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The art of ambiguity

South African artist William Kentridge's first solo exhibition in India is as eccentric as the artist himself

Ranjita Ganesan 

It is not without reason that founder believes in serendipity. The Colaba-based gallery is hosting the first solo showcase of renowned South African artist in India, something Jiwarajka only dreamt about two years ago when he was watching Anything is Possible, a documentary based on Kentridge’s work.

When he had finished seeing the film, it was almost closing time on a late Saturday evening. Yet, entirely by chance, in sauntered Kentridge and his wife. “I had no idea the artist was in town, much less that he would be visiting us,” Jiwarajka exlaims. He quickly drew the DVD out of his laptop and showed it to Kentridge, and later confessed that he would love to host an exhibition. “William too was keen on showing his work outside Europe and the US.”

The 57-year-old South African’s work has been widely lauded in recent years, leading him to be counted among Time’s 100 most influential people in 2009. His has been presented at venues including the Metropolitan Opera and Museum of Modern in New York, the Louvre and Jeu de Paume in Paris, the Albertina Museum in Vienna and La Scala in Milan. Kentridge is known for the arresting use of charcoal in his drawings, employing repeated black strokes and only the slightest touches of colour. The effect conveys a kind of restlessness and sorrow.

The showcase of his work in Mumbai, titled “Poems I Used to Know”, includes “I am not me, the horse is not mine,” a delightfully absurd six-minute film that includes eight videos playing simultaneously. The installation is based on the artist’s production of the opera “The Nose” inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s short story. The videos, which are full of activity, each clamour for attention and it becomes almost mandatory to indulge in multiple viewings.

Like his favourite material charcoal, Kentridge too is flexible. The maverick is at ease with various media — drawings, animation, tapestry, prints, sculptures, theatre and opera. “I am most blown away by the man’s versatility. He does so many things and anything that he does, he becomes a master of that genre,” says Jiwarajka.

Among the first things Kentridge does after landing in a new place is visiting second-hand bookstores to scout for old, tattered books. It is not the content that interests him as much as the look and appeal. He collects frayed encyclopaedias, cash registers, workbooks, laundry lists or instruction manuals that are later incorporated into his pieces.

On display at the exhibition are two such large drawings in Indian ink made on yellowing encyclopaedia pages held together with pins. The sheets with crudely marked page numbers and notations create a striking canvas for the predominantly dark pieces, making them stand out against Volte’s stark white walls. Even his sculptures, which are fragmented in a way that they form a coherent image only from a certain angle, are sometimes set upon quaint books.

Kentridge develops his art techniques impulsively. He stumbled upon a unique “erase-and-alter” style of animation, where he draws, films a few frames, erases and then draws again. “When I made drawings, I would film the frame periodically to see the different stages and I realised this was a process that didn’t need to end.” While this was a slow way of drawing, Kentridge found it to be a rather quick way of making animation films.

The system also ensured that there was no need for a group of people to assist him and stand by idly as he finished each drawing. “I would have been under the pressure of having to always act like an artist. That’s not too comforting an idea.”

Kentridge often portrays himself in his work, in a tone that is usually comical and at times morose. The animation clips, being played on flat screens at the gallery, depict Kentridge with an unmistakable dash of humour; being chased by paint strokes or in turn chasing them, dancing with a woman, doing cartwheels or pacing about pensively.

The artist, who holds a bachelor’s degree in politics and African studies from the University of Witwatersrand, is more serious in his drawings, fusing the political with the poetic. Apartheid and colonialism in South Africa have influenced several of his works. “I am interested in an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures, and uncertain ending; an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check and nihilism at bay,” Kentridge once said about his approach.

e is not too familiar with the work of Indian artists but the exhibition in Mumbai is a start. “I look forward to discovering more.”

The show will continue at Volte Gallery, Colaba till March 20. Entry is free

First Published: Sat, February 16 2013. 22:02 IST