A unique event, Turning the world into material, occurred on Saturday 6 April at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town. This event was a panel discussion, chaired by Michelle Constant of Business and Art South Africa (BASA), between three world-renowned creatives: William Kentridge, Wole Soyinka and Peter Sellars. The event formed part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, which stems back to the early apprenticeship model where an artist would learn their trade from a senior, experienced artist. Every year this initiative seeks out gifted young artists from all over the world and partners them with a well-established artist in their field. During the course of 2012 – 2013, William Kentridge mentored young Colombian artist, Mateo Lopez. Wole Soyinka was the Literature Mentor from 2008 – 2009 and Peter Sellars mentored in Theatre from 2010 – 2011.
Much of the discussion focussed on the role that art plays in society. How does art transcend and deal with issues that citizens struggle to address? An example of this topic was South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was set up to uncover truth in exchange for amnesty following the dismantling of Apartheid. The aim of the process was for both parties involved to reconcile with each other. In 1997, William Kentridge and the Handspring Puppet Company produced a theatre production entitled, Ubu and the Truth Commission, drawing extensively on imagery from Alfred Jarry’s 1896 absurdist play, Ubu Roi. The protagonist is Pa Ubu who has been away from home for a long period of time. His wife suspects he is flirting with a mistress, but he has in fact been working as an agent of the governmental death squad. The story follows the tussles and guilt as well as the barbaric nature of such a character, mirrored by many similar characters that emerged in reality during the TRC talks. Animated imagery created by William Kentridge and used as a backdrop in Ubu and the Truth Commission was shown to the audience on Saturday. For many people including the artists involved in this production, making the art allowed them to access the TRC and the trauma associated with it more easily by exaggerating the content into something grotesque and absurd. Peter Sellars, on a similar note, described how one of his productions that explored the shocking Highway of Death in Iraq was booed and vandalised by audiences in the United States because it was so controversial and deemed “unpatriotic” despite the fact that no imagery from the actual events was used.
Another topic that was discussed by the mentors was ‘the impulse to make art’. This topic arose from Soyinka being questioned about where the impulse to make art comes from. In his philosophical way, Soyinka shared how sometimes you can’t wait for the impulse otherwise you might be waiting forever, but at the same time you cannot force the impulse. Kentridge took up the point, referring to what he calls ‘a productive procrastination’ in his own practise. If there is no impulse in the present situation, it does not mean you can’t produce work. An inspiration may well arise in the process of making art. Kentridge went even further to state that good ideas, followed dogmatically, are often dangerous as they may confine and narrow the mind of the artist resulting in potential new ideas being put aside.
At the end of the discussion, one of the protégés asked Kentridge whether theatre has influenced his art. He answered this question by stating how theatre has allowed him to explore his identity. It has shown him how we as humans are constructed with a number of complex identities and by using theatre he is able to see these fragments that make up who he is as a person. This question linked back to the rest of the discussion as it shows how in some instances Kentridge can use the art of theatre when he needs an impulse. It also shows how the simple execution of drawing can be utilised in a theatre production. Ultimately, the discussion revealed that, no matter what medium an artist chooses to articulate his voice, creativity is an aid to the healing of communities and the resolution of conflicts both personal and public.