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New exhibit at Perlman showcases South African artist

William Kentridge, renowned South African printmaker and animator, believes his work “has to be a mark of something out there in the world. It doesn’t have to be an accurate drawing, but it has to stand for an observation.”

This philosophy currently adorns the walls of the Perlman Teaching Museum’s new exhibit: William Kentridge’s Universal Archive and Second-Hand Reading.

Kentridge was born in South Africa to two attorneys famed for their humanitarian efforts defending victims of apartheid. His youth in Johannesburg during a time of ongoing political turmoil formed the roots of Kentridge’s artistic career.

Joseph Luther ’20, a student worker at the Perlman Museum, remarks that a large personal draw of Kentridge’s work is that it allows him to “look inside the mind of someone who was [in South Africa] at the time of apartheid.”The Universal Archive on display in the Perlman features linocut images imposed over the pages of encyclopedias and dictionaries. Ranging from fairly realistic depictions to gestural abstractions of everyday figures and objects, this exhibit reflects the artist’s efforts to make the viewer aware of how they “construct the world by looking.”

Kentridge’s work embraces ambiguity and subtlety to allow the viewer to feel rather than analyze his pieces when first encountered. Also on exhibit is one of Kentridge’s animations based on his piece Second-Hand Reading. Shot in a flipbook animation style, this work explores race relations and Kentridge’s ongoing examination of apartheid.

Jeff Rathermel, director and curator of the Perlman Museum, constructed the display of Universal Archive to highlight the motion inherent to all of Kentridge’s pieces.

Rathermel says his approach when organizing the exhibit was closely related to the “idea of film and thinking of it as a storyboard…where I was trying to convey this idea of transformation.”

The two Kentridge exhibits, Universal Archive and Second- Hand Reading, are closely related by Kentridge’s artistic theme of dynamic change. Second-Hand Reading is an animation while Universal Archive is a series of stills deconstructing everyday objects that examine the narrative of motion inherent to Kentridge’s work.

The element of this exhibit that struck me as I examined the pieces in the Perlman was Kentridge’s use of old dictionary and encyclopedia pages as the base on which he imposed his designs. Through the act of repurposing printed definitions widely considered ‘truth,’ Kentridge questions the validity of power awarded the few who control language.

Jeff Rathermel comments:

[Kentride’s work] gets back to that idea that those who remain write the history and those who don’t are forgotten and their stories aren’t told. By this act of printing over…and adding parts to those dictionary pages, he’s challenging the idea that history and…power can be held by just one person or one group for eternity.

Joseph Luther agrees, remarking that Kentridge’s work is powerfully evocative in its “communication of new meaning” through the use of older published material.

William Kentridge’s work has been exhibited in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and now Carleton’s own Perlman Teaching Museum, found in the Weitz.

To enhance understanding of Kentridge’s work in our community, three members of the art faculty, Dan Bruggeman, Fred Hagstrom, and David Lefkowitz, will be hosting a panel on October 30 to discuss Kentridge’s acclaimed Norton Lecture Series at Harvard, the inspiration for the Universal Archive exhibit. In an ideal world, Jeff Rathermel hopes Carleton students will walk away from Kentridge’s work with a greater sense of “the power of [one’s] personal voice to add and adjust institutional history.”

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