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  • Progress, Progression, Procession: William Kentridge and the Narratology of Transitional Justice
  • Michael Rothberg (bio)

Living in the Interregnum

In 1990, the South African artist William Kentridge completed Arc/Procession: Develop, Catch Up, Even Surpass, a large drawing in charcoal and pastel created on eleven sheets of paper that together arch over an area of approximately 24.5 × 9 feet (Figure 1). Typically installed high on a gallery wall, the shape of the work recalls the triumphal arches of the Roman Empire. Indeed, Kentridge may have had in mind a famous instance of triumphalist architecture, the first-century Arch of Titus in Rome, which depicts the bearing away of the booty of imperial conquest, including a menorah and other spoils from the sack of Jerusalem. In an often-cited theorization of the link between “documents of civilization” and “documents of barbarism,” Walter Benjamin implicitly evokes the same scene when he writes of “the triumphal procession [Triumphzug] in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate” (256). Close in spirit to Benjamin’s reflections on history, Kentridge’s cryptic and decidedly non-triumphalist procession nonetheless involves not imperial booty, but rather the detritus of the dispossessed.

Most emblematically, on the far left-hand (or forward) side of Arc/Procession, the head and upper body of a hunched-over figure disappear beneath an indeterminate burden that includes cups and bowls, sacks and megaphones, all of which [End Page 1]

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Figure 1.

William Kentridge. Arc Procession: Develop, Catch Up, Even Surpass, 1990. Charcoal, pastel on paper. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York.

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seem to be lashed around his body. A hobbling, one-legged man follows close behind. The feet of these two figures are hemmed in by low-lying barbed wire as they move toward a scarred landscape rendered in miniaturized, non-perspectival space at the left-bottom corner of the drawing. Following them in the procession we find a dense space populated by miners, a sandwich-board man, and male and female figures gesturing with despair, or perhaps imprecation, toward the heavens, along with abandoned cans, ladders, more megaphones, and two hyenas. Just to the left of center, three showerheads rain blue water on the proceedings—the only color in the drawing other than small triangles of green in the tiny landscapes at either corner of the arch. Meanwhile, imperfectly erased sketches at various points of the arch create an effect of layering, as do several human figures rendered in dark shadow.

In reworking the Roman triumph, Arc/Procession gives visual form to Benjamin’s indictment of the violence embedded in progress narratives. Completed in the year in which the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of political organizations such as the African National Congress (ANC) and Communist Party officially inaugurated South Africa’s transition from apartheid to an eventual nonracial democracy, Kentridge’s drawing cites—in order to ironize and even violate—a series of tenets of the progressive narrative of nationalism in its classical and postcolonial variants. As critics frequently note, Kentridge has taken his subtitle, “Develop, Catch Up, Even Surpass”—incorporated into the drawing in neat, cursive hand—from the political vision of the modernizing Ethiopian leader, Emperor Haile Selassie (Cameron 47). Selassie, who titled his autobiography My Life and Ethiopia’s Progress, was an anticolonial hero and convener of the Organization of African Unity who believed that the country “must make progress slowly” (qtd. in Whitman). At the same time, he sought to incorporate aspects of European modernity while holding on to traditional forms of hierarchical authority, a double-game that ultimately failed and eventuated in his replacement by a military dictatorship in 1974.1 The production of Arc/Procession in the midst of a massive civil rights struggle may also contain an echo of Martin Luther King’s oft-repeated phrase, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice”—a phrase that continues to circulate in proximity to political change.2 Yet, even as its title suggests an ambitious narrative of historical progress, the work’s formal features complicate and undercut the progression at stake...


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