William Kentridge’s Charcoal Drawings Animate Africa’s History of Colonial Resistance

Ayanna Dozier
Nov 25, 2022 5:05PM

Portrait of William Kentridge by Norbert Miguletz, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and The Broad, Los Angeles.

For decades, South African artist William Kentridge has used his innovative drawing practice to unearth overlooked 20th- and 21st-century histories of African resistance to colonial regimes. Though he makes his drawings—which evoke the graphic style of German Expressionism—quite simply, by rubbing charcoal against printed text or strips of paper, these serve as the basis for Kentridge’s expansive work throughout film, theater, and multimedia. The artist remains committed to making work that grapples with apartheid, colonialism’s violent legacies, and forgotten narratives—all of which continue to haunt his home country.

Kentridge’s sociopolitical interests began with his father, who was a human rights lawyer in apartheid-era South Africa. The artist later received a degree from the École Jacques LeCoq in Paris, where he began developing his signature techniques for theater and animation. The Johannesburg-born and -based artist is now enjoying a significant amount of attention across the United States and the United Kingdom, where he’s the subject of three stellar retrospectives across the countries.

Installation view of “William Kentridge: In Praise of Shadows” exhibition at The Broad, Los Angeles, 2022-23. Photo by Joshua White/JWPictures. Courtesy of The Broad.


Over the summer, “William Kentridge: See for Yourself” opened at the Warehouse Art Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The show features a selection of the artist’s multimedia and interactive works, and is on view through December 16th. In September, “William Kentridge” opened at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, featuring new, large-scale charcoal tapestries and the three-channel media piece Notes Toward a Model Opera (2015). Finally, on November 9th, Kentridge’s 35-year retrospective of his drawings and select films, entitled “William Kentridge: In Praise of Shadows,” opened at The Broad in Los Angeles, on view through April 9, 2023.

“Essentially my practice is one of drawing. For the last 30 years, some of those drawings have been films,” Kentridge recently told Artsy. The artist notes that this drawing practice extends across dimensions: two dimensions for his prints, three dimensions for his films, and four dimensions for his expanded cinema live-performance pieces, which feature large-scale, projected animations and a chorus of musicians and dancers who interact with them by performing in front of the screen. Despite the intricacies, drawing is at the core of all this work. The “principle of making the drawing is the principle of discovering what the drawing is,” he said.

Installation view of William Kentridge, The Refusal of Time, 2012 in “William Kentridge: In Praise of Shadows” exhibition at The Broad, Los Angeles, 2022-23. © William Kentridge. Photo by Joshua White/JWPictures. Courtesy of The Broad.

Speaking about his materials, Kentridge noted that he prefers charcoal because of its malleability. “It’s a good medium for someone who is anxious about commitment and who needs a sense of provisionality,” he said. It’s also appropriate thematically: “It’s a good medium for someone who is interested in seeing the world as a moment in process rather than a fixed fact,” he added.

The artist believes that the simplicity of drawing allows audiences to examine the work without having to do much interpretation. “I would like the audience to be open to that, to see the simplicity of making and to also have the sensation of watching themselves see a film,” he said. Kentridge’s easily accessible material, as well as his knack for revisiting the same characters across time, have added to his mass appeal.

Installation view of William Kentridge, Other Faces, 2011 in “William Kentridge: In Praise of Shadows” exhibition at The Broad, Los Angeles, 2022-23. © William Kentridge. Photo by Joshua White/JWPictures. Courtesy of The Broad.

Kentridge began transforming his drawings into film animations in the 1970s, eventually embarking on his decade-spanning “Drawing for Projection” series (1989–present). Along the way, he honed his now signature style of mixing invented narrative and with historical fact. To make each new work in the series, the artist uses a 35mm film camera to capture his drawings, which he projects onto a wall and gradually alters via erasure and overdrawing. Each frame features a slight amendment to the previous drawing. One film from the series, Other Faces from 2011, is on view at The Broad, alongside several drawings from the series, where the animation stills (drawings) are on view with the film.

In that film, Kentridge focuses on the life of industrialist and developer Soho Eckstein, a fictional character whom the artist created and has used in his work since 1989. Eckstein fights an internal and external battle between love or capital, which plays out against the backdrop of the harsh labor conditions at Johannesburg’s mines.

William Kentridge, drawing for the film Other Faces, 2011. © William Kentridge. Courtesy of The Broad Art Foundation, Los Angeles.

Across most of the “Drawing for Projection” series, Eckstein’s story features both the reality of these mines and the contrasting tenderness of Eckstein’s relationship with his poet lover Felix Teitlebaum (a stand-in for Kentridge himself). The Soho Eckstein life cycle is what catapulted Kentridge to international acclaim in the art world: In 1993, he exhibited at the 45th Venice Biennale.

Over the past two decades, Kentridge’s work with interactive media and theater has become more pronounced. As in his drawings and films, he casts himself as a performer alongside a host of other dancers, singers, and musicians. For these theatrical pieces, Kentridge uses his animations as interactive backdrops that bleed out of the frame and disappear between screens.

His moving theatrical piece The Head and Load (2020) eulogized the 1 million Africans who died during World War I. Global audiences—and history proper—have not memorialized their names; Kentridge rectifies this by inventing a list of names that appear projected, one by one, onto a screen where they then overlap. “It’s filling in the gap as if those names were recorded,” he explained. “It’s understanding history as collage. All history is fragmented. But then these histories become simplified into a grand narrative, in a studio you can make those fragments evident.”

Production still of William Kentridge Houseboy, 2021. Photo Zivanai Matangi. © William Kentridge. Courtesy The Centre for the Less Good Idea and William Kentridge Studio

The artist has worked with a robust set of collaborators, including composer Philip Miller, who has worked with him for over 30 years. Kentridge describes his approach to collaboration as that of a weaver working on a tapestry: He sees which threads can be resolved alone before he reaches out to those who can best complete the weaving. It is less about needing a “hired hand” than about participating in a mutually beneficial process, helping his collaborators find “the language for the next piece of theater they are working on,” Kentridge said.

Throughout Kentridge’s work, history becomes a series of simple film frames that have omitted marginalized struggles; it’s the artist’s job to bring these back into public focus. “It’s not about truth to fact, it’s about these fragments of truth of what happened [that] can illuminate in strange ways many different things,” Kentridge said. “I suppose I want audiences [to look] with a lack of fear.” And to realize that “the viewing is always impure, it is made impure by everything that exists inside each person’s biography as they look at it.”

Ayanna Dozier
Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s Staff Writer.