On January 22, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art opened William Kentridge: The Heart has Its Own Memory. The second exhibition in the recently opened Imprint Gallery, this show presents two films by the celebrated South African artist William Kentridge. On loan from the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Felix in Exile (1994) and History of the Main Complaint (1996) are the fifth and sixth works in the artist’s animated film series 9 Drawings for Projection (1989-1994), which collectively explore the history of South Africa’s shift from apartheid to post-apartheid society.
“We have been waiting for an opportunity to present a selection of William Kentridge’s animated works,” noted MMoCA’s associate curator Leah Kolb, “and the new Imprint Gallery, with its seclusion from the museum’s busier spaces, offers the perfect environment. Not only does this gallery enable MMoCA to present multimedia works by such acclaimed artists as Kentridge, but it also provides an atmosphere of quietness and solitude—a setting that truly honors the somber lyricism of this artist’s work.
Like the other short films in Kentridge’s Drawings for Projection series, Felix in Exile and History of the Main Complaint confront the personal and societal traumas that are the vestiges of South African apartheid. Soho Eckstein, a gluttonous South African mining magnate, and Felix Teitlebaum, an artist and romantic, are the two main protagonists who, notably, function as Kentridge’s alter egos. Felix in Exile depicts Teitlebaum sitting naked and alone in a hotel room. He studies charts that are drawn by Nandi, an African woman who is introduced at the start of the film and who documents the barren landscape of East Rand, Johannesburg. She observes and records the terrain with the tools of a surveyor, but her map-like drawings transform into images of bleeding African bodies, victims of political brutality. The bodies melt into the ground, all traces of their existence erased. Created right before the first general elections in South Africa, during a time when a new national identity was being forged, this film speaks to the painful necessity of collective memory—of preserving an accurate history of one of the twentieth century’s most notorious occurrences of racial oppression and violence.
History of Main Complaint opens with Soho Eckstein lying comatose in a hospital bed, his body probed by stethoscopes.The film alternates between medical examinations of Soho and views of him driving past beaten bodies of black Africans who appear on the side of the road. It is only after hitting a man who runs in front of the car, his body smashing against the windshield, that Soho awakens from his coma. Kentridge made this piece shortly after South Africa established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a forum for individuals to publically recount personal stories of human rights violations suffered during apartheid. A bystander to the brutalities of apartheid, Soho is nevertheless accountable for the era’s devastating socio-political acts. He remains in a physical and metaphorical coma until the car crash, at which point, in Kentridge’s words, he discovers “the weight keeping him unconscious.”
The exhibition’s subtitle, The Heart has Its Own Memory, is part of a quote taken from the first chapter The Fall (1956), Albert Caums’ philosophical novel that examines notions of human culpability in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust. Revealing the author’s own existential despair about the massive destructiveness of war, the book holds every person accountable: even if they did not directly contribute to the violence, they were at fault for doing nothing to stop it. Similarly, William Kentridge, in confronting the politically fraught subject of apartheid, reflects on the human condition. Only loosely narrative, his films offer an impressionistic story about the internal struggle to accept responsibility for perpetuating injustice, and the guilt that accompanies remembering the past.
William Kentridge (b. 1955, Johannesburg, South Africa) studied at the Johannesburg Art Foundation and the Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris. He is a founding member of the Free Filmmakers Co-operative, which was launched in 1988. He has participated in a number of international biennials and in Documenta X (1997), XI (2002), and XIII (2012), as well as the Venice Biennale (2005, 1999, 1993). He has had major exhibitions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2008); Moderna Museet, Stockholm, (2007); and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2004); among others. A retrospective of his work ended in 2012 after a three year international tour was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. William Kentridge lives and works in Johannesburg, South Africa.