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  • Writer's pictureStephen Clingman

Charcoal Philosophy

Updated: Mar 6, 2023

Recently I gave a talk at my university on William Kentridge, the renowned South African artist. Some time ago, I had been commissioned by Kentridge to write the catalogue for his 2022 exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, the largest presentation of his work to date in the UK. The catalogue was produced as a most beautiful book by the RA, and so my event was an opportunity to celebrate that as well as show two of William’s recent films, which he generously allowed me to do.

I had been looking forward to it for months, but two weeks ahead of the date I saw that the weather forecast was beginning to look ominous. The closer we got to the day the worse it looked. Ultimately there was a massive ice and snow storm, and the university was closed. By some magic, however, the venue was available the following day, and so we were able to reschedule. The place was packed, and all in all it was a beautiful moment for me—a time to show William’s films in what has been my home environment for more than thirty years and connect with others who found it meaningful.

During the Q&A a colleague from Amherst College asked me a question about William’s use of charcoal—his primary medium, so to speak, which underlies so much of what he does, and I was happy to respond. William has been articulate on his affinity for charcoal, as he is on so many things, and I was able to follow his ideas as well as take things in my own direction. Part of the point about charcoal is that it doesn’t have a clear point. Instead, the very outlines it creates are already dispersed on the page, even smudged. William follows up this intrinsic property of charcoal in the films he makes from his drawings—what he calls ‘drawings for projection’. He will create a drawing, and photograph it twice; then smudge or erase the outlines and redraw them—then photograph again, and so on and so on until the still photos, pieced together, make a film. One can think of this as stop-animation, except that in William’s hands the image itself is already animate—part of the property of charcoal in that it has a capacity to be in movement even as it is laid down on paper.

William had grown up in a family where both his parents were prominent lawyers. Sydney Kentridge was involved as a member of the defence in some of the major political trials of the era; he also represented the Biko family at the inquest into the murder of Steve Biko by the police. Felicia Kentridge was a co-founder of the Legal Resources Centre, a public interest organization that led any number of cases against the social and political machinations of apartheid. William might have followed in the family line: he is extraordinarily articulate on so many fronts, at school he was a talented debater, logic is not alien to his capacities at all. But William was looking for a different kind of logic: the logic of art, which carries its own meanings, the logic of question as much as answer.

And here we come to charcoal. As I have suggested, part of the point about it is that its point is not clear. Charcoal in its very nature edges black into white, white into black. And this is also the stage at which I follow my own direction. The world of apartheid was built up out of ostensibly clear lines—lines that separated people along the frontiers of black and white. It built walls, fences, divisions of all kinds. It was, in short, a regime of seeing which controlled a whole regime of being. There were of course counter-philosophies with their own regimes of thought. But art is unruly, the point of charcoal is not that clear. It doesn’t claim to endow clear vision. This produces a different kind of liberation: the liberation that the image or the film can bring, enabling us to see—and question—differently. Coming out of apartheid, in other words, is a philosophy that is counter to every hard and fast regime of regulation there is. Kentridge’s form of liberation is in the first place to liberate and then follow the image. As I put it in the title of my presentation, his work is about ‘Liberating Vision’.

All of this is important to me for my own reasons. For many years now I have been thinking about boundaries and what we might call the philosophy of the boundary. I have no doubt that my preoccupation with this question also comes out of my experience of apartheid. It seems to me there are two ways to think about the nature of the boundary. One can see it as a line, a barrier, a limit, something that separates space into compartments. Or one can see it as a space in itself, an area of osmosis and interaction. Philosophies of identity—such as underlie the apartheid world—belong to the former, but in my view we desperately need the latter. Any politics that relies on identity for its foundation—that identity is one thing and one thing only, that denies the productive space among and between people, and often exists within our sense of self—will mislead us. It produces ghettoes and walls and conflict. Living in the complex boundary of connection with others is difficult; we don’t enter those spaces as equal in power or resources or history. But we need to find the spaces in which we edge into one another, explore that osmosis, make up composite or combinatory pictures, find other textures in ourselves. We need a philosophy of charcoal in other words.

I was of course upset when I realized I would have to postpone the original date of my Kentridge talk, but afterwards I saw that I shouldn’t have been. The outline of the date got smudged, erased, reconstituted. It was like one of William’s drawings. The philosophy of charcoal exists in time as well as space. We have to live with transitions and transformations that may be unexpected, and follow them where they go, alive to their potential in new forms. As William himself points out, charcoal is a medium that has already undergone transformation: burnt wood that finds a new use and meaning. The philosophy of charcoal, the nature of the boundary, a vision that is on the side of ever-regenerating life: that is not a bad philosophy.

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