Summary

This is a large drawing on a series of eleven sheets of paper, displayed as a montage in an arc formation. It depicts a procession of people moving from right to left. They include bare-chested, black South African miners wearing helmets with a torch-light on the front, a bandaged one-legged man on a crutch, a worker bowed under the weight of an industrial burden, a suited man in a cloth cap shouting into a megaphone, a naked woman and a couple of unidentifiable figures with open umbrellas. The central figure, naked under a tweed coat, stands with his arms outstretched looking up in a pose reminiscent of religious iconography. At his feet a hyena looks out of the drawing. The miner to his left has a hyena slung on his back like a baby. Blue water spurting out of shower heads to his right provides a minimal touch of colour to the predominantly black and grey imagery. The words ‘Develop’, ‘Catch up’ and ‘Even Surpass’ appear in cursive handwriting on the left, centre and right side of the arc. Kentridge derived these from an account of the downfall of Haile Selassi (1892-1975), one-time emperor of Ethiopia. Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book The Emperor (1938) recounts Selassie’s attempts to maintain power. After he survived an attempted coup in 1974 (shortly before being finally deposed) the emperor’s staff issued an idealistic slogan stating that modern Ethiopia should ‘develop, catch up, even surpass’ (quoted in William Kentridge 2001, p.19). This was an attempt to match African poverty to the wealth of the developed Western world.

Much of Kentridge’s work of the late 1980s satirised political idealism. His first animated film, Johannesburg the Second Greatest City after Paris 1989 (Tate T07482), refers to South Africa’s status in relation to the developed countries of Western Europe which colonised it and on which its (white) culture had been based. Its title refers to the hierarchy of cultural value with which white South Africans of Kentridge’s generation were educated. Casspirs Full of Love (Tate P11838), a large print made in the same year, depicts a structure resembling a shelved box containing seven severed heads. This print refers ironically to the state of emergency prevailing in South Africa at the time, under which the security forces had the right to detain suspects without warrant or trial, leading to many state-sanctioned murders. In South Africa’s turbulent political climate of the late 1980s (just before the system of apartheid was dismantled), the pathetic manner in which Selassie held onto power had obvious resonance for Kentridge. Familiar with the social satire of William Hogarth (1697-1764), whose work he had emulated with his own parable of Industry and Idleness in 1986-7 (Hogarth’s original is dated 1747), Kentridge brought this treatment to the current South African situation. Like Johannesburg..., Arc/Procession exposes the effects of ‘superior’ colonial culture on the landscape of South Africa which it has exploited, referred to in the small section of desolate industrial wasteland on the left side of the drawing to which the procession is advancing. Contemporary barbed wire and a battered empty can on the left side of the drawing provide a counter to the older iron railings and sharply pointed iron stakes on the right. The figures proceed in the opposite direction to the title words resulting in a cancellation of the possibility of progress. The drawing is a satire on the classical triumphal arch, originally built by the Romans to commemorate military victories and adopted by European leaders in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Kentridge has said: ‘I’m essentially interested in an art which is political but which allows an ambiguous politics, an art which encompasses as many ambiguities and contradictions as there are.’ (Quoted in William Kentridge 1998, p.164.) Drawings of processions of dispossessed Africans in the landscape were used in the making of Johannesburg.... Recently Kentridge returned to the theme of the procession with a film Shadow Procession 1999 and a sculptural installation, comprising a series of little bronze figures, titled Procession 2000 (The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa).

Further reading:
Neal Benezra, Staci Boris, Dan Cameron, William Kentridge, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York 2001, p.18, reproduced (colour) pp.82-3
Dan Cameron, Carolyn Cristov-Barkagiev, J.M. Coetzee, William Kentridge, London 1999, p.46, reproduced (colour) p.47
Carolyn Cristov-Barkagiev, William Kentridge, exhibition catalogue, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels 1998, reproduced p.163

Elizabeth Manchester
January 2002