The landmarks of an iconic career

“Norval Foundation is presenting, for the first time, an exhibition focused solely on William Kentridge’s sculptural practice, working in conjunction with the artist and his studio. Kentridges’ sculptures embrace a spontaneous approach and have recently evolved towards the massive, and the monumental. Simultaneously, and in tension to the monumental aspects of his practice, he is revealed to be a choreographer as much as a sculptor,”

  • Karel Nel, Senior Advising Curator at Norval Foundation.

Titled Why Should I Hesitate, Zeitz MOCAA and Norval Foundation will be hosting a series of exhibitions that cover over 40 years of artistic production in drawing, stop-frame animation, video, prints, sculpture, tapestry, and large-scale installation.

Norval Foundation will present the first survey of internationally acclaimed artist William Kentridge’s sculptural practice, opening in Cape Town on 24 August. In Why Should I Hesitate? Sculpture, vistors will encounter a range of new and historical artworks produced over the last two decades which narrate Kentridge’s engagement with three-dimensional form. Running from 24 August 2019 to 23 March 2020, Norval Foundation’s exhibition will coincide with a complimentary exhibition Why Should I Hesitate? Putting Drawings To Work, at Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, which takes Kentridge’s drawing practice as its focal point.

Why Should I Hesitate? Sculpture will be the first exhibition internationally to address Kentridge’s output as a sculptor and is a unique focus on this aspect of his practice. Covering several bodies of work, and testifying to his longstanding improvisation when handling three-dimensional form, this exhibition sees the origins of these works in props from his operas and images from his animations stepping off the stage and out of the screen, confronting us directly at ground level. Why Should I Hesitate? Sculpture will also premiere new works commissioned for this exhibition.

A central concern of Why Should I Hesitate? Sculpture is an understanding that Kentridge’s sculptures have agency. Kinetic sculptures make use of megaphones on survey tripods, a deft nod to Russian Constructivism, and imply a propogandist’s broadcasting of an impersonal and mechanical authority. In Singer Trio (2018), for example, ‘ready-made’ sewing machines are given voices for a performance enacted in unison, their megaphones synchronised as they take on a new and humorous presence in this world.

Several pieces from Kentridge’s visual lexicon have been reworked into scaled-up plaster prototypes from which monumental bronze sculptures have been cast: a gigantic corkscrew, a collapsing jug of Cubist descent, a visual flourish in the form of an ampersand, and the intense presence of an enormous ciné camera – the observing alter ego of Kentridge’s prodigious output perhaps?

The ruptured narrative, so powerfully visible in Kentridge’s work, is choreographed into serried dislocations which collide the space between the personal and the political, the operatic and the mundane, the apparently irrelevant and the socially pertinent. Approaching Kentridge’s sculptures opens us up onto a Dadaist landscape, which both challenges and beguiles.

Recently, the artist took the time to respond to questions from Norval Foundation Curator, Karel Nel and Zeitz MOCAA Curator, Azu Nwagbogu wherein he expands on the inspiration for his works.

Questions from Norval Foundation Curator Karel Nel:

Q: The first exhibition internationally to address your output as a sculptor will be on display at Norval Foundation in August. What has informed the development of your sculptural output over the years?

A: The origins of the sculpture that I’ve done…. A lot of the early work that I did had to do with either silhouettes or shadows. And shadows by their nature are immaterial, simply an absence of light, a blockage of the light. And the sculptures started as a way of making this immaterial substance, or void, a shadow into a solid weighty material object. This was usually done by taking the shape of a shadow or a silhouette – a silhouette of the shadow you could say – and extruding it outwards onto paper, into cardboard into wax on paper, or cloth so that the image which had no dimensionality, or it had only two dimensionality, gets extruded and given a weight in the third dimension. This was the basis of most of the sculptures, which is to say that they’re the sculptures of a draftsman rather than a pure sculptor. Three dimensionality is an essential attribute of them but they usually start as a drawing. And this has expanded from making the sculptures thicker and heavier to feel the weight of a word and to feel the weight of an image. The usual transformation has been from a cardboard or cloth or wax into bronze but there are also steel sculptures, steel cut-outs, welded steel sculptures, some assemblages of wood and twigs, some of which remain as these rough assemblages, some of which then get cast. There are a number of sculptures which are made in cardboard, cast in bronze and painted to look like sculptures. There are also virtual sculptures in which the sculptural three-dimensionality only exists in the viewer’s brain. Two flat images which are pushed into a third dimension through various stereoscopic means.

So the push towards sculpture has been both questions of perception, the apparent illusion of three dimensionality in these virtual sculptures, wanting to find a weight of immaterial objects, both a physical weight and I suppose a kind of moral of these objects.

Q: Who would you say are the artists who have most profoundly influenced your sculptural output?

A: It’s difficult to say whose influenced me. There are artists I’ve looked at whose work I’ve looked at a huge amount. Of course Picasso’s sculptures are central to this, particularly his first painted glasses of absinthe which are a wonderful mixture of sculpture, painting and assemblage. The later sculptures of Cy Twombly stay as a very strong thought in my head. Alexander Calder becomes increasingly important as a way of thinking about movement and sculpture. And no one can think about sculpture without thinking about [Alberto] Giacometti in the 20th century. But the central sculpture I suppose that sits in my head as one of the great works of the last 100 years is Picasso’s sculpture of the nanny goat made out of the assemblage of pots and baskets found in the rubbish heap next to his studio.

Q: Your work seems both political and philosophical. How have these two disciplines shaped your vision as an artist, and as a sculptor?

A: As an artist I think one always works in two directions or three directions, the third one being the pressure cooker of the studio in which the first two elements comes together. So the one is the world coming towards you. These are both personal events, political events, social events, everything that happens around you in the world which is invited into the studio, some of which are political, some which are philosophical. The nature of certainty and uncertainty, marginal thinking, peripheral thinking to go with peripheral vision. The other element is of course the history of image-making. The way in which one’s brain is filled not only with images of the outside world but with ways that they have represented over the years by artists from different cultures, traditions, and histories. And all of these sit together in one’s head and the studio becomes the kitchen in which the different ingredients are cooked. So some of the sculptures are primarily concerned with natures of perception, what is a two dimensional image that is hidden inside a three dimensional unrecognisable object. In other words, which objects can you only see when you become monocular or when you close one eye. This of course relates to the single-eyed vision of baroque theatre designs and single point perspective which are both questions of philosophical understandings of the world and ways of representing it.

Questions from Zeitz MOCAA Curator for Why Should I Hesitate? Putting Drawings To Work Azu Nwagbogu:

Q: Why is drawing still central to your practice as an artist and further to that, what role does new media play in your working practice as an artist? As a corollary, what does materiality mean to you as an artist and how is this represented in this exhibition?

A: Drawing is the starting point for the project. It’s a way of thinking in material. In my case, very often charcoal which has the flexibility of being erased as quickly and easily as you can change your mind and have a new thought. So it’s a way of thinking aloud. I rely on the process of drawing to generate thoughts which may end up as charcoal drawings or may end up as sculptures or tapestries or films or pieces of theatre.

It is always a question of finding a material in which to think. Whether it is an actor’s body, a gesture, torn paper or ink. There must be a connection between the particular qualities of the material and the thematics that are under investigation.

Q: The thematics around your work are often around the ambiguity of power and its shifting structures; those who wield it which changes but always seem to remain the same. Do you think of your work as a collection of fables? I.e. moral stories? But fables are based on fiction whereas your work is rooted in history. How do fact and fiction interplay in your work?

A: I hadn’t thought of my work as a collection of fables but I’m not unhappy to have that description. It’s a bit like Theodore Adorna’s Minima Moralia (a little morals). So they’re moral fables except that I don’t know what the moral is of the stories that I tell. And the works are done to try to not only find out what the moral is, but what the question is behind the moral. The ambiguity of moral positions is very often what is revealed.

All things can come in to the studio which includes both the world of news reporting and fact in that sense, archival material, photographic records of events but also dreams, thoughts, novels, poems, and all have an equal status in the studio in terms of being raw material for a new drawing or film. Which has always an intermediate and indeterminate status of being between fact and fiction and has the facticity of the artwork.    

Q: Can you tell us about the importance of The Centre for the Less Good Idea and its role in your practice and this is represented in this major exhibition? 

A: The Centre For The Less Good Idea is playing an important part in the cultural life of Johannesburg and is an alternative to the larger more established institutions that are there. But it is not part of the exhibition Why Should I hesitate. It would need a separate exhibition. It would need a space primarily of performance rather than of exhibition. So whereas there are public showings outside of the centre itself, of the work that it does, that’s a new project to undertake.


A series of member and public events will take place on the opening weekend, Saturday 24 and Sunday 25 August 2019.

Exhibition title:          Why Should I Hesitate? Sculpture

Venue:                         Atrium and Galleries 2-8, Norval Foundation, 4 Steenberg Road, Tokai

Run dates:                  24 August 2019 – 23 March 2020

Exhibition curators:   Karel Nel, Owen Martin, Talia Naicker, Vicky Lekone