The international art world in which he finds himself is complicated, like the artist himself. South African artist William Kentridge strides confidently in this tough and demanding world, whether he is showing his work in a gallery in Sydney or Paris; featuring in a retrospective in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York or the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto; or premiering an unusual opera at the New York Metropolitan Opera or at the Festival d’ Aix en Provence.
The art world requires excellence in execution, but most of all, it requires a unique spark of creativity, of individual expression that sustains itself. Kentridge has been blessed with this. One cannot describe him by any glib epithet. He is South African, yet he is internationally recognised as one of the world’s greatest contemporary artists. In 2009 he was on Time’s 100 list of people who most affected the world. His exhibition, 5 Themes, was second on Time’s Top 10 list of exhibitions in 2009. He has won several international accolades, including the 2011 Kyoto Prize for outstanding contributions to society. Kentridge may frequent the art capitals of the world, but he is firmly rooted in South Africa, in Johannesburg specifically, where he has two studios. One at home in a leafy suburb, where the bulk of his solitary work is done, the other in downtown Johannesburg, in the Arts on Main complex. The latter is a large space, ideal for the expansive drawings used in theatrical performances, and for rehearsals for performance pieces.
At the time of writing this, Kentridge and his team were working on Refuse the Hour a series of live collaborative performances to be staged at the Market Theatre in Newtown, Johannesburg in September. Among them is the lecture performance I am not me, the horse is not mine, which incorporates eight short films, and which is being staged for the first time in Johannesburg. It was inspired by the short story The Nose, written in 1837 by Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. Gogol’s story inspired Dmitri Shostakovich to write his opera The Nose in 1928. The main character’s nose takes on a life of its own, and thus opens the discourse around matters of social hierarchy and division of the self. In turn, I am not me, the horse is not mine formed the basis for Kentridge’s interpretation of the Shostakovich opera, which premiered at the New York MetropolitanOpera, and garnered him his “best reviews yet” at its
European premiere at the Festival d’Aix en Provence. So good, in fact that several international opera houses have expressed interest in staging the production, with its massive painted canvasses and video projections. Several large mechanical contraptions are ranged around the studio. Kentridge steps up to one, turns a lever, and the wooden machine which sprouts metal megaphones at its tips, moves. These structures are larger than life, curious. Looking at them in this space makes one aware, in Kentridge’s words, of the process of looking and seeing and making sense of the world.
Against one expansive white wall a film image is projected. It is of Kentridge walking. Behind him walks dancer Dada Masilo. He throws a book from a stack on his head back towards her. She catches it and tosses a book back at him. They continue walking in a timeless loop. It is fascinating to watch. This too will be part of the September performances. While preparations for these performances will take up the next few weeks at the downtown studio, Kentridge spends most of his time working on his own in his studio at home. For the past 18 months, he has been working on a new film and exhibition that will show at the Goodman Gallery in Rosebank, Johannesburg in November.
Other Faces is the 10th in a series of animated films that he started working on 23 years ago. The films feature the same characters, and primarily use the same technique. He makes drawings with charcoal on paper. A drawing is done, then filmed with an old 35mm animation camera. The same drawing undergoes “many, many” erasures. Through the animation of these drawings, the artist leads the observer to understand the world as process rather than as fact. Kentridge continues to work on one drawing until the sequence in the film is finished.
He doesn’t work on the series constantly, but comes back to it every few years. The films are invariably about Johannesburg. The themes in this one are about xenophobia and the changing look of streets of downtown Johannesburg. It has to do with the further erasure of the mine dumps and Johannesburg memory. It’s about “one’s relationship to one’s younger self”, Kentridge says. Other Faces brings back the character of Soho Eckstein, who along with the character Felix Teitlebaum, is a constant in Kentridge’s films. It took a while for him to understand that they each represented an alter ego, a “self-portrait in the third person”. Kentridge talks about our collective amnesia as South Africans about the apartheid years. It is always easier to forget about the uncomfortable things. Yet when I look at Kentridge’s work (I was lucky enough to get a preview of Other Faces), I am jolted back into the past.
As lyrical music sometimes juxtaposes with his stark images, deep passions rip around my interior. I am struck by the horror, the poignancy, and the irony of his themes and the beauty of his art He strives to evoke or recreate the strength of a passionwhen first experienced, whether it is anger or distress. He does this so successfully that the viewer cannot remain distant from his work. It engages one on a deep, even subconscious level. The Goodman Gallery will show the film as well as about 30 or 40 drawings that were made in the process of the film. These will be for sale, but the artist won’t talk about value. This is where one of the grey areas of the art world comes in. Artists create art for the sake of creation. They are not motivated by money in the same way as investors and stock market traders are. And yet, there is an art market. And there is always a local art market and an international art market.
So I ask Lisa Essers, the owner of Goodman Gallery, for an estimated comparison of the investment value of a Kentridge work. If, in the late eighties one had bought a Kentridge drawing for around R40 000 ($5 600), today it could fetch somewhere between R1.6 million and R2 million ($235,000-$280,000). Kentridge is one of only a handful of contemporary African artists who are part of international art history, and therefore part of the international art market. Essers says the South African art market is quite far behind the curve as far as other art markets in the world are concerned.
The top international curators handpick the talent that is brought to the art markets, and it’s the collectors who put a price on the work. Often, it is on auction that works bring in the largest amounts, and more often than not it is the collector who benefits, rather than the artist. In brief, there is one essential difference between investing in art and investing in stocks. Stocks are more liquid and offer dividends, whereas an art investment takes a number of years to mature. The joy of investing in art in the short term is about aesthetic pleasure and status. In the long term, the value of a work is determined by a number of variables, one of them being the name and reputation of the artist. That, Kentridge undoubtedly has.