The first time I saw William Kentridge’s work – at the LaM (Modern Art Museum) in Lille in 2020 – I was blown away, so I was really pleased that his work was exhibited at the 39th edition of Art Brussels. Kentridge is an outraged conscience of civilisation, courageous and tenacious in his criticism – of apartheid in his native South Africa, colonialism, of atrocities of any kind – and a restless explorer of identity.
Kentridge presented two tapestries designed by him and woven by Marguerite Stephens Weaving Studio: Carte de L’Europe divisée en ses different états (Shower woman) – Europe divided in its different states, and Expedition de Jeune Cyrus et retrait des dix mille (with Wrought Iron) – The expedition of Cyrus the Younger and the retreat of the ten thousand. Both were made in 2006-7; both tell important stories.
Carte de L’Europe divisée en ses different états (Shower woman) presents the map of Europe from 1858, in the middle of the colonial era, well before the suicidal world wars. As noted by historian Philip Hoffman, in 1800, Europe controlled 35% of the globe, and by 1914, 84%. The map is, however, a backdrop, and the main image is of a woman in a shower who looks forced to be there: her arms are not free, and she seems tied down on a chair. The water is blood red, delineating paths from Europe to colonial lands; the holes in the showerhead are crosses, suggesting death. Is this a political shout at all those who suffered under colonialism, made even stronger by the shower as we cannot help but hear the echo of the atrocities of the Shoah, even if from a later epoch of shame? Europe is still grappling with its apology for history, and this artwork reminds us that there is so much more to be done for Europe’s truth and reconciliation in this world.
The second tapestryspeaks of the fratricidal war at the heart of Persia in 400 BCE when Cyrus the Younger hired 10,000 Greeks mercenaries to take the Persian throne from his brother Artaxerxes. It was a pyrrhic victory for Cyrus, who won but died in the battle. The Greeks were abandoned. Led by Xenophon, they made their way through the lands, skirting or victoriously confronting adversary, plundering to survive, and finally returning to Greece. The Greeks and the world learnt that the great Persian empire was not invincible, setting the scene for Alexandre the Great, who would conquer Persia in the 3rd century BCE. The European Expansion had begun. In Kentridge’s tapestry, the man with the modern hat looks nothing like Xenophon. Given the wrought iron, he seems an icon of industrialisation and colonialism. He could be a European carrying a fence, perhaps a symbol of colonial powers’ problematic map-making, drawing often very wrong frontiers between nations, sowing seeds of future discord.
There are two intriguing works of the South African’s prodigious production. His core work is a critique of the brutal reality of South Africa under apartheid and its pervasive racism and profound injustice. He used powerful charcoal drawings where the choice of medium gives a gritty realism in black, white and grey. His films and animations mix harsh realism with potent symbolism and are mesmerising. His work is a witness to history.
Art Brussels includes other political works. The Cuban, Carlos Gariacoa’s Mascara South Africa, caught my eye. I initially thought it was a photo of the destruction in Ukraine, but then I saw it was about Kentridge’s homeland. Here destruction is presented through the medium of a deconstructing jigsaw puzzle — peace and stability is a challenge of keeping hundreds of elements together, and it can fail if we don’t pay attention. For me, this is a lesson of modern reality, and indeed throughout history, manifested using the pieces of a game. Leaders, when deciding the fate of their people, can sometimes take decisions too lightly. The fallen jigsaw pieces amass on the frame while fallen soldiers lie in Ukraine, Sudan, and Syria.
A third artist at Art Brussels focusing on the political was the inimitable Shiharu Chiota from Japan. Her State of Being, with the web of black threads connecting and holding up passports, is, for me, a statement of the many threads of identity. The black lines echoed the bloodlines in William Kentridge’s The Shower Woman and made me think of a mycelium network of influence, here dark. This speaks of guilt and responsibility, an interpretation perhaps influenced by my first seeing William Kentridge’s work and thoughts of European colonialism still resonating in my mind. People’s identity trapped by their own and their nation’s past. Were they to be silver threads sharing help and shining hope. Maybe that can be tomorrow’s art.
I have chosen one of the darker themes of Art Brussels. Another is environmental art: Moffat Takadiwa’s Land of Coca-Cola and Colgate uses plastic waste to create a modern monster, a golem, and Tamara Kostianovsky used recycled textiles to create falsely happy coloured tree stumps and a hanging carcass being fed on by birds of paradise, for me two ironic representations of mankind’s destructive relationship with nature, itself an echo of mankind’ complicated relationship with each other, ourselves.
Art Brussels, from 20 to 23 April, was far from all dark. There is a talented celebration of humanity through the dozens of amazingly painted portraits such as Superhéro and Jeune Marchand Ambulant by Alioune Diagne, Countenance #2 by YoYo Lander, Echoes of Separation by Johnson Eziefula, and Sisters of Sunset by Emmanuel Taku, and the impressively realistic Les Filles Du Calvaire by Jérémie Cosimi and more. The genius of humankind gives hope. The generosity of the artists focusing on the criticism too is welcome. We must, after all, look at our history and ourselves to work out what future we want. And artists are honest mirrors.