William Kentridge: Tapestries (December 12, 2007–April 6, 2008)
In 2006, the Philadelphia Museum of Art acquired Office Love, a tapestry by William Kentridge, whose work encompassing drawing, video, sculpture and theater, has made him one of the strongest artistic voices to emerge in post-apartheid South Africa. On view from December 12, 2007 through April 6, 2008, William Kentridge: Tapestries showcases a group of tapestries from a series conceived by Kentridge and executed under his artistic direction between 2001 and 2007. Additional works in a variety of media will also contribute to offer a rich context for the imposing Office Love (2001), which is more than 11 feet high and 15 feet wide. These include etchings, bronze sculptures and an artist’s book that reflect the development of Kentridge’s characters as well as ten drawings that served as inspiration for his tapestries. Organized by the Museum’s curator of contemporary art, Carlos Basualdo, and including loans from collections in Europe, South Africa, and the United States, the exhibition will be part of the Museum’s ongoing Notations series in the Gisela and Dennis Alter Gallery, 176 and Gallery 172, and will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue.
Kentridge’s status as the author of one of the most distinctive bodies of work in contemporary art is sustained by his incisive and piercing critique of the South African context matched with a commitment to understanding and illuminating its cultural and political situation. Born in 1955 in Johannesburg, where he still resides, Kentridge’s education focused on politics, African studies and fine art. Early in his career he worked with a theater and puppet company as an actor, writer, and stage designer. Kentridge found international acclaim after his participation in both Johannesburg biennials, in 1995 and 1997, which afforded him an international platform for his work that, while remaining local in focus, has a clear global resonance.
Throughout his career, Kentridge has experimented with a variety of media to reflect on his experience as an activist, artist and observer as his country transitioned to a post-apartheid society. The works in the exhibition are united by Kentridge’s continued invocation of characters and motifs that recurrently employ shadows across the mediums of drawing, etching, sculpture and tapestry. Kentridge’s use of shadows can be traced to his multiple experiments with projecting light onto combinations of mundane objects, producing shadows of hybrid forms both playful and macabre. The exhibition features drawings and sculptures whose characters derive from his first shadow-based works—the film Shadow Procession of 1999, and theater productions Zeno at 4 a.m. and Confessions of Zeno of 2000. Soon after these endeavors, Kentridge became interested in endowing shadows with material presence, resulting in a number of bronze sculptures such as those to be featured in the exhibition. The theme continues in Kentridge’s 2000 book Portage, also on view, in which the figures walk the pages of an encyclopedia from 1906, as if to challenge the very structure of knowledge, and the ways in which it is disseminated.
The exhibition will also feature Kentridge’s Puppet Drawings of 2000 that ultimately became templates for his tapestries. The Puppet Drawings are collages of black, torn construction paper figures on a set of maps ripped from a 19th-century European atlas, as well as on a single map of Johannesburg. As the figures are laid atop these maps of multiple countries, their context thrusts them into character: they become refugees, migrants, and movers of possessions and burdens they carry as they make their way literally all over the world.
To transfer images from his drawings into tapestries, Kentridge photographed the drawings to map out cartoons that a team of weavers at the Stephens Tapestry Studio in Johannesburg followed with exacting detail. Established in 1963 in Swaziland by Marguerite Stephens initially as a carpet and curtain weaving business, Stephens Tapestry Studio moved to Johannesburg in 1965, focusing its mission on weaving as an artistic medium. Kentridge has been intimately involved in each step in the process of producing the tapestries—from making the meticulous cartoons to selecting the dyes to use on the South African mohair with which the tapestries are made. Using a vertical loom, the weavers crafted the tapestries to support the integrity of this locally spun material.
“Kentridge first thought of his tapestries as ‘permanent projections,’” said Carlos Basualdo, the Museum’s Curator of Contemporary Art. “While they evoke the moving image, his tapestries also illuminate the centrality of drawing in his practice, and his interest in using the language of a medium to talk about another medium, while at the same time dealing with the place of people in the context of societies in a state of transition.” Juxtaposing beauty and struggle, Kentridge expresses ambivalence about the state of South Africa and the world at large.
William Kentridge: Tapestries will be accompanied by a 100-page catalogue co-published by the Museum and Yale University Press. It will be a sourcebook on Kentridge’s work in the medium, exploring its relationship to the artist’s practice in other media, underscoring the centrality of drawing in his oeuvre and illuminating the connection between the tapestries and the South African geography and history. It is the first publication to focus in depth on this facet of his wide-ranging oeuvre. High-quality reproductions of the tapestries, photographic documentation of the weaving process, and images of the related drawings and sculptures will provide a precise account of Kentridge’s tapestries and the issues they address. The catalogue will include an introductory essay by Carlos Basualdo and texts by the South African writer and critic Ivan Vladislavić, the Italian art critic Gabriele Guercio, and Okwui Enwezor, a leading scholar on African art who is Dean of Academic Affairs and Senior Vice President at San Francisco Art Institute. The catalogue will be available in the Museum Store or online.
About William Kentridge
William Kentridge has had numerous solo exhibitions at venues such as at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Gallery of Modern Art in London, The Metropolitan Museum in New York, Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C., and the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels. In 2004-2005, a retrospective toured to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, K20/21 in Düsseldorf, Castello di Rivoli, Museo d’Art Contemporanea in Turin, Italy, Johannesburg Art Gallery in South Africa, and the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal in Canada. Kentridge was represented in Documenta11 and the 1999 Venice Biennale. In 2001, Kentridge’s Shadow Procession film was screened in Times Square in New York City in conjunction with Creative Time on the NBC Astrovision Panasonic screen. Kentridge's most recent theatrical work is his reinterpretation and artistic direction of Mozart's opera, The Magic Flute, which has been performed in Europe, Israel, and New York at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and will be presented in Johannesburg later this year.