Art & Politics

Animation : Felix in Exile (1994) by William Kentridge (South Africa)

William Kentridge is one of South Africa’s top artists, best known for his prints, drawings, and animated films. The animations such as ‘Felix in Exile’ (below) are made without a script or storyboard but start with a general idea and one or two drawings.

Felix in Exile was created in 1994, a momentous time when South Africa was transitioning through a social, political and economic revolution to a new post-Apartheid society, with new uncertainties and struggles ahead. Kentridge states that, although his work does not focus on apartheid in a direct and overt manner, but rather on the contemporary state of Johannesburg, his drawings and films are certainly spawned by, and feed off, the brutalised society that it left in its wake.

He was born and grew up as a European in Apartheid South Africa and his parents were lawyers, famous for defending victims of the atrocious apartheid regime. As with the work of many other artists shown on Red Line Art Works, it may help to know the basics of his country’s socio-political condition and history. This can be helpful (even essential) in looking at artists from all eras and societies.

Kentridge meticulously films the making of a drawing (usually in charcoal and maybe a blue or red pastel), including the erasures and changes. Each change to the drawing is given a quarter of a second to two seconds' screen time. A single drawing will be altered and filmed as it is developed, until the end of a scene.

The film, along with the drawing, is the finished art work. Kentridge considers that the meaning of the work develops through his work in the studio, rather than starting out with a pre-defined meaning and working towards that. He regards his process as a way of thinking, rather than a physical medium.

You need to use your knowledge and experience as well as your interpretive skills to see all the levels of meaning in Kentridge's work. No art theory is sufficient. Your sense and feelings are vital, along with what you know about the actuality of life for people under the Apartheid regime. Kentridge is grappling with what is not said, what remains suppressed or forgotten but can more easily be felt.

Apartheid, including extensive state violence and brutality was used as a tool to keep the indigenous black people (90% of the population) from taking over the minority colonial power, resources and money. Throughout this animation, the bleak, oppressive and sombre mood is obvious, there are vulnerable people, uncomfortable situations and diverse aspects of social injustice. This comprehensive injustice makes the scenes in this animation sites of continuous emotional, individual, social and political struggle.