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Beyond identity politics: William Kentridge retrospective

July 22, 2019

South Africa's leading contemporary art museum is about to show one of the country's most beloved artists, William Kentridge. Should race still matter when it comes to art? DW's Sertan Sanderson reports from Cape Town.

Südafrika | Zeitz MOCAA Museum Kapstadt (Hufton + Crow)
Image: Hufton + Crow

When you walk into the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (Zeitz MOCAA) in Cape Town, it feels like you're entering a sacred space. What used to be a 57-meter-high grain silo storing maize, wheat and similar crops now inspires the kind of awe you might only experience by visiting a temple or a cathedral, as larger-than-life art installations in the entrance hall greet visitors.

But since the opening of the Zeitz MOCAA in September 2017, some African artists and curators have questioned the choice of opening a museum that celebrates African art in Cape Town — without doubt the most "European" metropolis of the entire continent.

Located at the city's touristy Victoria & Alfred Waterfront and originally built in 1921, the grain silo was transformed into a museum by the London-based British architect Thomas Heatherwick — and not an African one.  

The museum owes its name to German businessman Jochen Zeitz, who developed the project through a public-private partnership and who has permanently loaned his vast private collection of African art to the museum. With a European male philanthropist and a European male architect behind the project, critics inevitably questioned the neo-colonial, Western perspective of the museum.  

Zeitz MOCAA Museum Kapstadt (Hufton + Crow)
Both the interior and the exterior of the Zeitz MOCAA are impressive structures but were designed by a white architect, which raised some eyebrowsImage: Hufton + Crow

'Kentridge reflects Africa's complex histories'

With one of South Africa's most recognized white contemporary artists, William Kentridge, about to be hosted at the Zeitz MOCAA in August, questions surrounding black representation in African arts and culture are arising once again ahead of the museum's second anniversary. 

Südafrika | Zeitz MOCAA Museum Kapstadt | Kuratorin Tandazani Dhlakama
Assistant curator Tandazani Dhlakama says that art has to speak for itselfImage: Zeitz MOCAA

Assistant curator Tandazani Dhlakama stresses that Zeitz MOCAA's message is one of inclusion at all levels: "Of course we look at black themes and black empowerment among other things and that's very important," she says, adding that the museum rather aims to focus on African identities. "We don't want to be pigeonholed as a museum, and that relates directly to our thinking of Africa in the broader context."

"Africa has always had critical artists that think ahead of their time, and Kentridge is an example of that. We celebrate him and we are proud that we can do that today. A lot of his work has been exhibited around the world. So we're really honored to show him in such a big exhibition in our own country. His own country. His work speaks for itself, and it speaks for Africa."

Koyo Kouoh, chief curator at Zeitz MOCAA
Koyo Kouoh has taken over as chief curator at Zeitz MOCAAImage: picture alliance/KEYSTONE/G. Bally

William Kentridge undergoes a "self-reflective journey, tracing the effects of apartheid and colonialism in South Africa," states the Zeitz MOCAA in a press release. Dhlakama further underscores that message, saying that although it's "almost impossible to think about Africa today without thinking about the context of colonialism and post-colonialism," art in Africa today should be seen as a conversation, and not a conflict.

"We have complex histories, entangled histories exactly because of our colonial history. And artists from Africa and also from elsewhere reflect that. There's no conflict between showing a white artist like Kentridge and then hosting artists from Zimbabwe who created paintings in the last year and a half toward the end of Robert Mugabe's rule there."

New director, new vision?

With 100 exhibition rooms dedicated to contemporary art from Africa and the global African diaspora, the Zeitz MOCAA is more than unique not just by African standards, with plenty of space for diverse African narratives.

Mark Coetzee
Former chief curator Mark Coetzee (left) resigned earlier in 2019 amid allegations of professional misconductImage: J. Jaki

But it is also an institution not only affected by external controversies but also internal conflicts: Its former chief curator Mark Coetzee resigned earlier this year following allegations of inappropriate behavior ranging from sexual misconduct to using racial slurs. Long before these revelations, many felt he was "too white" for the job. 

The museum's new executive director and chief curator, Koyo Kouoh, hails from Senegal. The pressure on her is incredibly high as the museum still continues to reel from the scandal, refusing to comment on it beyond what's been reported.

Jochen Zeitz said in a statement that Kouoh "will be invaluable to Zeitz MOCAA in writing a progressive vision for the museum," but following various controversies at the museum, the question is whether it can be progressive enough to afford the museum the broad support it deserves.

"As I begin my tenure, it is an intense joy to host an unprecedented survey show of one of the great masters of contemporary visual poetry," Kouoh said of the upcoming Kentridge retrospective, titled "Why Should I Hesitate: Putting Drawings to Work" and which will include drawings, video, prints, tapestries, animation and installations.

'Kentridge's work honors our memory'

David Krut, who has been working closely with Kentridge for more than 25 years and promoting his work around the globe, says that the South African artist's work should actually be regarded outside the kind of identity politics and their related controversies that are emerging in the country's post-Apartheid era.

William Kentridge exhibition
William Kentridge's work is renowned for its references to social and cultural milestonesImage: William Kentridge/M.Goodman Gallery/L.Rumma Gallery

"William is a universal social commentator but not a formal political artist. He is just putting in front of an audience what actually happens in the world and in our country, and he does that in a very objective way. He has a way to turn complex information into something very simple, and therein lies his genius," Krut told DW.

It should also be noted that Kentridge hails from a family of prominent activists; both his parents were lawyers fought tirelessly against apartheid for decades. His father even defended Nelson Mandela and others in the Treason Trial of 1956.

"William Kentridge is the pedigree of where he comes from, and therefore is very earnest in the way he regards the country's history, and not just in his work. Yet he likes to leave a lot open to interpretation," Krut added, highlighting various installations created by the artist over the years, in which he confronts the colonial past not only of his own country but of other nations around the world — be that the colonialization of present-day Namibia by the German Reich or the history of Ancient Rome.

"His work is so much about memory, and he has an incredible sense of recall. But it is also about honoring memory, and that's what makes William such an outstanding artist."

William Kentridge
Internationally acclaimed: William KentridgeImage: Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung / Norbert Miguletz

Colorblind art

Meanwhile, the Zeitz MOCAA is counting down the days until the grand opening of the Kentridge exhibition, with many of its exhibition rooms actually closed in preparation for the show. For curators and visitors alike, it's just business as usual, and many don't understand what all the fuss about race in South African art is even about.

Jochen Zeitz
Jochen Zeitz has long moved on from racial "clichés" — but has the rest of South Africa?Image: DW/C. Meyer

Jochen Zeitz said from the beginning that race does not play any role in his namesake museum; at the time of the opening of the Zeitz MOCAA, he told reporters, "We live in a globalized world and we must overcome black/white clichés. We are only here to create opportunities."

His words are welcome by many who are weary of the narrative of race permeating all the way into the art world.

Zoe Storrar Molteno used to teach art at the International School of South Africa and other private schools before retiring, and has witnessed classroom dynamics both before and after the end of apartheid. She feels that there is no need in the new South Africa to talk about race when it comes to art:

"Zeitz MOCAA is a museum that celebrates all contemporary art produced in Africa, and the South African art world has long celebrated black artists, so why not afford white artists the same dignity?" she told DW. "It's about quality, and not about artists' ethnicity."

Tandazani Dhlakama agrees with that vision, but also stresses that a museum like the Zeitz MOCAA cannot entirely divorce itself from taking responsibility for the works it puts on show:

"When you're the host of a space, where various narratives can extend, is that a political act? Or are you just a facilitator? But facilitating that is never really innocent either, is it? I personally think that art and curating art doesn't have to be political. But it's never apolitical."

Former teacher Zoe Storrar Molteno meanwhile thinks it's not even as complicated as that. For her, the mixing of cultures, especially in a country that prides itself in being a "rainbow nation," is par for the course:

"A revered South African artist has just died: Johnny Clegg. He was a great example of absorbing culture and making it into something new. Why can't more people be like that?"


The William Kentridge exhibition "Why Should I Hesitate: Putting Drawings to Work" opens at the Zeitz MOCAA on August 25 and runs through March 23, 2020. 

Sertan Sanderson Moderation
Sertan Sanderson A human who seeks to make sense of the world and wants understand what truly motivates peopleSertanSanderson