William Kentridge's new non-profit art foundation is a game-changer

2017-02-19 06:01

Johannesburg - Anyone working in the creative world will understand what artist William Kentridge means when he discusses “the less good idea”.

Speaking to the crowd gathered for the unofficial first meeting of his unofficial art foundation – the not-so-inventively named Centre for the Less Good Idea – he explains: “Very often, when one does a project – whether it’s a drawing, a painting, a film or a piece of theatre – it has a very clear first idea, and it seems like such a good idea to follow this idea, and then that’s going to be the piece. But then you actually start the work...”

People in the audience look at one another knowingly.

“It’s now no longer something you’re writing in a proposal, or on a piece of paper. You’re on the stage, with the dancers; with the piece of paper writing the poem and, in that process, different things start to happen – new ideas that you hadn’t thought of when you had the first idea,” he continues.

“These things that happen are what I call the secondary idea, or the less good idea. They’re the things that haven’t been thought of in the same way, but which often become the heart and most interesting part of the project.”

The concept seems quite an abstract one at first – to try to hold work in process, with no expectation of an outcome – but it becomes clearer if you read the plan for the centre’s first season of events, which launch next month. Sixty different creatives, all from different disciplines – actors, dancers, poets, writers, composers, musicians, visual artists, film makers and even boxers (the kind who wear boxing gloves) – are due to collide in six events, which are all scheduled to take place at Kentridge’s studio and new adjoining buildings in the Maboneng Precinct.

A huge investment

This inaugural programme has been put together by a team of co-curators who have come together to facilitate and guide the process.

Khayelihle Dominique Gumede, Lebo Mashile and Gregory Maqoma – some of the biggest names in the business – are steering the team for season one, and will be performing and directing with some of the more underground art stars, such as Tony Miyambo, Jemma Kahn, Hamilton Dlamini and Sello Pesa.

If you think it sounds elaborate and expensive, you’re right.

Kentridge, who was this year rated as the most powerful artist in Africa, and the 62nd overall most powerful artist in the world, according to the ArtReview Power 100 list, has committed R3 million a year to the Centre for the Less Good Idea for the next three years.

It’s a huge investment for only two seasons a year, but it’s allowing stars such as Mashile the freedom to create in a way they never thought possible.

She’s moved when I ask her how working on the project has been so far.

“Well, I don’t even know what to say. It actually hit me properly a month ago when I realised that I can say whatever the hell I want and no one needs to approve my idea; no one needs to censor me; no one is telling me who I need to be or what I need to make. And then my brain just started exploding.

“It’s so liberating to have access to this kind of talent, resources and support in my creative vision – to be as free as I want. It’s just completely life-changing.”

Complete freedom

Of course, it’s the sort of investment that’s only possible when you have the kind of capital that someone of Kentridge’s level of success has access to. But it’s time, Mashile says, that people like him start putting money back into the system that got them to where they are.

“Okay, so he’s a unicorn – one of the most brilliant artists alive – and deserves all the success he’s got. But for someone that talented, prolific and successful – who does come from privilege – he can take that leverage and turn it into an extraordinary artistic contribution ... How many people with that kind of success will decide to take R3 million a year for three years to plough into the arts?

“It’s extraordinary to do that, period. But it’s also extraordinary at this period, historically. I mean, it’s a bleak time politically, and the story of the South African artist is still a very hard and difficult one. They don’t get the recognition they deserve.

“It’s what makes this one of the most important events in South African arts right now. It’s a whole new model for the industry to look to,” she says.

In an art scene that is increasingly reliant on the market-driven requirements that commercial art venues expect, and the constraints put on projects by funding bodies, it’s a game-changer.

*The season starts on 1 March. Go to lessgoodidea.com for tickets, which cost R100 to R150 per performance.

(Photos: Stella Olivier)

Read more on:    johannesburg  |  art

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