The exhibition William Kentridge: A Poem That Is Not Our Own at Kunstmuseum Basel surveys the South African artist’s oeuvre from early to the most recent work. The show features early graphic art and films as well as recent performative work. Curated by Josef Helfenstein, The exhibition William Kentridge. A Poem That Is Not Our Own takes up three gallery floors at the Kunstmuseum Basel | Gegenwart as well as selected rooms in the museum’s Hauptbau and Neubau. The exhibition runs until October 13, 2019.
William Kentridge: A Poem That Is Not Our Own / Kunstmuseum Basel. Press preview, June 6, 2019.
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William Kentridge (b. 1955) is internationally celebrated as one of today’s leading artists. In addition to creating visual art, he is also a filmmaker and stage director. In more than three decades, he has built a sizable oeuvre spanning diverse media including animated film, drawing, printmaking, stage production, and sculpture. The Kunstmuseum Basel | Gegenwart now presents a grand exhibition surveying the South African artist’s work; several key pieces in the show have never been seen in Europe.
Designed in close collaboration with the artist, A Poem That Is Not Our Own sheds light on his early graphic art and films from the 1980s and 1990s and brings the thematic complex of migration, flight, and processions in his oeuvre into focus. It illustrates how these themes first emerge in Kentridge’s early graphic work and grow more prominent over the years as he explores their potential in ever more opulent creations.
This development is exemplified by Kentridge’s most recent performative work The Head & The Load (2018), which premiered at the Tate Modern, London, in the summer of 2018; adapted into a sprawling installation, it will now be a highlight of the exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel, its first presentation in Europe. Exploring the little-known role that Africa played in World War I, The Head & The Load combines film projections, shadow plays, and an ensemble of dancers in a procession that defies conventional genre boundaries. Three other works included in the show provide additional insight into the procession as a vital format in Kentridge’s oeuvre: the video installations Shadow Procession (1999), More Sweetly Play the Dance (2015), and Triumphs & Laments (2016). An entire room is dedicated to the latter work, showcasing drawings and woodcuts that have never been on display in Europe.
Political and social conflict
A second focus of the exhibition is on Kentridge’s creative engagement with political and social conflicts in South Africa and Europe, a concern that already informs his early films and drawings. In one gallery, the large-format earth-toned stage decors for Sophiatown (1986–1989)—the ensemble has never been shown in Europe—and a documentary film introduce visitors to Kentridge’s multifaceted work as a film director and set designer. The play, which grew out of the artist’s collaboration with the Junction Avenue Theatre Company, dramatizes the forced evacuation and demolition of Sophiatown, a neighborhood in Johannesburg and black cultural hub, in 1955–1959.
Kentridge’s early graphic work brings a South African perspective to bear on the history of Europe and the violence the continent unleashed. The exhibition gathers exemplary and key works on paper from South African collections. Mostly dating from before the end of Apartheid, they illustrate the artist’s deliberately anachronistic approach: scrutinizing events in South African history and the deformations of social life under Apartheid, he resorts to creative techniques from the early twentieth century.
Drawings for Projection and Drawing Lessons
In 1985, William Kentridge produced Vetkoek/Fête Galante, one of his earliest animated films. He subsequently devised a filmmaking technique he calls “poor man’s animation” involving photographs of charcoal drawings and collages. Among his works in this genre is the acclaimed film series titled Drawings for Projection (1989–). Recorded on a 35mm camera, the animated episodes feature two protagonists, Soho Eckstein and Felix Teitelbaum, whose traits suggest that they are on some level self-portraits of the artist. These characters as well as topographical similarities to Kentridge’s native Johannesburg make the films astute reflections on the ambivalent situation of today’s South Africa.
A more recent series of experimental films, Drawing Lessons (2009–), shows Kentridge in his studio. The short sequences illustrate how he approaches crucial creative questions with playful humor. The defining characteristic of most of the Drawing Lessons is the static camera trained on a section of the artist’s atelier.
In Praise of Folly (2018), the title of Drawing Lesson No. 50, which makes its debut in Basel, is borrowed from the satirical speech that Erasmus of Rotterdam penned in 1509, a biting critique of the Catholic Church. The humanist scholar is a major figure in the history of Basel, where he taught at the university and is buried. Sketches by the artist that can be made out in the background in the film quote Hans Holbein’s Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam, one of the most cherished treasures in the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel’s municipal art collection. The attentive viewer can also spot sketches after other well-known works in the Kunstmuseum’s collection, including by Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, and Matthias Grünewald, that grace the walls of Kentridge’s atelier like icons. In light of these works, In Praise of Folly addresses art history and the masters of the past as a source of creative inspiration for the artist working today.
The exhibition William Kentridge. A Poem That Is Not Our Own takes up three gallery floors at the Kunstmuseum Basel | Gegenwart as well as selected rooms in the museum’s Hauptbau and Neubau.