Publication: The Times
Vivienne Koorland and William Kentridge: Conversations in letters and lines
The term palimpsest originally related to a sheet writing material such as parchment from which text could be erased and the surface re-used. The term has long since been extended to include an area or surface which is marked, and later erased and added to.
It’s entirely fitting that the term be applied to the work of artists Vivienne Koorland (born 1957) and William Kentridge (1955). Both are highly significant South African artists of European origin and their work is deeply rooted in the politics, geography, history and culture of their country.
Koorland uses found or ‘poor’ materials as the basis for her work. Unlike the traditional canvas favoured by painters over generations, she uses wood, sacking, and other coarse or fibrous material, which she often stitches or staples together to create a surface on which to paint, draw, sketch and otherwise to manipulate. Unlike linen-derived canvas, which traditionally has remained invisible, Koorland employs these surfaces as both statement and expressive medium.
In one of her very large wall mounted works, which combines elements of painting, textiles and cartography, Koorland depicts an outline map of South Africa on which she has painted various birds and mammals associated with the country. The base ‘canvas’ is in fact made from Ethiopian Yirgascheffe coffee sacks, manufactured from jute or burlap. Also shown are various indigenous peoples, as well as hints of their contact with European colonists.
The work is titled ‘Pays Inconnu’ and is based on Francois Levaillant’s ‘The King’s Map’ from 1781-84, which also depicts indigenous people and wildlife. Levaillant was a noted explorer and naturalist who was working at that time under contract to the Dutch East India Company. One important aspect of Koorland’s work is the way that she underlines trade and exploration as the basis of colonisation. The interior of the country is marked simply, ‘Pays Inconnu’, indicating, from a wholly European perspective, the ‘unknown’, or what Joseph Conrad later referred to as ‘the heart of darkness’.
Aspects of Kentridge’s methodology are also a form of palimpsest in that he creates animations from drawings that are continuously altered, erased and adapted. In a meticulous and time-consuming process, Kentridge draws and then photographs his images at each stage of their development. The photographs are later combined into a continuous animation. Kentridge often depicts himself in these time-staged drawings, where he shows himself running, dancing, shaving, and even drawing. Often, these animations are populated by characters and events that combine to create unsettling narratives, often accompanied by music – melodic and haunting with an African soul. Kentridge uses publications, such as antique ledgers and outdated textbooks, which he draws over to create his animations, further emphasising a sense of the re-writing of history, ideas and identity.
The work of both artists is rarely, if ever, directly political but imagery, material, sound and fragmented narrative combine to create work of an intensely powerful and disquieting nature.