Collections and research

Absolute Installation

William Kentridge

The South African artist William Kentridge is best known for his drawings and animated films.

© William Kentridge, History of the Main Complaint, 1996, videoprojection, 5:38 min Felix in Exile, 1994, videoprojection, 9:00 min

In 1989 he made the animated film Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris, which was the first of a series titled “Drawings for Projection”. The films reflected South Africa’s pre-democratic history through the character of the industrial magnate Soho Eckstein and his alter-ego Felix Teitlebaum. The works in the National Museum’s collection, Felix in Exile (1994) and History of the Main Complaint (1996) are installments in this chronicle.

At the beginning of the film Felix in Exile we see an African woman sitting and drawing a desolate industrial landscape which probably represents Witwatersrand outside Johannesburg. The woman’s name is Nandi, and through her drawings Felix, who is in a locked room, gets a glimpse of the world outside. Nandi’s drawings are in a suitcase. The sheets of paper float gradually out of the suitcase and become a connecting link between several scenes. In some of the scene changes we see bleeding and dying victims of the apartheid regime. The work was made in the same year that apartheid officially ended. Two years later South Africa established the “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission” – public hearings that would focus on the victims’ experiences. This same year Kentridge produced his film History of the Main Complaint. It portrays Soho Eckstein who, during a hospital stay, reflects on the history of South Africa and seemingly acknowledges each and everyone’s responsibility for what occurred under the apartheid regime.

Kentridge’s expressive, fuzzy charcoal line creates a poetic atmosphere in these films. They are made by combining a minimal number of drawings which are then constantly altered. By erasing out one movement and drawing the next on the same sheet, there always remains a trace of what was there before. This is strongly symbolic of South Africa’s history – one can begin anew and write new histories, but the traces of a bloody past will remain.

William Kentridge was born in 1954 in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he also lives and works.

Ahnikee Østreng