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Fact Check: William Kentridge at the Royal Academy – Tom Price, Kingston Grammar

By Steve Heldon

During Black History Month, I visited the Royal Academy of Arts’ major Autumn exhibition, a presentation of works by William Kentridge.  Born in Johannesburg, South Africa in April 1955, his work has largely documented the history of his home country and the shift from an apartheid to a post-apartheid society. 


With a career spanning over 40 years (his first solo exhibition in Johannesburg was in 1979), he remains one of South Africa’s most prominent artists. This multi-disciplinary experience featuring drawings, puppets, sculptures, tapestries, and film represents the biggest exhibition of the artists’ work in the UK.


Many of Kentridge’s pieces focus on the plight of the powerless and oppressed in South Africa during his years growing up in Johannesburg.  The Great Depression and World War II drove South Africa into a period of economic difficulty and after the Afrikaner National Party won the general election in 1948, its all-white government began enforcing laws of racial segregation.  Under apartheid, which became law in 1950, non-white South Africans (most of the population) were forced to live in separate areas and use separate facilities from the white South Africans. 


Resistance to apartheid was continuous during the years that followed, slowly increasing in form from non-violent demonstrations through to armed resistance.  Many resistance leaders were sentenced to long prison terms or executed.  The most notable of these being Nelson Mandela who was imprisoned for almost 30 years and whose story drew significant international attention to South Africa.  This in turn, lead to the UK and US imposing economic sanctions on the country.  Mandela was finally released in 1990, and in 1991 the government of President F.W de Klerk started to repeal the apartheid legislation which had been in effect for just under 50 years.


Many of the pieces were at times, slightly uncomfortable to view, but tell an important story across an extensive array of mediums. The short, animated films feature a recurring character, Soho Eckstein.  A rich, South African property tycoon and his attitude to his downtrodden black workers.  The films are a transformation of Kentridge’s drawings whereby he will draw and photograph the version, erase, then rework the same piece and photograph again.  The photographs are then built up into film scenes which when set – in the dark – against a mix of orchestral and Zulu music, create a profoundly immersive experience.


His large, bold charcoal drawings are distinctive in style, frequently characterised by a touch of red or blue pastel markings and seen in his early work; a series of gruesome charcoal triptychs (a picture made up of three sections), depicting hyenas – associated in South Africa with evil, dark spirits – in place of government officials.  Visually, my favourite works were the large-scale drawings of flowers and trees.  Drawn on many sheets of paper (often old Chinese books) and tessellated together to form a huge collage.  If an error is made, a new page is simply placed over the top to form a new petal or leaf, which breathes 3D life into the painting.


There were some lighter pieces within the exhibition.  I enjoyed the humorous short film Drawing Lessons where Kentridge interviews a second version of himself, interrogating him on the quality of his own drawings.  Representing your inner self stepping back from something, critiquing, and giving yourself new instructions.


The exhibition can be found in the Main Galleries, Burlington House, Royal Academy of Arts until 11 December 2022.


For further details and book tickets see:



Source: Healthy Duck.