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William Kentridge, the South African artist drawing apartheid

From Robyn Curnow, CNN
  • For many Kentridge's work evokes the evokes the tensions and memories of South Africa's former regime.
  • The South African draws, films, sculpts and recently directed an opera in New York
  • Inspired by a love-hate relationship with his home city of Johannesburg
  • Kentridge was born to a Jewish family in South Africa during apartheid

Johannesburg, South Africa (CNN) -- One of South Africa's best-known artists, William Kentridge makes unsettling work about apartheid -- and he is now making a name for himself internationally.

Kentridge's art, which has chronicled South Africa's shift from an apartheid to a post-apartheid society, evokes the tensions and memories of the former regime and reflects the inequalities of modern life.

His work is inspired by a love-hate relationship with the gritty realism of his home city Johannesburg, South Africa's commercial capital.

His body of work defines a generation and, as such, is some of the most sought after and expensive South African art, collected by major institutions around the world.

His work is multidisciplinary, and includes films and drawings, puppet shows and theatre. He has been shown at The Louvre in Paris, and recently finished directing an opera for New York's Metropolitan Opera.

"The Nose," by Russian composer Shoshtakovich was performed to much acclaim earlier this year and showcased Kentridge's knack of incorporating sculptural an filmic elements into stage direction.

His personal and social commentary on South Africa's problems can make for uncomfortable viewing, but, for Kentridge, it's crucial.

"For that not to be in the work would be a surprise or an avoidance, or a pretense that it's not there," he told CNN.

Many of Kentridge's pieces portray the plight of the powerless and oppressed in South Africa.

A recurring character in his work is Soho Eckstein, a fat cat South African property tycoon, who he refers to as his "alter-ego," and downtrodden black workers turn up again and again.

"This is where I've lived for 55 years. It is a city that deconstructs itself the whole time."
--Artist William Kentridge on Johannesburg
  • South Africa
  • Johannesburg
  • Soweto

Kentridge's style is also distinctive: His stark, bold charcoal drawings are characterized by frenetic bold black strokes.

He also transforms many of his drawings into short animated films, using an idiosyncratic technique known as "stop-action animation."

He will draw, erase and rework the same piece many times. Before he erases each version, he photographs it. Each photograph becomes a scene in the animated short film.

He says his art is a constant work in progress and he rarely knows what the finished product will be. "You gradually arrive at the image, rather than know in advance and simply put it down," Kentridge said.

Born to a prominent Jewish family of lawyers in South Africa, 54-year-old Kentridge studied political science and African studies before training under the renowned mime artist, Jacques Lecoq in Paris in the 1970s.

He displayed his feelings about the two cities wryly in the title of his first animated film, "Johannesburg -- Second Greatest City After Paris."

"This is where I've lived for 55 years," he said, explaining how the city inspires him. "[It] is a city that deconstructs itself the whole time, it's busy erasing itself the way you erase a drawing."

He admits to wondering why he has decided to make the city home.

"There's certain sections of the city you drive down and think, why on earth do I choose to spend my days in this part of the world," he said.

"And there are other days when you see extraordinary things and you think, this is remarkable."

Agnes Teh contributed to this article.