Soho Eckstein has been through a lot in the past decade. It was bad enough that the greedy industrialist had to witness the fall of the apartheid regime, but on top of that, his wife left him for an artist named Felix Teitlebaum and a mysterious medical condition landed him on the operating table. All of this has been publicly played out for the world to see at Documenta, the Venice Biennale, the Museum of Modern Art and other important art venues. That's because Eckstein is the creation of William Kentridge, the most celebrated artist to emerge from South Africa in the post-apartheid era.
New Yorkers can now get their first in-depth look at Kentridge's art in a major survey that opened at the New Museum on June 2. The exhibition, which debuted at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., begins with the artist's etchings and drawings from the mid-1980s, and includes his most recent installations and theater works. Its centerpiece, however, is the complete Soho Eckstein cycle, a series of hand-drawn animations that combine the political satire of George Grosz with the emotional sweep of Doctor Zhivago.
These idiosyncratic works have been shown all over the globe in the past five years -- Kentridge won the 1999 Carnegie International prize and was nominated for the Hugo Boss Prize the previous year -- but never all together in one location. "We are operating on the assumption that even though Kentridge has had a lot of exposure, nobody knows any of this work," says New Museum senior curator Dan Cameron, who organized the show with Neal Benezra, modern and contemporary art curator of the Art Institute of Chicago and Staci Boris, associate curator at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art.
For Americans unfamiliar with the explosion of art coming out of South Africa in recent years, Kentridge may be something of a surprise. Neither didactic nor particularly "African," Kentridge's creations are often downright politically incorrect.
The artist shows the devastation of the apartheid system through the eyes of Eckstein, a loathsome yet lovable white nationalist who happens to be Jewish. Some have dismissed Kentridge's work as the product of white guilt. Others embrace him as a post-apartheid Art Spiegelman. But nobody is more surprised by the attention than Kentridge himself.
"I didn't intend on becoming an artist," says Kentridge, 45, speaking by telephone from the house in Johannesburg where he grew up and where he now lives with his wife, Anne, a doctor and their three children. "I was dabbling in theater and trying out being an artist, but really I was waiting to choose a profession until after the revolution. Of course, by the time that happened, I was already too old to be employable in any other field."
The artist, as rumpled and middle-aged as his forlorn characters, talks with the soft-spoken entitlement of one raised in a colonial education system, even while he dissects the impact of that way of life. As a child he attended the all-white local government schools and later majored in Politics and African Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. After graduating in 1976, he joined the Johannesburg Art Foundation, studying with Bill Ainslie, an influential artist in South African circles. In 1981, he went to Paris to study mime, but soon returned to Johannesburg to work in relative isolation during the period of economic sanctions against South Africa.
From the outset, Kentridge was involved in film and theater, writing and performing in plays, and working as an art director on television series and documentaries while collaborating with friends on less commercial ventures. These projects included forming the Junction Avenue Theater Company, a nonracial "theater of resistance" troupe, in 1975, and cofounding Free Filmmakers, an independent production company, in 1988. He speaks modestly of these activities as "localized cultural activism."
But Kentridge hardly grew up divorced from the politics of apartheid. His father, Sir Sydney Kentridge, was one of the most important attorneys in the anti-apartheid movement, representing Nelson Mandela at the infamous treason trial in 1956 and the family of Steve Biko at the 1977 inquest hearing into the activist's death. (Now living in Great Britain, Sir Sydney was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1999 for his service as an international human rights attorney.)
The artist's mother, Felicia, also a lawyer, founded South Africa's first nonprofit Legal Resources Centre. Though privileged and protected, William's childhood was also imbued with a repugnance toward the system of discrimination at its foundation. And Kentridge is not Afrikaans; his maternal grandfather immigrated to South Africa along with thousands of other Lithuanian Jews in the early 1900s.
But Kentridge doesn't want these biographical details to overshadow his own accomplishments, steering conversation back to Tiepolo, Hogarth, Brecht and artists who have more directly influenced his esthetics.
Memory and regrets, shame and guilt, betrayal and loss -- these are the primary issues in Kentridge's films, played out against a backdrop of political revolution. The narrative is never presented as a straightforward story line. In the style of Eastern European animation, Kentridge works on a single sheet of paper, starting and stopping the movie camera at each variation. Images leap out of images, almost organically, turning a cat into a telephone, a teardrop into a swimming pool, an MRI scan into a news headline.
The charcoal drawings, shown as companions to the films, reveal the layers upon layers of alterations and revisions that occurred in the process, like memories that can never be erased.
Kentridge introduced his prime protagonist, Eckstein, in his first animated film, Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris, in 1989, and nearly killed him off seven years later in The History of the Main Complaint. In Mine (1991), the arrogant industrialist lounges in bed while his Italian coffee press plunges straight down to the mine shaft below, but by 1998, in Weighing and Wanting, Eckstein was picking through the debris of his life, haunted by his mistakes. In the course of a mere eight films, not one longer than nine minutes, Kentridge manages to squeeze in as many moral dilemmas and human experiences as a season of The Sopranos.
From The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Goodbye, Columbus to Maus and The Producers, there has been a long line of Jewish artists, writers and filmmakers who have explored the more embarrassing or unsavory aspects of their ethnic identity. Still, when Kentridge's work was shown at London's Serpentine Gallery in 1998 and this year at the Hirshhorn, there were rumblings that the films seemed anti-Semitic.
"He was completely thrown off guard," says curator Cameron. "In New York, there are writers and artists who have made these investigations in almost uncomfortable ways, but for Kentridge, identity has more to do with being white and his family's role as powerful players in a country that discriminated against the majority of its citizens."
Kentridge claims that his characters are both fictitious and semi-autobiographical, often noting that he based Eckstein on a photograph of his grandfather. In point of fact, Eckstein bears a striking resemblance to the real-life South African insurance magnate Shlomo Peer, who vehemently supported the apartheid regime, equating Afrikaan nationalism with Zionism. Kentridge would have been intimately familiar with this loathsome character; Peer, who died of cancer in January 2000, threatened to sue Sir Sydney in 1989 when the lawyer publicly called him a disgrace to the Jewish community. Felix Teitlebaum, the films' anti-hero, is directly based on the artist himself.
"I never anticipate audience response," says Kentridge. "I always believed that if you start with the very specifics of an individual situation, only then do you have the possibility of reaching a broader audience on a purely emotional level." Today, Kentridge's audience is truly international. He exhibits regularly in New York, London and Johannesburg. He just premiered Zeno at 4 a.m., an oratorio based on Italo Svevo's 1923 novel Confessions of Zeno, at the Kunsten Festival Des Arts in Brussels. His fifth collaboration with Handspring Puppet Company since 1992, Zeno is coming to New York's Lincoln Center this fall.
However, the question remains: Is it fair for a white artist to be the most visible representative of post-apartheid South Africa? "William is already a mid-career artist, extremely prominent throughout South Africa during the 1980s," explains Cameron. "It would be premature, if not impossible, to expect a black artist of the same generation to meet these criteria." Kentridge, who fully acknowledges the privileges and advantages of his position, in no way wants his artwork to erase or alleviate his sense of political responsibility: "Any white looking back at the apartheid era has to say, 'I could have done more.' "
BARBARA POLLACK is a New York-based artist and writer. This profile first appeared in the Village Voice.