In post-apartheid South Africa, Truth and Reconciliation became the ruling ethic of the new, black majority government. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and other black leaders shunned violent retribution against a regime that had institutionalized racism. Instead, black leaders embraced a healing confrontation with their now powerless white oppressors, documenting past horrors so that all South Africans could make peace with the past and live more freely from its shadow.
Born in 1950s Johannesburg to a well-to-do Jewish family, William Kentridge would become a preeminent moral light too. But Kentridge is an artist and an animator, not a politician. He wields humble tools of surprising wit and power: charcoal, erasers, cut paper and light, beamed from projectors in black-and-white flickers.
Kentridge is best known for his sensuous charcoal drawings and erasures, which are brought to life using the antique technique of stop-motion animation. His best work, concerned with South African history, is poetic rather than documentary.
Recently I attended a lecture by Kentridge in Baltimore. He showed some sketches for an in-progress collaborative animation project with the Metropolitan Opera of New York. Theater seems an appropriate venue for the grand societal themes found in Kentridge's subtle and witty animations, and he has already produced a piece based off Mozart's Magic Flute.
This new project is based off a Shostakovich opera about The Nose, a satirical short story by the Ukrainian writer Gogol. The opera comes from an ominous era just after the Russian Revolution as Stalin ascended to power. To strike the right visual tenor in his sketches and clips for the final animation, which shows a galloping horse of cut paper and an eponymous nose walking about, Kentridge researches his work with a scholar's zeal. He appropriates stylistic elements and artifacts from Russian culture of the time. Also, he overlays the eerie radio cacophony of Stalin, downloaded from YouTube, which he calls a digital sketchpad for animation.
An audience member asked how his research differed from a scholar's research, or presumably the kind of enlightening fact finding that took place in South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation era. Kentridge replied that artists use evidence as a raw material not for an essay, but for a fiction that is nonetheless true in essence. He calls the willingness of an audience to accept a work of art as "real" an act of generosity. From the land hallowed by Truth and Reconciliation, Kentridge says that artists seek a "physical reconciliation with the world," which is stronger and more lasting than the particular context in which the raw materials once existed.