Before the Australian premiere of his latest work, Sibyl, at the Sydney Opera House, animator, director and visual artist William Kentridge reveals that the moment when a work begins to catch fire is always mysterious. By Chantal Nguyen.

Artist William Kentridge

A balding man in a white shirt with his arm resting over a ladder. Behind him a chalkboard with a maths equation.
Artist William Kentridge.
Credit: Stella Olivier

The acclaimed South African polymath William Kentridge is unpretentious about how he began drawing. “I think all children draw,” he says. “Even given a stick in the sand, if not crayons or charcoal. So I don’t have a specific remarkable memory of beginning to make art. The only difference, I suppose, is that I forgot to stop drawing, which most children [do] when someone makes a cruel comment about a drawing they’ve made.”

His first memories of formal art lessons are similarly unassuming, although in hindsight they now seem touched with a sense of whimsically intuitive prescience. “I remember going to art lessons when I was about eight or nine. Local Saturday morning lessons with a teacher in Johannesburg,” he says. “And I remember on the first day she said, ‘What did I want to do?’ And I said – where the word came from in my head, I don’t know – ‘I want to do landscape.’ And she said, ‘What do you want to use?’

“And again, never having used it or never having thought about it, I said, ‘Charcoal.’ These must just have been art words that I’d heard or known. So the very first thing I did at this art school was a charcoal landscape.”

Now in his late 60s, Kentridge’s work is famous – among other things – for his mesmerising charcoal animations. While most animations comprise successive sketches compiled consecutively, Kentridge works with one image only, which he then draws and redraws using charcoal and an eraser. The effect is transfixing, breathing into Kentridge’s art the kind of corporeal vitality – full-bloomed in its carnal immediacy, yet ephemeral in its transience – that one glimpses in fleshlier art forms such as dance.

After that first encounter with charcoal, Kentridge continued using it sporadically through his childhood, but didn’t unlock its dynamism until he was in his 30s.

“I’d been an art student as an adolescent and then at university, where the standard drawing material was a pencil, used for drawing quite academic studies,” he says. “The thousands of hours of life drawing, or still life drawing, or drawing plaster casts… Like learning scales if you’re a musician.

“But when I came back to it for the second time when I was in my 30s, I suddenly realised this was a medium I could think in, not just make pictures in. It was a form for reflection. Its flexibility: the fact that you could change it so quickly that you could work both downwards and upwards. You could start with the mid-grey and pull the lightness out with an eraser or start with the mid-grey and push the shadows down with further charcoal. And I think that became the key. The key element about charcoal has remained one of the central materials that I use in the studio.”

Despite his early charcoal landscapes, Kentridge did not come from a family of artists. “The family was a family of lawyers. Both my parents were lawyers, my grandfathers were lawyers.”

The Kentridges were something of a South African Jewish legal dynasty who rose to prominence for their activism during the apartheid era. His maternal grandmother, Irene Geffen, was South Africa’s first female barrister and his mother, Lady Felicia Kentridge, co-founded South Africa’s Legal Resources Centre, which initiated significant anti-apartheid test cases. Kentridge’s father, Sir Sydney Kentridge, was known for representing prominent activists such as Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Albert Luthuli and the family of Steve Biko, going on to play an important role in historic cases such as the Treason Trial and Prisons Trial.

This activist perspective was influential on the young Kentridge. “What I did get from them was a sense of an openness to understanding the world – in the South African context – to understanding the structural injustice of the society,” he says. “And to understand that it was possible to stand at the edges of the society and look at it from the outside, and not accept what was seen as normal by the government or the school authorities. So it no doubt had a very strong influence on me when I begin creating art for a multidisciplinary piece.”

His parents also had friends who were artists. “So it was not an unknown thing to go to an artist studio and to understand that there could be artists even in Johannesburg, and they didn’t have to wear a beret or hold a baguette or live in Paris.”

Kentridge doesn’t start with an idea and then seek concrete means to express it. For him, the creative process seems to work in the opposite direction, evolving from the concrete to the conceptual and back again.

“There’s some artists who begin with an idea,” he says. “They say, ‘How best to realise this idea?’ … And there’s some artists that would start that way and then think, What is the best way to do it? Should it be in a drawing falling apart? Should it be a theatrical production? Should it be an opera? But I kind of worked the other way around.”

The genesis of Kentridge’s Waiting for the Sibyl – a chamber opera playing at the Sydney Opera House in early November – arrived when he was working on another opera in Rome. The Teatro dell’Opera company had asked him to do a follow-on from the American artist Alexander Calder’s theatrical production Work in Progress, which required Kentridge to think about “turning mobiles and circling cyclists”. This, he said, led to “the idea of things that revolve … thoughts of what things spin and turn … the idea of leaves swirling. So then there’s a linking of objects that swirl and turn, which one tries to make sense of, and the story of the sibyl, which I must have heard somewhere. But the two came together.”

Kentridge is at a loss to explain how the two ideas caught fire in his mind. “It’s interesting that the exact moment of joining where the idea meets the material and comes alive is almost always opaque to me,” he says. “I can never quite put my finger on what was that moment where it became clear.

“But the story of the sibyl – and this is the Sibyl of Cumae, which is a little town just outside Naples – was that you would go to the sibyl who lived in a cave and write your questions: How long will I live?, Will I survive Covid?, What will happen to my children? All of those kinds of questions about one’s life. And you would write these questions and leave them at the mouth of the cave, and the sibyl would take your questions and write the answer on an oak leaf. You would go to collect your oak leaf from the mouth of the cave, where there would be a pile of these leaves.

“But as you approach the mouth of the cave, a wind would always come up that would blow the leaves. So you never knew if the leaf you were picking was your leaf, or if you were getting someone else’s fate entirely. So that was enough to set in chain many different things.” The final idea, he says, arrived as “turning leaves and pages, and an unknown answer to questions we might ask”.

After that, Kentridge shaped the performance collaboratively. He gathered a team – comprising costume and set designers, video editors, the South African composer Kyle Shepherd and the choral director and dancer Nhlanhla Mahlangu – to hothouse in his Johannesburg studio for about 10 days.

“I’d gather together fragments of text, which are collected from many different poets written in a book,” he says. “And then the phrases are cut up and rearranged on a table to see what is the direction … which phrases to cut, which phrases to leave out. And that gives us a first provisional libretto to work with. And from that, the composer chose certain – just a few – phrases, which he gave to the singers.”

The creative process also involved experimenting with tactile items. “In the workshop … we might cut out of cardboard circular skirts and see what is the movement of people within that. Give a person a large cardboard skirt and they would say, ‘Yes. There’s actually a kind of dance in the north of the country, the church dance in which people both revolve on their own axis and around a larger axis as a group.’ So a series of cogs and gears turning.

“Then we thought, What if we make the sibyl bureaucratic? Questions that get sent in and the answers have to be done. So we did a morning of improvisation of an office for the sibyl.”

Kentridge is clear the experimentation has to be uninhibited. “The studio and the improvisation place has to be a place where stupidity has free rein. Where you don’t have to justify an impulse, or an image, or a whim. You give it the benefit of the doubt and you see at the end … whether you recognise something in it. Whether it leads to a quickening of the blood while you watch it, saying, ‘Ah, yes!’ ”

For its Sydney season, Sibyl will also be accompanied by a screening of Kentridge’s live animation work The Moment Has Gone. It features Soho Eckstein, a famously recurring character in Kentridge’s work. Kentridge speaks about Eckstein with fond warmth.

“Eckstein is drawn as a businessman in a pinstripe suit, a little bit like my grandfather who used to sit in a pinstripe suit and a deckchair on the beach with his waistcoat and homburg hat firmly in place,” he says. “So Soho is always dressed in these clothes, but the key thing about it was his name came from a dream. I’d been doing this animation and I needed a name [for] the character, and the strange name had occurred in a dream.”

From that dream onwards, Soho inconspicuously entered Kentridge’s life and simply remained. “When I made the first [Eckstein] film in 1989, there was no thought at all that: (a) there would ever be a second film; (b) that the films would ever be shown in an art context; or (c) that they would even be finished,” he says. “It was an experiment with the 60mm Bolex [camera] and the idea of changing a drawing. But once the first film was made … when the second film came it felt kind of natural that he would be in it.”

Kentridge admits there is a definite utilitarian value to Eckstein. “He’s a recurring figure just because he makes [things] possible. He takes away the question of [me] being a costume designer myself, thinking, What should this character wear in the film? Or thinking, Who’s another person that is needed? He represents the fact that this is the viewpoint of what was a young Jewish man and then a middle-aged Jewish man, now an elderly Johannesburg white Jewish man. I can’t pretend that the work comes from any other perspective than that and, in a way, that’s who Soho – like it or not – is.

“He’s a kind of a commedia dell’arte character. I’m not so interested in his psychology but he’s there to help perform the narratives of the different films. In the end, he’s come to be a kind of self-portrait, which has made it harder to work with him,” Kentridge says and chuckles.

So extraordinary is Kentridge’s visual imagination that I ask if he is ever able to switch it off and go about his daily life looking on the world like an ordinary civilian.

“Sometimes I do!” he says. “When I’m watching the World Cup soccer, or cricket, or a Netflix detective series. I’m very happy to not think, How does this turn into a piece of work? Driving around Johannesburg is slightly different. My eye is always struck by details, which I’ll think, Is this an image for the next Soho film? How does one hang on to that image?

Kentridge is refreshingly open and respectful about how his work should be perceived. Is there anything, I ask, that he would very much like Australian audiences to have in their mind heading into a performance of Sibyl?

He pauses. “I suppose the key thing is that there’s not an answer,” he says. “There’s not a single meaning I’m trying to give, there’s not a key to the text that emerges. It’s to allow their eyes and their ears to do the thinking. To see if ideas or associations are provoked by the music and the texts and what they’re seeing, rather than feel there’s a correct interpretation which they’re either getting or missing.”

He smiles. “Relax into the performance,” he says. “And the performance will do its work, and you will meet it halfway.” 

The Australian premiere of William Kentridge’s latest work, Sibyl, will run November 2-4 2023 at the Sydney Opera House.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 9, 2023 as "Surrender to fate".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription