William Kentridge was born in Johannesburg in 1955. He was educated at King Edward VII School in Houghton, Johannesburg and studied at the University of the Witwatersrand, the Johannesburg Art Foundation and L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris.
Kentridge’s parents, both lawyers, dedicated themselves to defending victims of apartheid. So Kentridge witnessed for himself the struggle to bring apartheid to an end. Best known for his drawings, prints and animated films exploring time, memory, the history of colonialism and the failures of revolutionary politics, Kentridge’s work focuses not on apartheid directly, but on the contemporary state of South Africa and the brutalised society left behind.
The foundation of Kentridge’s work has always been drawing and printmaking. In 1979 he created 20-30 monotypes known as the Pit series. In 1980 he executed about 50 small-format etchings which he called Domestic Scenes. These two extraordinary groups of prints firmly established his reputation as an artist. In 1987 he began a group of charcoal and pastel drawings based on Watteau’s Embarkation for Cythera. Between 1989 and 2003 he made a sequence of animated shorts which eventually gathered under the title 9 Drawings for Projection. In this series of films he told the lives of two characters – Soho Eckstein and Felix Teitlebaum. Two characters who reflect the emotional and political struggle which dominated the lives of many South Africans during apartheid.
Contrary to the traditional techniques of animation – in which each movement is drawn on a separate sheet of paper – Kentridge uses successive drawings layered onto the same sheet. By drawing a frame, then erasing elements of it, then drawing again to create the next frame, Kentridge – using only charcoal and a touch of blue or red pastel – created animations of astounding depth. These palimpsest-like drawings are then displayed alongside the films as pieces in their own right. As the films play out, they evoke the inconsistencies and contradictions of memory fading through time.
Kentridge has worked as a set designer and director of opera and also in tapestry. In 2001 he began a series of tapestries based on a collection of drawings which conjured shadowy figures from torn construction paper collaged onto nineteenth-century atlases. Reincarnating these figures in tapestry, he mapped out cartoons from enlarged photographs of the drawings and hand-picking dyes to colour locally-spun mohair. In 2009, in partnership with Gerhard Marx, he created a 10m-tall sculpture entitled Fire Walker for his home city of Johannesburg. In 2012 his sculpture Il Cavaliere di Toledo was unveiled in Naples. In 2016, Kentridge unveiled Triumphs and Laments – a monumental mural along the right bank of the river Tiber to commemorate the legendary founding of Rome in 753BC. To celebrate its launch, he and his long-time collaborator, the composer Philip Miller, devised a series of performances featuring more than 40 musicians and live shadow play. Kentridge’s works are held in numerous international collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate Modern, London and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.