- William Kentridge: Process as Metaphor & Other Doubtful Enterprises by Leora Maltz-Leca, and: Awakenings: The Art of Lionel Davis ed. by Mario Pissarra
by Leora Maltz-Leca
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018. 400 pp., 237 color ill., notes. US$49.95, UK£40.00, hardcover
edited by Mario Pissarra
Cape Town, SA: Africa South Art Initiative, 2017. 224 pp., 169 color ill., 12 b/w ill., selected biblio. R495, paperback
The German philosopher Günter Grass once referred to literature as “a kind of stopgap, stepping in when necessary to give people without a voice the chance to speak” (Bourdieu and Grass 2002: 69). Historians, he argued, were limited in what they could say about the past; fiction could often present truer and more multidimensional representations of history than nonfiction, which was warped by the biases and silences of the documentary record. This seeming paradox been noted with great urgency in South Africa where, since the end of apartheid in 1994, fierce debates have taken place both within and outside the academy on the role of history and the limitations of the (post)colonial archive. Art—visual and dramatic as well as literary—would seem to provide the way out of a discursive morass where, as writers like Njabulo Ndebele and Jacob Dlamini have lamented, contemporary politics served as the single yardstick against which all productions were to be judged. At its worst, this view, which was common enough in the 1970s and 1980s, tarred all but the most demonstrative and ideological works as decadent, leaving little space for the complex lives of Grass’s voiceless people.
Cultural studies that approach art through such a narrow and instrumental lens can actually do violence to the works they seek to interrogate. Paintings and novels alike contain worlds of meaning within themselves; reductive analyses inevitably reveal more about the prejudices of the writer than the subject at hand. The issue might best be understood as a problem of medium, not unlike the reductive enterprise of mapping: flattening curves and concealing distortions in an attempt to impose scholarly narrative on a painting, sculpture, or piece of music that actively defies narrative conventions.
Two recently published volumes on the work of William Kentridge and Lionel Davis respectively take on this challenge and, in doing so, contribute significantly to the historiography of art in South Africa. Though neither work is a biography, both demonstrate the value of locating individual artists’ works within a richly nuanced understanding of their contexts—the process of their production at both the micro and macro levels, both inside and outside the studio. While each book has its own idiosyncrasies, they speak powerfully to Africanist scholars concerned with history, memory, and the place of art between fact and fiction, truth and fantasy. For the authors of both volumes, art acts as far more than grist for the academic mill: it can profoundly reshape our understanding of history and its methodology. By examining art, artist, and process at a granular level, they succeed in a formidable task: producing the kind of rich and multidimensional analyses that their subjects, as two of the most celebrated artists South Africa has ever produced, plainly demand.
William Kentridge is probably the most famous South African visual artist on the world stage today, and with good reason. Since the 1970s, keen to make a name for himself independent of his parents—both prominent civil rights lawyers who defended Nelson Mandela and others from the predations of the apartheid state—Kentridge is best known for films such as Felix in Exile (1994) and Ubu and the Truth Commission (1997) that feature distinctive animations in charcoal. However, as art historian Leora Maltz-Leca attests in her ambitious study William Kentridge: Process as Metaphor and Other Doubtful Enterprises, Kentridge has experimented over the decades with a multitude of different techniques and media. Although Kentridge was certainly a vocal critic of apartheid—a constant theme of his work—Maltz-Leca’s text is timely and sophisticated in positioning Kentridge as both a South African artist par excellence and a global...