As South Africa’s most celebrated contemporary artist, William Kentridge’s prolific and multi-disciplinary artistic output is known around the world, ranging from animation and drawing to printmaking, performance and music. Often South African audiences see his work only after it has toured internationally, as for the recent opening of ‘Tapestries’ at the Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg. The tapestries, produced over more than two decades in collaboration with the Marguerite Stephens tapestry studio in South Africa, have been shown over the years in New York, Philadelphia and Naples, amongst others. They are extraordinary in scale and innovation, and employ a weaving technique developed in France. I sat down with Fiona Rankin Smith, Special Projects Curator, Wits Art Museum, to talk about her experiences of hosting, in her words, this “important and magnificent” exhibition.
CAN YOU COMMENT ON THE SOUTH AFRICAN RESPONSE TO THE EXHIBITION THUS FAR, AND WHETHER THIS HAS THROWN UP ANYTHING NEW VERSUS EARLIER INTERNATIONAL SHOWS?
The feedback we have received has been overwhelmingly ecstatic. Most visitors have remarked that it is the most impressive exhibition ever seen in South Africa - and a fantastic medium for his work - partly because of the scale of the images and partly because of how beautiful they look in the Wits Art Museum space.
ANY KENTRIDGE SHOWS ATTRACTS SIGNIFICANT ATTENTION. AS A CURATOR, DOES WORKING WITH SUCH A MAJOR NAME PRESENT ADDITIONAL CHALLENGES OR OPPERTUNITIES?
It has been a complete pleasure. William is so confident as an artist, and he loves our space. In fact, when we were developing and refurbishing the museum, I invited William to give us suggestions, so he has been aware for some time of the possibilities of how an exhibition could work.
A week before the opening of this show, he came to see the space with his trusted Belgian set designer. She immediately noticed how the roof of the central “box” space looked like the perfect stage. I jokingly said, “OK, tonight’s homework then is to make a few sculptures to sit on the roof”...and the next morning they were delivered! Seven of them! Overnight William specially made seven sculptures out of foam-core (a type of lightweight cardboard), three nights before the exhibition opened.
Interestingly, the sculptures become something completely different as a viewer walks around them, on the way up the ramp from the Core to the Mezzanine Gallery. This is the mark of a clearly gifted and brilliant artist.
THE TAPESTRIES, SOME OF WHICH MEASURE AS MUCH AS 4 METRES ACROSS, ARE AN INNOVATIVE COLLABORATION WITH SOUTH AFRICAN WEAVERS AT THE STEPHENS STUDIO; CAN YOU TELL US A BIT MORE ABOUT THE PROCESS AND ABOUT THE LABOUR AND IDENTITIES OF THE WEAVERS?
The exhibition foregrounds a number of aspects of the transformation process, starting with the raw unwoven skeins of mohair which the Swazi women dye and spin. A number of original “cartoons” are on view: Marguerite Stephens (the weaving designer and key collaborator) develops and blows these up to form the template of each tapestry. The weavers all understand her personal systems of code, which they then further interpret when making their individual stitches of colour across the tapestry grid.
SOME CRITICS HAVE COMMENTED THAT KENTRIDGE'S WORK IS "ALMOST ALWAYS BEST WHEN PRESENTED AT A REMOVE, IN TRASLATION OR IN MOTION" AND THAT IT "GAINS IMMEASURABLY WHEN FILTERED THROUGH A SECOND PROCESS, WHETHER PROVIDED BY WEAVER OR A VIDEO CAMERA". WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THIS ASSESSMENT?
The wall hangings are much larger than the original images, and use very different materials. A number of transformations occur in Kentridge’s collaborative processes, not only when working with the process of turning drawings into tapestries. The tapestries can be seen as a permanent projection or a portable mural that can be rolled up and carried. The transformation into the tapestry medium entails a slow accumulation of the image, through thousands of decisions about each pixel of colour. Each line of warp and weft requires a decision about which thread sits next to the one that came before it and which one follows it - to create the final tapestry.
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