We have come to expect William Kentridge to impress us. Whether it’s an opera or puppet show, a movie or an exhibition of paintings and drawings, we expect no less than to come away intellectually and visually stimulated and thoroughly charmed. Yet walking into a room adorned with monumental Kentridge-designed tapestries is less charming initially than it is simply staggering, It took a few moments to process the magnitude and energy of hundreds of square metres of drama, Kentridge style. In Spain, at the Centro de arte contemporáneo de Málaga (Contemporary Art Museum of Malaga), the largest body of Kentridge tapestries to date were recently on show, with them were shown the original designs on which the tapestries were based, as well as some ink drawings and a select group of mosaics and bronze sculptures, the images of which were reflected and repeated in the warp and weft hanging on the walls all around. Kentridge has experimented successfully in just about every medium you can shake a stick of charcoal at, including film, opera, sculpture, puppet making, writing, mosaic and tapestry – as well as drawing and painting. And there is little of his work that doesn’t resonate somewhere somehow with anyone who sees it. The designs – which were done specifically for the tapestries – involve maps, sometimes old and torn, or the pages of encyclopaedias, similarly dated, torn and reassembled. On top of these backgrounds, shadow characters are superimposed. Slashes of reds or blues bring colour and energy, dictating one’s line of sight and electrifying the otherwise natural monochromatic greys, browns and whites. Some of the mohair used in the woven translation is in the undyed natural form and in other places two different colours are twisted together, creating texture and vibrancy. The original design is photographed and blown up to about double its original size for tapestry maker Marguerite Stephens to work on. She traces each shape, colour and hue onto acetate and in close consultation with Kentridge, manipulates, discards and adds elements so that the final image is both amplified and refined.
Each colour is painstakingly chosen by Stephens and the hand-spun mohair is dyed to her specifications in Swaziland. The marks and lines drawn on the acetate are then printed onto paper the size of the final tapestry and this cartoon is used as a template. The actual weaving, while directed and overseen by Stephens, is done by a team of seventeen highly skilled women on one of four looms in the ancient French Gobelin style. The New York Times, after an exhibition in Philidelphia in 2007, described the weaving process as animating the original collages, giving them a visual energy bordering on motion. While Stephens’s translation of the design from one form to another requires a great deal of adaptation and manipulation of the original media, many of the extraneous, unanticipated elements are retained – the pins used to hold down bits of paper and the angled edges of torn paper – are all woven into the final product. At the entrance to the vast exhibition space was a tapestry commissioned by the Mayor of the city of Malaga. Positioned several degrees further south than parts of Algeria, Malaga has long been a gateway between Africa and Europe, and this fact ties in coincidentally with the theme of migration and Diaspora that runs through Kentridge’s tapestry designs. At the press conference on the day of the opening, Kentridge discussed this theme extending also into the physical constructs of the tapestries, which are themselves nomadic murals. The mohair used in the weaving comes from the goats in Lesotho and the eastern Cape. It is spun and dyed in Swaziland, woven in Swaziland and Johannesburg and transported to galleries and buyers throughout the world. There is also the migration of media, from the original paper into tapestry through to bronze sculpture and mosaic. The tapestries displayed represented more than a decade of work and as such show the movement of Kentridge’s thinking and creativity over this time. Malaga is the birthplace of Picasso, and the Malaga tapestry has a homage to him in the pigeon at the base, which is a reference to the drawings of the great Spanish artist’s father. The light hanging down between the two figures is a nod to the eye in Picasso’s famed Guernica painting. The title of the exhibition No se unima usted al baile? (Won’t you come to the ball?), which is twice woven into the Malaga tapestry, is an invitation, says Kentridge, “to find connections and come on the migratory journey”.