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In 2006, the Philadelphia Museum of Art acquired Office Love (2001), a large tapestry by the South African artist William Kentridge (born 1955), whose work encompassing drawing, video, sculpture and theater, has made him one of the most eloquent artistic voices to emerge in South Africa after the fall of apartheid. William Kentridge: Tapestries (December 12, 2007-April 6, 2008) showcases 11 large-scale tapestries from a series conceived by and executed under Kentridge’s artistic direction between 2001 and 2007. On loan from public and private collections in Europe, South Africa, and the United States, the tapestries and 23 additional works—etchings, bronze sculptures, drawings, and an artist’s book—will offer a rich context for the Museum’s Office Love, which is more than 11 feet high and 15 feet wide and is the largest of the tapestries on view. The exhibition reflects the development of Kentridge’s iconic images of a porter and the processional characters that represent the transitional conditions that have plagued South Africa in the aftershocks of the apartheid regime since the mid-1990s. The exhibition is the fourth and most ambitious of the Museum’s ongoing Notations series, and it will occupy the Gisela and Dennis Alter Gallery (176) and adjacent galleries 172 and 173. It will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Museum will present a series of discussions and readings that amplify the context of Kentridge’s practice by exploring themes of landscape, literature, and South African history. As part of Art and Social Transformation, a new program devoted to social and political dimensions of art-making, these events include a conversation between Kentridge and poet Susan Stewart (December 12, 6:30 p.m., with an exhibition preview from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.) and readings by two South African authors, novelist Zakes Mda (February 8, 6 p.m.) and catalogue contributor Ivan Vladislavić (March 14, 6 p.m.).
Kentridge’s work is sustained by his incisive critique of the South Africa’s recent history and his commitment to illuminating the consequences of the apartheid system that imposed segregation on its nonwhite citizens. Kentridge’s porter characters, processional motifs and dramatic use of shadows appear throughout his drawings, etchings, sculptures and tapestries. Silhouetted so that porter and parcel become one, these hybrid forms are both playful and macabre, and stem from Kentridge’s multiple experiments with projecting light onto mundane objects in the 1990s. The exhibition includes drawings and sculptures whose characters derive from his earlier film and theater projects in which Kentridge began to endow shadows with material presence. The theme continues in Kentridge’s 2000 book Portage, also on view, in which figures appear to walk across the open pages of a 1906 encyclopedia.
The exhibition features 11 of Kentridge’s Puppet Drawings of 2000 that were the point of departure for the tapestries on view. To create them, Kentridge collaged pieces of ripped black construction paper to assemble figures on pages taken from a 19th-century French world atlas and, in one case, an 1890 map outlining the projected city plan for Johannesburg. Setting the stage with these maps, Kentridge thrusts his heavily burdened figures into character as refugees or migrants.
To transfer images from drawings into tapestries, Kentridge worked in close collaboration with the Stephens Tapestry Studio. Established in 1963 in Swaziland initially as part of a carpet and curtain weaving business, the studio moved two years later to Diepsloot, a suburb Johannesburg, where it began to focus on weaving as an artistic medium. The Puppet Drawings were photographed and enlarged, and from the photographic template Marguerite Stephens drew cartoons the size of the tapestries. Using hand-carded mohair weft that had been spun and dyed in Swaziland, studio weavers worked on a vertical loom. Kentridge was intimately involved in producing the tapestries—from mapping out imagery for the meticulous cartoons to selecting the dyes to use on the mohair.
“Kentridge initially thought of his tapestries as ‘permanent projections,’” said Carlos Basualdo, the Museum’s Curator of Contemporary Art, who organized the exhibition and oversees the Notations installations. “While they evoke the moving image, his tapestries also illuminate the centrality of drawing in his practice. He uses the language of one medium to talk about another medium, while at the same time dealing with societies that are themselves in a state of transition.” Kentridge’s motifs evoke daily existence in the face of adversity, speaking both to South Africa specifically and to the world at large.Catalogue
William Kentridge: Tapestries is accompanied by a catalogue co-published by the Museum and Yale University Press (118 p.). A sourcebook on Kentridge’s work in the medium, it explores the artist’s tapestries in relation to his work in other media and the connection between the tapestries and South African literature. It is the first publication to focus in depth on this relatively new facet of his wide-ranging oeuvre. The catalogue includes over 120 high-quality color reproductions, among them images of the related drawings and sculptures and documentation of the weaving process. It contains essays by Carlos Basualdo, 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. It will be available for purchase online in the Museum Store at www.philamuseum.org or by calling 800 329-4856 ($35.00).About William Kentridge
Born in 1955 in Johannesburg, where he still resides, Kentridge’s studied at the University of Witwatersrand, and started to work in art during a residency at the Johannesburg Art Foundation in the early 1970s. Early in his career he worked with a theater and puppet company as an actor, writer, and stage designer. Kentridge’s reputation gained momentum in the early 1990’s, and his participation in the Johannesburg Biennials of 1995 and 1997 afforded him an international platform for his work that, while remaining local in focus, has a clear global resonance. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, co-organized a survey exhibition that also traveled to Washington, D.C., Houston, Los Angeles, and Cape Town from 2001 to 2003. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York showcased Kentridge’s work in 2002. 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 Documenta X, 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. His staging of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute played to audiences in Brussels, Tel Aviv, Naples, New York, and Johannesburg in 2007. Kentridge is represented internationally by Marian Goodman Gallery in New York, Lia Rumma Gallery in Naples and Milan, and Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.