going to save the city by redecorating it is nonsense. Decoration is fine but it's not transforming anything. You need to spend hundreds of millions if you really want to revamp the cultural centre. You would also make the money back in tourism and investment."
Scant resources are going into showcasing and protecting the world's greatest collection of African art, argues Kentridge. Instead, millions are being poured into "fatuous" campaigns - involving posters, slogans and TV commercials - intent on drawing tourism and investment to the country.
How does Kentridge feel about the c-word - crime? "Living in Joburg one normalises a state of awareness and alertness," he says. "You are not aware that you're living in a state of anxiety unless you go away. But with 9/11 came the awareness that everyone is vulnerable, that expectations of being without threat are false. Those of us living in Joburg have always known this."