A procession through time; the ‘Triumphs and Laments Woodcut Series’

By Sbongiseni Khulu

A journey of a thousand miles is said to begin with a single step. In 2016, that step came as a series of tests for what would soon be known as the Triumphs and Laments woodcuts. In print, one usually thinks of tests as a means to an end, be it in finalising composition, carving style, set pressure or colour trials – printing tests is the foundation from which all projects are born. For the DKW team of Sbongiseni Khulu and Chad Cordeiro, this would be their first experience with woodcuts both as carvers and printers. Through Master Printer Jillian Ross’s guidance and leadership, this would also be their first collaborative project with artist William Kentridge. 

Printers Sbongiseni Khulu and Chad Cordeiro tracing William Kentridge’s drawing of Lampedusa onto the woodblock

But just because something is new to some does not mean it’s new to all. William Kentridge’s single step came years earlier, in the form of numerous drawings inspired by scenes from Rome’s cultural and political history; its ‘triumphs and laments.’ The drawings would later become ‘The Wall’; a 550m long frieze, made up of over 80 silhouette 10m high figures, along the banks of Rome’s Tiber River. Over time the silhouette installation would fall vulnerable to nature’s whim as all ephemeral things do. I believe this to be one of the driving forces behind transfiguring the silhouettes into prints and where Master Printer Jillian Ross led the charge in making it a reality. 

If there’s anything to be taken from this, it is that creation is often met with destruction and transformation.

‘The Wall’ along the Tiber River, Rome

You might ask, why woodcuts? Simple – woodgrain lends itself well in mirroring the walls patina. Seeing that none of us are wood experts, this meant soliciting the aid of carpenter Alan Epstein, as various types of woods were collected and veneered together to form the woodblock ensembles used throughout the series. Sadly, not even a carpenter could save us from the endless splinters that would soon follow and endure throughout the years of working on this project. I now know what it’s like to be one with nature. 

Woodblock veneer made up of different types of wood by Alan Epstein
Chad Cordeiro, Sbongiseni Khulu and Alan Epstein plotting out the placement for Mantegna’s first woodcut
Tracing That Which I Do Not Remember
Tracing Refugees onto acetate for wood placement
William Kentridge assessing the woodgrain and giving carving guidelines to the team

It goes without saying that many hands make light work. However, too many cooks also mean considerable margin for ‘error.’ For instance, Mantegna is the only image in the series with a collaged piece printed from a Linocut. How? Well… Some people, myself included, decided the middle figure’s face just needed to go and so it was carved clean off. After noticing our ‘error,’ panic ensued. But fortunately, if it can be taken off then surely it can be put back on. This may or may not have been inspired by the movie FaceOff. Nevertheless, tight deadlines also meant compromises. Mantegna‘s last woodblock came from offcuts. Unfortunately, these didn’t print very well due to their unevenness and numerous knots. As unsettling as these ‘errors’ were at the time, it’s from them that collage became an integral and unifying element of the series. If there’s anything to be taken from this, it is that creation is often met with destruction and transformation. From an idea drawn on paper to an installation on a wall, then translation of said idea onto wood, only to find its place again on paper – where it all began. 

The Making of Triumphs and Laments Woodcuts exhibition by William Kentridge at David Krut Projects, Johannesburg

When tackling a project of this magnitude trust is a big component. The trust component flows from the artist, William Kentridge, to Master Printer Jillian Ross, then from her to the carpenter Alan Epstein and the team of carvers and printers led by Sbongiseni Khulu and Chad Cordeiro. Each step is crucial to the success of the project and each person was just as responsible as the next for its outcome. 

We are all born into families one way or another; this family was born of shared endurance, and love for the arts. The T&L woodcut series brought forth in us collective triumphs with seeing the works finalised, as well as laments…


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