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William Kentridge’s Grand Video Procession at Biennale Represents Society

In Kochi
January 22, 2019

Using the vast and longish space he got at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, William Kentridge reels out an impressionable line-up of videos that portray societal issues in his continent: discrimination, domination, isolation and even slavery of sorts persisting owing to socioeconomic differences.

The South African’s work is a processional project casting silhouetted figures stepping and dancing in line to the sounds of a brass band across eight screens. The 15-minute visuals in one loop essay figures carrying objects made from cutouts of the artist’s own drawings, adorning a sea-facing rectangular room at the main venue of the 108-day festival on till March 29.

Thus, More Sweetly Play The Dance at Fort Kochi’s sprawling Aspinwall House features portraits of historical figures and obscure people against the backdrop of plants as well as trees and amid an array of human belongings ranging from bathtubs to suitcases.

“The procession is a form I have used many times before, trying to encompass in the work the muchness of the people in the world,” reveals the 63-year-old who was born in Johannesburg, where he lives and works. “And to record the fact that even in the 21st century human foot-power remains the primary means of locomotion…. And we are still locked in the manual labour of individual bodies as a way of making the world.”

The image of a procession goes back to Francisco Goya and the paintings of the Spanish romantic painter (1746-1828), states Kentridge, educated in his city’s University of the Witwatersrand and Johannesburg Art Foundation. “It goes back more recently to photographs of refugees fleeing Rwanda (since the 1994 genocide) to nearby countries such as Tanzania, Zambia and Uganda. All the movement that still exists across Africa,” he notes about the continent that has also people from South Sudan and Eritrea finding asylum in other nations.

The image of a procession of people pulling or carrying their baggage is both a contemporary and immediate image, explains Kentridge. “It travels back to the huge movements of people at the end of the Second World War (1945). And further, to the exodus of Muslims from the Balkans (in the early 20th and 19th centuries),” he adds.

But these scenes soon depart from a lively parade, as the load-bearing characters recall recent images of refugees migrating to escape the atrocities in their homelands. “The procession also includes emaciated figures on the therapeutic IV (intravenous) drips,” notes the artist. “And those lugging body bags, which allude to the Ebola crisis (outbreak of a virus disease during 2014-16 in West Africa).”

Kentridge’s biennale work also intersperses scenes of political protests: people throwing pamphlets and holding microphones, even as they look aggrieved that they go unheard. He also points out that the procession films focus on the carriers as much as their issues. “The endless procession of people carrying on their heads and shoulders baskets, bundles of clothes and spoils of war. All of history carried by them,” he notes.

Kentridge has a habit of erasing the background from his drawings even as his continual filming of the smudged traces produces an unsettled effect of light “as the flickering of fate” itself. “I think this movement of time in the background as well as the obvious one of the movement of people in the front is an important component of the work,” he says.

The next vital part was to place them in the world, he adds. “Placing them between a large sky and a landscape foreground through which they move…. There is the linear progression from left to right across the eight screens, and people entering the screens as others leave.”