Nur Aniqah Binte Sumadi on William Kentridge’s Monument

Monument (1990) by William Kentridge

William Kentridge (born 28 April 1955) is a South African artist who employs techniques in printing, drawing and animated films as part of his work. The composition and media selection for his works play a significant role in the narrative that he aims to share to the audience. Most of his works, especially his earlier ones, were inspired by the complex political and social issues faced in South Africa. He uses these issues as the main theme that is being addressed throughout his series of 9 animated film titled ‘Drawings for Projection’ (1989 – 2003), which includes ‘Monument’ as the second part of the series.

‘Monument’, as well as the other 8 animated films, was created in a palimpsest method whereby the charcoal used for the drawings on paper was being erased and redrawn for every scene. Although this method may be considered labour-intensive, the intentional leftover charcoal effects in different scenes as a new drawing appears into the frame became a signature style for Kentridge in showing his artistic process in the film. Kentridge chose to stay with this method for producing his animated films as he believes in the fluidity of the drawings that can be seen from one scene to another, unlike a frozen moment captured in photographs.

In ‘Monument’, Kentridge antagonises a character named Soho Eckstein, who is a mine owner, land developer and a person in guise of a civic benefactor. The protagonist, whom throughout the series is referred to as Harry most of the time, is being shown at the beginning of this film portrayed as a labourer, oppressed by the effects of Soho’s dominance during the pre-democracy era, and is seen disappearing into the far distance of the landscape carrying a large sack over his shoulders. The main focus of this film is the moment when Soho revealed a monument to a large crowd, which was built looking identical to Harry as we had seen him in the beginning.

There are many ways that one could go about interpreting the meaning of Monument and the political and social issues of South Africa which it could be connected to. The monument that was being erected can be seen as a representation of the labour force which Soho had commissioned to be built in order to mask his domineering role in the South African society during the pre-democracy era. His own actions led to a dilemma of showing gratitude to the anonymous labourers working on his behalf but at the same time stopping short of recognizing their value of humanity to build his empire. The monument serves to comfort Soho’s feeling of guilt towards the labourers in not appreciating them enough and his hopes to instil sympathy and awareness behind the empire’s upbringing.

On the other hand, the protagonist as the labourer, may be directed towards the political issue of white supremacy in South Africa and blacks were considered labourers, leaving them to move from one place to another and without a sense of a permanent home or belonging in their own country in order to escape an unfavourable life. This idea can be represented at the beginning where audiences will see the protagonist disappearing in the distance carrying what looks like a heavy sack which may contain his belongings as a symbolism of the burden which the country has left him with. This scene of walking away from the country can also be a symbolism of wanting freedom from his unappreciated and oppressed life in South Africa as if resembling Nelson Mandela’s book titled Long Walk to Freedom (1994) which also featured snapshots of current history and allegorical representation of political change which Kentridge could have been aware of and relevant at the time in the making of the series.

At the last scene of the film, the monument that resembles the labourer seems to have come to life and shows emotion through his eyes. His eyes, slightly looking downwards with a tiring and sad expression, started to blink – a similar scene from Samuel Beckett’s ‘Catastrophe’ (1982) which Kentridge could have drawn his influence from for his film as he had helped direct it in Johannesburg. In Beckett’s play, a scene of a stationary man on stage was being moved in desired positions as told by the character known as The Director, which in Kentridge’s film is similar to how Soho has commissioned the monument to be built. Afterwards, the man which everyone presumed to be lifeless, blinked with helpless emotion similarly to how Harry did at the end of ‘Monument’. With how the character Harry is being portrayed in ‘Monument’, Kentridge would want audiences to be aware of the political crisis in South Africa and draw attention to the labourers who felt silenced due to the oppressive society. Though Soho was responsible for the development of the land, shown through images of billboards and lamp posts in the film, Kentridge brings forward the importance in acknowledging the labourers’ treatment and having an equal level of humanity shown towards them.

Nur Aniqah Binte Sumadi

November 2017

Frontrunner Curatorial Assistant


Further Reading: 1) Kate McCrickard, WK: William Kentridge, Tate Publishing, 2012. 2) Leora Maltz-Leca, “Williams Kentridge and the Process of Change”, The Art Bulletin, College Art Association, pp. 139-165, Vol. 95, No. 1, March 2013. 3) Dan Cameron, Carolyn Chritov-Bakargiev, J.M. Coetzee, William Kentridge, Phaidon Publishing, 1999. 4) William Kentridge and Rosalind C. Morris (conversations), That Which Is Not Drawn, Seagull Books Publishing, 2014. 5) Matthew Kentridge, The Soho Chronicles: 10 Films by William Kentridge, Seagull Books, 2015.