Historically, the careers of South African artists who remain in this country don’t improve over time.

One of the few exceptions is William Kentridge, who – over the past 30 years – has emerged internationally as a multi-media master, while remaining famously committed to Johannesburg, writes Jaco van Schalkwyk in our current April issue. 

William Kentridge’s studio produces visual art, film and performance work and has more recently incorporated a significant slice of Johannesburg’s cultural sector. ‘There are about seven or eight people full-time on the staff, from administrative employees to engineers, technicians and makers in the sculpture sections,’ he explains. ‘Then I also work with a large number of independent studios.’

In choosing to work with local studios, Kentridge’s continued presence in Johannesburg is providing artists, technicians and workshops with business at a time when the cultural sector’s struggling. ‘There are a lot of connections outwards,’ he says. ‘Sometimes a project will start with me saying: “I want to support this print studio.” Requests for assistance are very often opportunities for new work and new thoughts to emerge.’

Kentridge’s sentiments could sum up a core working principle of a number of South African artists, except that on the scale of his studio practice, it becomes a dictum for cultural and social upliftment, as well as part of his purpose. ‘In a way, that’s the only thing I have to teach: the lesson of being in the studio – of one’s debts to one’s métier; of hours in the studio and service in the way of the work that comes out,’ he says.

In 2017, he launched his Centre for the Less Good Idea, an incubator space for the funding and development of short-form experimental, collaborative, cross-disciplinary art projects on a seasonal basis. ‘The centre and other initiatives of mine can’t take the place of a flourishing city art museum and other museums. But they acknowledge that in the absence of a larger public initiative, one has to work with a number of different, smaller initiatives,’ he explains. ‘You know, when the “good idea”, the big idea or the “big museum” doesn’t work, one has to find the “lesser idea” – something in the periphery.’

It’s easy to forget that William Kentridge, for all his success, remains an artist from precisely such a periphery of the global market. Thirty years ago, during the cultural boycott, with New York feasting on the biggest oil-on-canvas price bonanza in history, he combed Manhattan with his now iconic charcoal drawings. ‘The first time I went around New York and knocked on gallery doors, most of the people just waved their arms, saying: “Don’t come in, don’t come in!”’ And while one might chuckle at the stupendous prices his works now fetch, the bigger gag is that, compared with the $55 million for which Jeff Koons sells his balloon dogs, Kentridge – an artist at the vanguard of contemporary art from Africa – remains undervalued.

It could be said that these are dark times for SA’s public cultural institutions, given that for the latter half of the 20th century, works by Kentridge contemporaries David Koloane and Wopko Jensma were going for the price of a King Steer burger. ‘It seems to me that this is a period in both SA and Johannesburg when public institutions are in a state of extreme crisis, in terms of morale,’ says Kentridge. ‘And through that, there’s a lack of morale in people to attend a lot of these museums and institutions. Would that our big museums were all flourishing, had large amounts of people going to see them and were seen as central places for the development of visual and other arts in the city. However, at the moment, they’re in a dire state.’

Surely, given this state of affairs and the popularity of his work, Kentridge could simply move to Paris, New York or Vienna, where his operas are performed to critical acclaim. Or perhaps to Rome, where he was invited to create Triumphs and Laments – a 10m-high, 550m-long mural. Yet he remains committed to Johannesburg, choosing to distribute some of his ‘good fortune in the contemporary art world’ to the benefit of his home city.

‘I think there’s an anarchic kernel in the decision not to move,’ he says. ‘Obviously there’s something that’s held me here; there are many things in SA that are happening at a much less visible and slower state in the rest of the world. The importance of the informal economy, the provisionality of all truths and understanding, the city as a piece of animation in concrete and bricks – I think this has been important and, if I look back, it’s certainly been very present in the work.’

Text: Jaco van Schalkwyk