William Kentridge’s Ubu Projects

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev

In 1888 the French dramatist Alfred Jarry wrote the play Ubu Roi as a satirical and grotesque expression of the way in which arbitrary power engenders madness. He achieved this through the portrayal of a ridiculous but devastating despot, who was also a licentious libertine, an emblem of the clumsy and brutal deeds done in the service of a calculating state. Jarry counters this arbitrary power with what he called “pataphysics” the science of imaginary solutions, unmasking its absurdity through farce, rather than empowering the tyrant by granting him serious presentation. Ubu Roi has inspired countless artists and writers, and Jarry’s approach was to lead to a new genre – the Theater of the Absurd. From a South African perspective, Ubu became a particularly powerful metaphor for the insane policy of Apartheid, presented by the state as a rational system.

In 1975, Kentridge performed the role of Captain McNure in Junction Avenue Theatre Company’s production Ubu Rex, an adaptation of Jarry’s play. Just over twenty years later, in 1996, the artist Robert Hodgins, with whom Kentridge has often collaborated, suggested a group show of prints on the theme of Ubu. In response, Kentridge developed a series of etchings in which he layered chalk representations of Jarry’s cartoon-like, outline drawings of Ubu with his own contrasting textural and tonal drawings of a naked man, stemming from photographs of himself in the studio. The result was a series of outrageous images entitled Ubu Tells the Truth. The dovetailing of these images implies that Ubu is an endemic part of any individual. By grappling with this Ubu within oneself, he may perhaps be controlled and contained within the individual, and by implication, within society.

After making the etchings, Kentridge began to think of animating the blackboard, cartoon-style Ubu drawings into the animation for the theater performance Ubu and the Truth Commission (1997). Subsequently he made the new film Ubu Tells the Truth (1997) where Ubu does not appear as a character but is implied. This film has been exhibited on its own and with wall drawings. Kentridge has later continued to explore the Ubu figure through a series of large Ubu drawings and a group of prints entitled Sleeper. The Ubu drawings have occasionally been presented alongside others made in white chalk on a black wall.

Just as Kentridge had layered radically different styles of drawing in the etchings, in his animation, burlesque constantly switches to contrasting factual material. This film differs from the preceding ones not only in the cartoon-like, caricatured figure of Ubu, but also in its method of production and in a more direct engagement with the violence and brutality of events in South Africa leading up to the end of Apartheid and the 1994 elections. The process of successively altering charcoal and pastel drawings on paper is still employed, but Kentridge also collages together schematic, white chalk drawings on black paper, paper cut-outs, and documentary photographs and footage. This archival material ranges from images of police with whips – lashing into a running crowd in Cato Manor in 1960, or storming a group of students at Wits University during the State of Emergency in 1985 – to footage from the Soweto uprising of 1976.

Wishing to continue his collaboration with Handspring Puppet Company following Woyzeck on the Highveld (1992) and Faustus in Africa! (1995), Kentridge had been planning a new play about the experience of waiting. At the same time, the writer and curator Jane Taylor was reflecting on the meanings and implications of the devastating stories being told during the hearings of the newly inaugurated Truth and Reconciliation Commission. These projects merged in a collaboration that would explore the personal tales of atrocity related by witnesses to the TRC, as well as the confessions of perpetrators of abuse, as symbols of the larger national narrative of reconciliation. The resulting play, scripted by Taylor, and performed by Handspring, combined Adrian Kohler’s puppetry with Kentridge’s animation and direction. The horror of the testimonies would be counterbalanced by the extravagant wildness of Ubu. While the play Ubu and the Truth Commission clearly implies that theater has a role to play in national catharsis and reconciliation, Kentridge’s animated film Ubu Tells the Truth has a less defined message, a more open-ended approach. It is a disjointed, jerky, often brutal montage of sound and image, full of jump-cuts, badly drawn cartoons and visually disturbing juxtapositions. Although moral outrage is, of course, suggested, the film does not appear to offer the viewer any predefined ideological position.

Published in C. Christov-Bakargiev, William Kentridge, Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea / Skira: Milan, 2003, pp. 107-108. Extract from C. Christov-Bakargiev, William Kentridge, Société des Expositions du Palais des Beaux-Arts, Bruxelles 1998, pp. 118-119.