It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and Okwui Enwezor’s lecture “(Un) Civil Engineering: William Kentridge’s Allegorical Landscapes” certainly gave a voice to the work of South African artist William Kentridge, which is currently on display at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA).
Enwezor moved to the United States from Nigeria in 1983 at the age of 20 and has since curated a number of exhibitions on contemporary African art at world-renowned museums such as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, P.S.1 and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London. He has also served as the artistic director of Documenta 11 and the Second Johannesburg Biennale, and has taught as a visiting professor of art history at the University of Pittsburgh, Columbia University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Kentridge’s work has enjoyed great popularity in the international art scene over the past 10 years, both for the variety of his media and for the nuanced politics with which his art has responded to post-apartheid South Africa. The meaning and depth of expression behind Kentridge’s work is great, and its explication is particularly appealing to scholars of art, politics and Africana studies alike.
Enwezor approached the work of Kentridge with attention specifically to how the artist conceives of the African landscape and explained why this is remarkable within the context of the contemporary African arts scene. He noted that landscape is quite rare in contemporary African art – a surprising fact especially considering the irreversible scourge of mining and plundering of the land due to colonialism in South Africa.
Enwezor called Kentridge’s methods “formally exacting” and “politically charged.” While Kentridge’s creations and means are basic, he said, he works with an analytic precision that presents a compelling and subtle view of the “psychic space of the apartheid and post-apartheid landscape.” Kentridge works with a vocabulary of suggestive metaphoric imagery, such as recurring images of people supported by prostheses, broken chairs and electric legs, all of which recall the imagery of colonial industry.
Enwezor elegantly rephrased the meanings and significance that landscape acquires in Kentridge’s work. Affectionately referring to the contemporary artist as “William,” one of his good friends, Enwezor turned the lecture into a verbal elaboration of the messages buried within Kentridge’s coded compositions.
To Enwezor, landscape is “hiding its own secret,” a “mute legacy” and also an “archive of historical analysis.” Compared to European landscapes that are stated in idealized terms, Kentridge’s work denies us the luxury of romanticizing or idealizing African landscapes. Enwezor also contests the notion of the picturesque because he sees within the landscape the allegory of a body politic. Characteristic of most contemporary works in the global artistic movement, Kentridge’s work is steeped in theoretical rigor, Enwezor explained. In short, everything is complex and everything is political.
Enwezor elaborated upon the difference between “white guilt” and “white remorse” and how it figures into the reception of Kentridge’s work on the global stage. People understand white guilt to be insincere, according to Enwezor, because it is an “overly demonstrative showing of its intent.” While “white guilt” is forever facing backward and indulging in the past, from “white remorse” emerges the experience of a “gap of incompleteness,” an evolving and present recognition of the emotions at stake.
The work of Kentridge is as rich in meaning as it is in variety and aesthetic value. Through the expertise of Enwezor, the audience was granted a glimpse into the elaborate historical context of its inspirations and their modern implications.