The Main Complaint (on William Kentridge at the Serpentine Gallery)

William Kentridge has established himself as one of the weightiest players within South African contemporary art, Time and time again, all sorts of curators have found themselves drawn to and engaging with Kentridge’s work. In this country, his work has been included in two of the three major group exhibitions of South African art that have taken place this decade.

Kentridge’s work was featured in ‘Art From South Africa’ at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, back in 1990. Five years later, Kentridge was one of the ten artists whose work made up the ‘Transitions’ exhibition at the Hotbath Gallery, Bath, and Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast. Kentridge has also been busy on the home front: his work was included in both Johannesburg Biennials – 1995 and 1997.

Despite having long become a darling of the biennale/mega-exhibition circuit and South African group show, the current Serpentine exhibition is the first opportunity that gallery-going audiences within reach of London have had to see a substantial body of his work. The exhibition consists of two parts: thee are the wall-based drawings and other works on paper, such as etchings, and thee are the animated films. Much of the gallery space has been given over to the latter, with no fewer than three separate areas in which are projected a number of films made by the artist over a ten-year period.

Kentridge is a talented and able draughtsman, and he has developed a fascinating process of making animated films by working and reworking wall-based charcoal drawings. But interesting though Kentridge’s work is, the most significant debates it raises relate to questions of how and why as a South African artist he has managed to achieve the celebrated status he enjoys. Kentridge’s success as an artist, particularly beyond South Africa, throws up disturbing reminders of the ways in which issues of racial hierarchies and their attendant cultural and political orthodoxies have taken a seemingly irreversible hold on the world during the course of this century…

The above extracts are from a text on William Kentridge, 'The Main Complaint' by Eddie Chambers, Art Monthly, London, Number 227, June 1999: 1-4