- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 3, 2001

Processions of emaciated workers demanding better wages march across a desiccated landscape. Some of the heads turn into skulls.

A black woman and white man stare at each other through a mirror. A grasping businessman oversees reams of ticker tape that spew like the tentacles of an octopus from a machine.

This is the world of William Kentridge, 45, a white South African, showing his animated films, charcoal drawings, prints, film installations and videos of theater works at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The retrospective is the first in the United States for the internationally acclaimed artist.

Destruction of land and people, unspeakable desolation of flesh and spirit, European-descended white guilt and the slipperiness and ambiguity of memory are the stuff of his art.

Experiencing Mr. Kentridge's work can be grueling. It expresses human suffering in often unbearable ways. It is violent and horrifying, although sometimes a little humor sneaks in.

Specifically, it's about apartheid — which means "apartness," in South Africa of whites and nonwhites. It deals with the ravages of apartheid from its inception there in 1948 until its demise in 1990.

Mr. Kentridge's experience in drama — he studied mime and drama in Paris and later performed and produced scripts and sets for small theater groups — intensifies these composite theater, opera, film and video productions. All are structured from his fluid, powerful drawings.

The eight "Drawings for Projection" films, animations that grew from the drawings, tell the stories of fictional industrialist Soho Eckstein and artist Felix Teitlebaum. The two white men are alter egos and surrogates for Mr. Kentridge. They symbolize the complementary and conflicting impulses that reside in everyone and deserve both judgment and sympathy.

The artist portrays the pair cumulatively. He shows the disparity of their lives as they move through the disjointed society surrounding them.

In "Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris," Mr. Kentridge's first animation, the beefy industrialist Eckstein is shown in a pinstriped suit. He derives from both George Grosz's cigar-puffing Weimar Republic bourgeoisie and Mr. Kentridge's paternal grandfather.

As a boy, the artist had made a linocut of his grandfather from an old family photograph. It showed the grandfather, a Labor Party politician, in a three-piece, pinstriped suit sitting on a beach. The suit became Eckstein's signature apparel for the office, lying in bed, MRI tests and death.

The artist traces the evolution of the industrialist in his first four "Drawings for Projection" films: "Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris" (1989), "Monument" (1990), "Mine" (1991) and "Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old (1991)."

Neal Benezra, deputy director and curator of modern and contemporary art at the Art Institute of Chicago and one of the show's curators, believes Eckstein expresses an important aspect of contemporary South Africa. Eckstein symbolizes a "complex combination of economic power, personal ruthlessness, and guilt-laden memory," Mr. Benezra writes in the exhibition catalog.

Eckstein goes on to build his rule of money and even becomes a community patron. He commissions a public sculpture of a slave in "Monument," a condensed film of three minutes.

The statue shows an immobile black laborer with shackled feet who carries a heavy load. Then the statue moves and becomes "alive." The slave lifts his head, opens his eyes and directs a level stare and labored breathing directly at the audience.

Mr. Kentridge uses his own face and body for the artist Felix Teitlebaum. Always nude and thoughtful, Teitlebaum is a passive observer — except when he makes love to Eckstein's wife.

The early films concentrate on the struggle of the two men for Mrs. Eckstein. The later ones center less on their hostilities than on the South African landscape. Its decimation symbolizes the torn nation for Mr. Kentridge.

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Life held no escape from the reality of South Africa as the artist grew up. Anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela was arrested in 1956 and 1962. Black workers struck nationwide in 1973, the same year the artist enrolled in the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Black trade unions were legalized with the right to strike in 1979, the same year Mr. Kentridge had his first solo exhibit.

Violence continued. In 1984, black miners rioted over the amount of wage increases. At the time, the artist worked as an art director for television series and feature films in Johannesburg. Government leader F.W. de Klerk met with the imprisoned Mr. Mandela to discuss the future of South Africa, and Mr. Kentridge completed the film "Johannesburg" in 1989.

In 1990 Mr. de Klerk instituted radical reforms, freed Mr. Mandela and paved the way for the artist to finish the "Drawings for Projection."

Mr. Kentridge saw photographs of a massacre of blacks when he was 6 years old. The photos were on the desk of his father who, as an anti-apartheid lawyer, had counseled the families of the victims.

Both his parents were activist lawyers. The artist is a third-generation South African, with Jewish roots in Lithuania.

Mr. Kentridge's conflicted feelings about his home city and South Africa appear in "Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris." The animation's main drawing shows a nude Felix, with back to us, facing a "Captive of the City" billboard.

The catalog quotes Mr. Kentridge as calling Johannesburg "a desperate provincial city from which I've never been able to escape." He lives there with his wife, Anne, a physician, and their three children.

He shows the city as the catalyst for the destruction of the landscape and people near it. Its barren dryness seems to suck up those stranded on the veld, or grassland. The artist shows the veld of the East Rand, an area near Johannesburg of mining and manufacturing but now abandoned.

A new character called "Nandi" appears in Mr. Kentridge's "Felix in Exile." The artist made the film in 1994 just before South Africa's first democratic elections and the final end of apartheid.

A black woman, Nandi examines the land's topography to assess its present state as well as its history. She surveys both the Earth and heavens.

Nandi also confronts Felix, who sees himself shaving in a mirror. But the image dissolves into Nandi staring at him. The picture dissolves still further into a drawing of the nude Felix standing in a pool of water.

Mr. Kentridge focused on theatrical multimedia works in the late 1990s with animated drawings projected onto the stage. His "Shadow Procession" is an energetic dance of stylized figures, a decided contrast to his earlier "Procession" of underfed workers.

He uses the techniques of shadow theater and cuts out dark forms that move across the screen. Mr. Kentridge also presents 26 bronze figures arranged as a procession in one of his most recent installations.

The artist uses an enormous range of techniques and subjects for his intensely emotive stories, which have won him recognition in the art world.

The Robert Brown Gallery (2030 R St. NW., 202/483-4383) presents the artist's latest prints in "William Kentridge: Recent Editions" through April 21. Representing another side of the artist's work, they often are exquisite combinations of etching, drypoint, aquatint and lithography. The works are very large and often printed on old books and maps.

His exhibit at the Hirshhorn, organized by the the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, travels to those museums plus to Houston and Los Angeles. An abridged version will be displayed in South Africa.WHAT: "William Kentridge" retrospectiveWHERE: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SWWHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through May 13TICKETS: FreePHONE: 202/357-2700

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