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Puppet Drawing
William Kentridge, enlarged photograph of a Puppet Drawing with artist's marks, made in preparation for a tapestry. Image courtesy of the artist.

About the Artist

William Kentridge was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1955, seven years after the 1948 elections that instituted apartheid (Afrikaans for “separateness”) as a government-sponsored regime that imposed rigorous restrictions on nonwhite citizens, from mandating the types of employment available to them and controlling areas of tenancy to disallowing their right to vote. The son of two prominent lawyers invested in representing those the apartheid system oppressed, Kentridge came of age, and sought to come to terms with, the fragmented and fractured society of Johannesburg, a city whose elite center was surrounded by shantytowns full of marginalized black, Indian, and other nonwhite populations. As a student at the University of Witwatersrand in the 1970s, Kentridge focused on politics and African Studies, but in the years following he would find theater and art better suited to grappling with his country’s tension and plight. He began to act, write, and design sets for the racially integrated Junction Avenue Theatre Company, and he introduced fine art into his repertoire in 1976–78 while studying at the Johannesburg Art Foundation. In 1978, Kentridge began experimenting with film and also had his first solo show at the Market Gallery in Johannesburg.

Office Love Drawing
Untitled Study for Tapestry (Office Love), 2001
William Kentridge (South African, b. 1955)
Chine collé and collage
28 3/4 x 37 13/16 inches (73 x 96 cm)
Johannesburg Stock Exchange, South Africa
While studying theater and mime in Paris in 1981–82, Kentridge also exhibited in numerous group shows in South Africa with drawings that evoked European influences such as Max Beckmann and Francisco Goya. His short film Howl at the Moon earned a Red Ribbon Award at New York’s American Film Festival in 1982, and he garnered a Blue Ribbon in 1985 with another short. Following his first group show in New York in 1986 and first solo show London in 1987, Kentridge made Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris in 1989, the first in his series of animated films deriving from nine Drawings for Projection that tell the epic tale of Kentridge’s opposing and semi-autobiographical characters—the avaricious businessman Soho Eckstein and the romantic and somewhat lost soul Felix Teitlebaum.

In 1993 Kentridge’s films were screened at the Venice Biennale, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. During this period, negotiations within the government started to dismantle South Africa’s apartheid system, and in 1994 a democratic election accepted votes from across the populace in an effort to unify the country. Yet the ideals of reintegration in areas such as Johannesburg were met with the volatile reality of the rich and poor populations sharing metropolitan spaces. The city hosted the global art community in 1995 and 1997 for two Johannesburg Biennials, both of which included works by Kentridge. He soon became a leading voice in contemporary art through practice that expressly deals with the plight of South Africa but also resonates with strife-stricken communities and cultures throughout the world. In 1997 his films were included in Documenta X in Kassel, Germany, and in 1998 in New York, the Drawing Center hosted a show of his works on paper, the Museum of Modern Art held Projects 68: William Kentridge, and he was short-listed for the prestigious Hugo Boss Prize at the Soho Guggenheim Museum.

By the early twenty-first century, Kentridge’s global reputation as one of the most fascinating and innovative artists spurred the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, to co-organize a survey exhibition that also traveled to Washington, D.C., Houston, Los Angeles, and Cape Town. In 2001, Creative Time aired his film Shadow Procession on the NBC Astrovision Panasonic screen in Times Square. Kentridge remained involved in theater simultaneous to his art projects, and his puppet-based play Confessions of Zeno—one of several collaborations with the Handspring Puppet Company in Johannesburg—was presented at Documenta11 in 2002, as was his film Zeno Writing. In 2004–5, a major retrospective of Kentridge’s work was shown in Turin, Düsseldorf, Sydney, Montreal, and Johannesburg. His recent staging of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute played to audiences in Brussels, Tel Aviv, Naples, New York, and Johannesburg. Kentridge continues to live and work in Johannesburg, and he is represented internationally by Marian Goodman Gallery in New York, Lia Rumma Gallery in Naples and Milan, and Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.