Known for hauntingly beautiful animations that reveal the process of their own creation by showing how individual frames have been drawn, adapted, erased and otherwise transformed from one image to the next, William Kentridge introduced the medium of tapestry into his repertoire as another way to tell difficult and harrowing stories. Like his animations, Kentridge’s tapestries also developed from his drawings. For Pianta della Citta di Napoli, Kentridge Worked with a renowned a South African tapestry studio run by master weaver Marguerite Stephens, to translated a map of Naples from 1790 into an oversized, woven sheet of paper on which to make drawings out of Mohair woolen thread and felt. The mohair wool used in the tapestry was hand-carded, spun and dyed in nearby Swaziland, a county on the northeastern border of South Africa.
Atop the map, Kentridge has placed figures that appear to as silhouettes composed of ripped construction paper. Kentridge portrays a horse rearing up on its hind legs in a state of defensive aggression. The horse turns its head to directly confront the man who rides him: a figure whose entire upper body is a oversized nose posed on two skinny legs. In fact, Kentridge was inspired by the 1928 opera The Nose written by Dmitri Shostakovich. The Russian composer had based his own work in music on the 1826 short story by Nikolai Gogol in which the nose leads a life of its own disconnected from its original place on the face of a Russian officer.
Another man, carrying a flag walks in the other direction. Positioned as he is on the map, he appears to be walking away from the city; his head slumped in a gesture of defeat. The date of the map puts the actions of all these characters in the late eighteenth-century; indeed, the effects of The French Revolution rocked all of Europe including Naples, which was occupied by French forces in 1799. Kentridge however uses this historical occupation as a means of speaking to the violence in contemporary South Africa. Other works by Kentridge in tapestry form also feature people carrying bags of enormous size making arduous trips across maps of different cities. In this way, Kentridge is portraying refugees displaced by war, migrants who crossing borders and other displaced people in search of a home to unpack their bags.
Carlos Basualdo, who curated the exhibition of Kentridge’s tapestries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2007, called the work “a precisely calculated blurring of the possibility of conceiving of photography, drawing, and projection as separate and independent mediums” (C. Basualdo, “Office Love,” William Kentridge: Tapestries, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, 2007, p. 14). As the curator explained, “Kentridge initially thought of his tapestries as ‘permanent projections.’ .... While they evoke the moving image, his tapestries also illuminate the centrality of drawing in his practice. He uses the language of one medium to talk about another medium, while at the same time dealing with societies that are themselves in a state of transition” (C. Basulado, http://www.philamuseum.org/exhibitions/264.html [Accessed 10/1/2016]).