While in high school, I had the privilege of playing with a small ensemble supplying the music for an event held at the PMA for John Cardinal Krol, then Cardinal of Philadelphia. We set up well before anyone else arrived on the balcony level surrounding the Great Stair Hall of the museum and waited for our cue. For the better part of an hour, my friends and I were confined to the area on which the museum’s History of Constantine Tapestries designed by Peter Paul Rubens and Pietro da Cortona. That memory flooded back to me as I read the catalogue to the PMA’s current exhibition William Kentridge: Tapestries. South African artist William Kentridge (shown above) follows in the footsteps of those Old Masters in creating his own tapestries that unite not only old methods with modern ideas but also Western art with South African indigenous culture.
In this fourth exhibition of the PMA’s Notations series and the first to feature a catalogue, the PMA’s Curator of Contemporary Art, Carlos Basualdo, assembles not only a wide array of Kentridge’s work but also edits an excellent catalogue that examines this multi-faceted artist from multiple directions. Gabriele Guercio connects Kentridge with the legacy of the tapestry in his essay, “Becoming Aware in a World of People on the Move.” Guercio sees the Renaissance concept of the disegno at work in Kentridge’s tapestries. “Vasari, blending Plato and Aristotle, equated disegno with idea,” Guercio writes, “meaning that drawing produces not so much representation of a preexisting reality but events of consciousness that are lived and reified as in the signs jotted down on a sheet.” This seamless transitioning from one medium to another, from drawing to tapestry to painting, all stemming from the idea or disegno, ends around the eighteenth century, when the division between art and craft develops, splitting the artist and the artisan even today. Kentridge’s works bridge this divide, taking similar ideas and creating drawings, paintings, sculptures, films, and even tapestries. “Kentridge’s tapestries demonstrate a capacity not only for blurring the gap between craft and art,” Guercio writes, “but also for subverting the pretense of placing artistic phenomenon within fixed categories.” The wall erected between life and art collapses in the wake of Kentridge’s tapestries.
Porter Series: Géographie des Hebreux ou Tableau de la dispersion des Enfants de Noë, 2005, William Kentridge. Tapestry weave with embroidery: mohair, acrylic, and polyester. 100 1/2 x 137 7/8 inches (255.3 x 350.2 cm). Collection of Anne and William Palmer, New York.
At the heart of Kentridge’s tapestries is the theme of labor, the work of human hands. In the Porter Series (one example above), Kentridge memorializes the South African porters who carry the luggage and other possessions of others. These figures are shown as silhouettes, merging physically in many cases with the objects they carry, as they process against a backdrop of old atlas pages. The porters indicate not only labor but also exploited labor, specifically the exploited workers of South Africa laboring for their colonizers. The maps bring to mind the issue of nations and colonies as well as the idea of travel between nations in the connection with the porters. Kentridge throws into doubt the idea of progress, of brining “civilization” to “uncivilized” nations, inherent in the colonization of Africa by Western nations. By making the figures blackened shadows, Kentridge denies the certainty of representation and, by extension, all forms of certainty. “All calls to certainty, whether of political jingoism or of objective knowledge, have an authoritarian origin relying on blindness and coercion—which are fundamentally inimical to what it is to be alive in the world with one’s eyes open,” Kentridge says. It is interesting to contrast Kentridge’s use of shadow figures with that of Kara Walker. Where the white South African uses shadows to illustrate the wrongs of colonialism against maps that outline the long human history of jingoism and coercion, the black African-American uses shadows to illustrate the wrongs of slavery and its ever-echoing effects through American culture against a plain white background, throwing the racial dichotomy into even starker contrast. Both, however, deny any answers in the end. Certainty, any certainty is wrong in of itself in its ability to morph into authoritarianism and repeat the same old sins but with new names.
The mohair for Kentridge's tapestries is dyed in wood-fire vats in Swaziland. Photo by John Hodgkiss, courtesy of the William Kentridge Studio.
What makes Kentridge’s tapestries even more striking is their physicality, which literally merges the idea of South Africa with South Africa itself. The mohair used in the tapestries comes from farm goats in Swaziland that is dyed (above) by hand by local artisan women. More local artisans in the Stephens Tapestry Studio in Swaziland and Johannesburg hand-weave the tapestries from enlarged photographs of Kentridge’s original drawings. These workers do not slavishly copy Kentridge’s designs but rather add their own unique touches, creating a wholly new work that is both Kentridge’s and theirs. “The process is less a translation from one medium to another than a precisely calculated blurring of the possibility of conceiving of photography, drawing, and projection as separate and independent mediums,” Basualdo writes. Looking at the proud faces of these South African women weavers in the catalogue, in both action shots taken during the process and in a group photo at the end of the book, you finally recognize the continuum of artistry between the acknowledged artist Kentridge and these unheralded artists. Through the physicality of the tapestry, Kentridge impresses on the viewer the immense, yet too often unrecognized talents of the black population of South Africa and, by extension, reaffirms their essential humanity so long denied by apartheid.
Okwui Enwezor and Ivan Vladislavic examine Kentridge’s imaginative journey through the landscape of South African apartheid in their essays. Enwezor demonstrates how Kentridge proves that no landscape is truly “innocent.” All landscapes bear the mark of their history, the “(un)civil engineering” of the powerful trying to remake the “savage” powerless as part of the larger colonialist ideology. Vladislavic remarks on the literal remapping of South Africa post-apartheid as old colonial town and street names disappear as new names pop up, thus erasing all the history behind those colonial labels and generating a collective cultural amnesia. Vladislavic then surveys South African literature’s lamenting of the lost pastoral tradition and how that lost land plays into Kentridge’s larger cultural reclamation project. “While landscape can hide its memories,” Enwezor asks, “is it not the work of the artist to undermine such easy amnesia?” Kentridge’s tapestries, with their backdrops of old atlas maps (above), force us to examine the ideology and implications of maps and boundaries and face the victims of such concepts, perhaps for the first time.
Bridge, 2001, William Kentridge. Bronze with books. 23 5/8 x 36 3/4 x 7 1/2 inches (60 x 93.2 x 19 cm). Collection of the artist.
In uniting both aesthetic and political concerns in his art, William Kentridge provides a stellar example for the modern artist. Kentridge fully engages the viewer on different levels, raising the genre of craft back to its rightful place alongside that of fine art but also taking his personal history of South Africa and apartheid and making it a universal issue of authoritarianism versus freedom, a bridge (like the one above), hopefully, to a better future. When Kentridge spoke at the PMA in early 2007 as part of the Thomas Chimes exhibition in regards to his use of Alfred Jarry’s Ubi Roi in his art (my review of that podcast here), it was clear that here was an artist unafraid of getting his hands dirty with the issues of the day. Whereas the Constantine Tapestries that dazzled me so many years ago documented ancient imperialism, Kentridge’s tapestries document imperialism from the other side—the side of the oppressed. In these tapestries, Kentridge gives voice to the voiceless and gives the poor a treatment once reserved for kings.
[Many thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue and the images from the exhibition William Kentridge: Tapestries.]