William Kentridge (Johannesburg, 1955) is an artist who, in recent decades and at an international level, has coherently developed an artistic practice that joins political reflection with a poetic and aesthetic dimension, producing films, installations, drawings, sculptures, tapestries, performances and stage designs in which historical memory is combined with a multitude of references to music, literature and theater. Kentridge grew up in Johannesburg, where he studied art, and then moved to Paris, where he graduated from Jacques Lecoq’s mime school. While in Paris he also started working in the field of acting and theater directing. From the 1970s onwards, this combination between the stage arts and the visual arts would become a basic and distinct feature of his research. Despite his deep interest in different materials and languages, drawing is the point of departure in Kentridge’s work, as witnessed by the many animated videos, such as the ones in the series inaugurated in 1989 by the video Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris, in which the artist introduces Soho Eckstein and Felix Teitlebaum, two characters who would then recur throughout his production. In this series of animated films, the artist describes South Africa before and after Apartheid, staging the people’s suffering and the contradictions via the symbolic characters of Eckstein and Teitlebaum: while the former embodies the domination of a ruthless white society and Capitalism, the latter represents the guilt feelings of people who, like the artist himself, were critical yet powerless witnesses to the events.
Although the history of South Africa is the focus of many of the works Kentridge produced in the 1990s, his critical and poetic analysis of the dynamics of power transcends the specificity of his country’s events to become a broader tale of the universal dimensions of abuse and emancipation. Unsurprisingly, Kentridge’s drawing style recalls the satirical drawing style of Georg Grosz or the drawings that express the social criticism of William Hogarth, Francisco Goya and Honoré Daumier. Akin to the artist’s animated works – in which the art of drawing is joined with that of collage and the shadow puppet technique – the tapestry is also used as a palimpsest of various techniques, at the center of which is a dark silhouette surrounded by an abridged landscape.
The tapestries that were showcased for the first time at the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte in Naples in 2009, on the occasion of the exhibition Strade della città, are thematically linked to two previous series, Nose Tapestries and Porter Series, which the version in the collection comes from, and for which the artist was inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s short story The Nose and Miguel de Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote. In Kentridge’s tapestries the figures are often shaped like a nose and they are portrayed while traveling, symbolizing the quest for a “holy land” which they may never find, while the background to their imaginary journey is made up of the maps of Egypt, Palestine and Naples. This series of tapestries is thematically linked to Il cavaliere di Toledo (“The Knight of Toledo”), a statue created by the artist in 2012 for the Toledo Underground station in Naples, in which a tragicomic knight-nose revolutionizes the tradition of equestrian statues. The mosaics that Kentridge designed for the same underground station also hark back to the structure of the tapestries, in which various technique such as collage, silhouette and drawing are composed together, while city maps serve as a background to a story that is as local as it is universal, as intimate as it is collective.