Political response to William Kentridge, 2002

William Kentridge: retrospective exhibition at LACMA

© Lorraine O’Grady, 2002

O’Grady recounts an incident from her pre-art life in explanation of her response to the work of the white South African artist.

To respond politically to William Kentridge’s very political work, I have to begin by going back to a “South African” story of my own, which may shed light on my encounter with it.

In 1959, when Kentridge was 4 years old, I was closer to 24 and on my first job out of college. It was at the U.S. Department of Labor, as one of two people monitoring labor conditions in Africa. The highlight of the year for me was being made Vice Chair of the African Study Group, which consisted of the all of 250 people in the government working on Africa (Africa was never high on anybody’s list). There were two blacks in the group (the other was a middle-aged male from the Army Map Service). The only activity of the African Study Group was to meet once a month for lunch-and-a-speaker at the downtown YWCA.

The ASG’s Chair was the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, who got to sit to the speaker’s left during lunch and introduce him afterwards. As Vice Chair, I got to do all the work, sit to the speaker’s right, and moderate the question period. The first speaker of my tenure was the Ambassador of South Africa.

I’d been terrified, but the Ambassador had proved perfectly delightful. An English-speaker, not an Afrikaaner, he and I chatted amiably—about our families, about life in D.C.. Soon feeling at ease, I’d set aside my luncheon plate, its rubbery chicken and limp salad mostly untouched, and attacked the more promising dessert. The Ambassador noticed and, placing his hand on my arm in an avuncular gesture, said, “But my dear, you can’t live on pumpkin pie alone!”

Then it was time for the Q-and-A. Three years earlier, in Brown vs. Board of Education, the U.S. had been forced to begin the process of dismantling the legal structures separating its 15% black population. South Africa, with an 80% black population, was beginning to solidify them. The first question related to the recent decision to convert the bantustans into independent countries. No, the Ambassador did not question his government’s policy on the bantustans. ( … )

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