William Kentridge, ‘Sleeper (Black)’, 1997, Joanna Bryant & Julian Page
William Kentridge, ‘Sleeper (Black)’, 1997, Joanna Bryant & Julian Page
William Kentridge, ‘Sleeper (Black)’, 1997, Joanna Bryant & Julian Page

Sleeper (Black), 1997
Etching, aquatint and drypoint, from two copper plates, on Velin d'Arches Blanc
300gsm paper
97 x 193
Edition of 50, only 20 of numbered edition completed
Printed by Jack Sheriff and Andrew Smith, 107 Workshop

One of Kentridge's fundamental themes is the desire to forget, or to remain oblivious to, difficult and unpleasant aspects of reality and history. More specifically, his films depict the struggle of the white South African psyche with its conscience over the exploitation and abuse of the African land and people, during the period in which the system of apartheid was first challenged and then dismantled. Characters in his films are locked into a state of denial in which preoccupation with personal relationships (such as love affairs) provides a means to ignore the increasingly loud and insistent calls for political change. Sleeping, in Kentridge's work, is a metaphor for a state of blissful ignorance, a return to the internal world of the imagination, which conveniently allows the external world to be forgotten. However, the sleeper must always wake up, at some point, and this moment of awakening and recognition is continually approached in Kentridge's films. It is usually an experience of painful but fertile self-knowlege, in which various types of loss bring the films' Western protagonists to an increased connection to their African landscape and heritage and to their own humanity.

The Sleeper prints were informed by an earlier set of etchings called Ubu Tells the Truth, as well as the theatre production Ubu & the Truth Commission. In these related projects, Kentridge resituates the protagonist of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi (1896) – a satirical play about power, greed, and bourgeoisie complacency – in a South African context.

Two significant themes run through the works. The first is the disjunctive selves and desires that constitute a single person, a preoccupation that also underpins the Soho/Eckstein dichotomy in Kentridge's film works. Ubu is represented as both a starkly delineated cartoon figure and as a naked man, modelled on the artist, who is ensnared in the former's outline. The most direct antecedent for Sleeper Red is the etchingAct IV scene I of Ubu Tells the Truth, a profile view of a slumbering man who cradles his head in one arm.

In developing the etchings, Kentridge used source photographs of himself acting the role of Ubu in various postures, including sleeping. Sleeping becomes a metaphor for oblivion; an analogue of the desire to blot out or escape the disagreeable or dissonant elements of past and present, of one's very self. Memory always leaves its marks, however, and in Sleeper Red, these are embedded in the surface of the plate.

Kentridge describes how he placed various objects in the soft-ground prior to etching the plate in order both to flesh out the sleeper's form with a sense of texture, and to invoke the traces of history that haunt the present. With such large works, he explains, "one has to pull shape and texture into [it]". The surface of the print, which bears the artist's image, also literally bears the imprint of his hand in the fingerprints dispersed across the picture plane.

About William Kentridge

In his drawings and animations, William Kentridge articulates the concerns of post-Apartheid South Africa with unparalleled nuance and lyricism. In the inventive process by which he created his best-known works, Kentridge draws and erases with charcoal, recording his compositions at each state. He then displays a video projection of the looped images alongside their highly worked and re-worked source drawings. In this way, his process and aesthetic concerns are inextricably linked with the narrative power of his work, as in his “Nine Drawings for Projection” series (1989-2003), which depicts two fictional white South Africans navigating the ambiguities of contemporary South Africa. With his highly personal and often quiet works in seeming tension with the brutality of his content, Kentridge expresses a profound ambivalence about his native country.

South African, b. 1955, Johannesburg, South Africa