William Kentridge


  • Born South Africa 1955.
  • Both his parents supported anti-apartheid activists in a number of trials and inquests.
  • Kentridge turned to figuration as a means of giving expression to injustice as he perceived it.
  • His works sit alongside artists such as William Hogarth, Francisco Goya, Honoré Daumier, Max Beckmann and George Grosz
  • His works cross media boundaries e.g., film, drawing, printmaking, tapestry design, performance and installation.
  • Studied acting in Paris
  • Kentridge was born in Johannesburg to Sydney Kentridge and Felicia Geffen. Both were attorneys who represented people marginalized by the apartheid system. He was educated at King Edward VII School in Houghton, Johannesburg. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Politics and African Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand and then a diploma in Fine Arts from the Johannesburg Art Foundation. In the early 1980s, he studied mime and theatre at the L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. He originally hoped to become an actor, but he reflected later: “I was fortunate to discover at a theatre school that I was so bad an actor [… that] I was reduced to an artist, and I made my peace with it.”. Between 1975 and 1991, he was acting and directing in Johannesburg’s Junction Avenue Theatre Company. In the 1980s, he worked on television films and series as art director. @ Wikipedia

Drawing for the film Weighing and Wanting, 1998. Charcoal on paper; 47 1/4 x 63 in. Copyright and courtesy of William Kentridge.@ART21

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‘ Leo’, 2004, suite of 3 prints, drypoint, 14.5X19.5 cm

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‘ 3 Shadows’, 2003, sugarlift print, 77X90 cm

 Kentridge on Kentridge

“The first animated films I made were done on the basis of trying to get away from a program in which I could see my life heading out ahead of me (thirteen more solo exhibitions of charcoal drawings!). So I decided I had to do something that couldn’t possibly fit into that context, that wasn’t going to be in a gallery—something for my own interest and pleasure.” —William Kentridge @ART21

“I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain ending – an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check, and nihilism at bay”.
“My grandfather was a member of Parliament for 40 years. Obviously we’re talking here South Africa, a whites only parliament. I grew up in a family that was very involved with the legal battles against apartheid—the great treason trials in the 1950s and early ’60s, and later with the legal resources center that my mother founded. My father was involved with a number of very prominent cases that had political aspects to them, whether it was the inquest into the Sharpeville Massacre, the death of Steve Biko, or one of the trials of Nelson Mandela” 1
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Conceptual Framework


  • Image titles often taken from popular media e.g., ” Casspirs full of love” 1989  is one of the state radio greetings sent by families to their loved ones in the armed forces in which Kentridge heard a mother end her message ‘from Mum, with Casspirs full of love’, innocently meaning ‘with truckloads of love’
  • Kentridge however alludes to the reality that Casspirs had been the quintessential riot-control vehicle in South Africa, and that they had become a very real object, and symbol, of oppression.
  • Often includes household items of his childhood, such as a manual typewriter or a Bakelite telephone or radio, as in the case of the charcoal and pastel drawing Bakelite radio 1994
  • “The influence of the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein is apparent in many of Kentridge’s processional scenes, including Baggage I, II, II 2000. Images of people trudging over a landscape carrying arms or onerous luggage recall those found in Eisenstein’s films, such as October 1927, which shows figures tramping across Petrograd (St Petersburg) in the revolution of 1917″.
  • Kentridge began exhibiting in 1979. It was not until 2006 that he surfaced at the top of the art world with an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, ‘William Kentridge: 9 Drawings for Projection’, February 15 – 20. after a series of one man shows in important galleries sprang from his representation at Dokumenta X in Kassel in 1997
  • Kentridge wins Kyoto Prize in 2010.


  • Significant Art Events
    1973-6 University of Witwatersrand, BA in Politics and African Studies
    1976-8 Studied art at the Johannesburg Art Foundation
    1981-2 Studied mime and theater at the Ecol e Jacques Lecoq in Paris
    1988 Founder member of the Free Filmmakers Cooperative, Johannesburg
    1975-91 Member of the Junction Avenue Theater Company, Johannesburg and Soweto
    1989 Kentridge made his first animated film, Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris
    1992 First collaborative piece with the Handspring Puppet Company, Woyzeck on the Highveld
    1995 1st Johannesburg Biennale
    1996 Conceived and directed Ubu and the Truth Commission
    1997 Havana Biennale, Documenta X
    1998 Solo exhibition The Drawing Center, New York
    1998 Solo exhibition, The Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego
    1998 Premiere of Il Ritorno d’Ulisse at the Luna Theatre, Brussels
    1999 Project Room, Museum of Modern Art, New York
    1999 Serpentine Gallery


  • May require an understanding of historical and political contexts to access more sophisticated readings of the works.
  • Kentridge says he “is bad at working on behalf of the audience”
  • Feels that “work only engages an audience when it’s focused on in the studio”
  • Works are about the act of making a picture as opposed to creating a dialog with an audience


  • Concentrates on old-fashioned technology rather than those from a digital age as they ‘convey a more visible explanation of how they work’.
  • Processions are a recurrent theme in Kentridge’s shadow plays and films, as well as his prints, drawings and sculptures.
  • Scenes are often theatrical and nonsensical
  • Kentridge explores his interest in working on a grand scale on one single life-sized figure in works such as ‘Walking man 2000′.
  • In works such as Eight figures Kentridge continued to “explore a processional composition, which incorporates his experience as an actor and theatre designer. The nonsensical nature of this grand parade of figures is augmented by the artist’s inclusion of random English and Russian signage below the stage on which the figures stride, providing a sense of the absurd”. 1
  • Used forensic photographs as source material in ‘Felix’
  • Uses his own body to  model poses
  • Tries to subvert the ‘predictable’ by using deliberate strategies to enforce working against the predictable.
  • ‘Between 1989 and 2003 Kentridge made a series of nine short films that he eventually gathered under the title 9 Drawings for Projection. In 1989, he began the first of those animated movies,Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris. The series runs through Monument (1990), Mine (1991), Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old (1991), Felix in Exile (1994), History of the Main Complaint (1996), Weighing and Wanting (1998), and Stereoscope (1999), up to Tide Table (2003) and Other Faces, 2011′. @ Wikipedia
  • ‘For the series, he used a technique that would become a feature of his work – successive charcoal drawings, always on the same sheet of paper, contrary to the traditional animation technique in which each movement is drawn on a separate sheet. In this way, Kentridge’s videos and films came to keep the traces of the previous drawings’. @ Wikipedia



  • ‘I am really interested in the terrain’s hiding of its own history, and the correspondence this has … with the way memory works’.
  • Works often contain a “nostalgic yearning for the memories of his early years with his close-knit family”. E.g., the richly worked image of a Bakelite radio shown bobbing along in a flowing river of blue – the water permeating the city streets depicting the changing landscape of politics in 1994 when the apartheid regime was abandoned.
  • Kentridge prefers the evidence of the mechanical rather than the electronic  something in which you can see the cause and effect of switches, levers, wheels, made visible.
  • “there is a sense of trusting childhood more than adulthood, that provides a reason for a lot of objects that I draw. These come from images of those objects that I saw in childhood’. 1
  • Considers the African landscape to be ‘dull’ like a black and white drawing
  • Uncovering forensic images of the Sharpville Massacre in his fathers study in a box that he had mistaken for chocolates had a profound and lasting impact on him. For Kentridge “the violence of the images laid the world bare at a young age”
  • Considers himself to be a non-intuitive person and an accidental artist by virtue of failing as an actor.


  • In various compositions we see a rich parade of figures (or a single figure) marching forward – a group of workers, fleeing refugees and performing actors proceed across a stage.
  • Kentridge seeks to avoid ‘the plague of the picturesque’.
  • Use of charcoal (black and white) relates to perception of the African landscape
  • Regards colour as being problematic as works become subservient to colour.
  • Concerned with placement and balance


  • Early in his career Kentridge’s art was overt in its criticism of the South African apartheid regime

Post Modern

Related links:
1. Elements of the text for this study have been adapted from the writings of Jane Kinsman
Senior Curator, International Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books, ANG.