(un)Fixing the Eye: William Kentridge and the Optics of Witness.

  • Andrew Hennlich

Student thesis: Phd


South African artist William Kentridge's (b. 1955) work frequently employsoptical tools, such as the stereoscope, to highlight the contingency and instability ofwitness. These visual tools become metaphors for the process of historicization inpost-apartheid South Africa. Kentridge is best known for his animations that arefilmed by drawing with charcoal, photographing, erasing, redrawing andphotographing again, leaving a palimpsest of previous traces on the paper's surface.Kentridge's prints, drawings, puppetry, theatrical projects and performances are alsoaddressed in (un)Fixing the Eye. Kentridge's vast array of works narrates a historycritical of the narrow and objective history of apartheid constructed by the Truth andReconciliation Commission's (TRC) official report. Furthermore, the metaphorssuggested by Kentridge's optical tools undermine the ideology that apartheid is in thepast. It suggests the necessity of colonial narratives as well as issues of class andmaterialism, within apartheid as traces that are very much part of the present.Each chapter of (un)Fixing the Eye uses a separate optical device to explorethe narration of history in South Africa. To do so I draw from an eclectic group ofthinkers: psychoanalytic models of melancholia and reparation, Jacques Derrida'swork on forgiveness, Hayden White's theories of narrative and Jonathan Crary's workon optical tools and perception. Chapter one argues there is an ironic and impossiblecondition of forgiveness and truth in the TRC. Using Kentridge's Ubu Tells the Truthand its specific invocation of Dziga Vertov's realist "kino-eye" and Alfred Jarry'sbrutal and absurd King Ubu as metaphors of absurdity and truth represented throughthe movie camera, this chapter argues that there is an impossibility of truth in theTRC. Chapter two reads Kentridge's Felix in Exile as a materialist response to thenaturalized and ahistorical landscape tradition in South Africa. Felix's use of thetheodolite and sextant as mapping and navigation tools highlights colonial mappingpractices and the history of property ownership, particularly in the mining industry. Inthis way these optical tools link colonialism and mining alongside of the violencerendered in the film, unearthing a history of colonialism and class issues in apartheidnarratives. Chapter three uses X-rays and CAT scans as metaphors for the testimonyin the TRC, as both require an expert to decode and contextualize the testimony.Kentridge's films during the TRC use medical imaging technologies that areambiguous and uncertain within the TRC's discourse of truth. Chapter four returns tothe camera, this time as a colonial image in Namibia, arguing its usage in BlackBox/Chambre Noir creates a melancholic relationship between Enlightenment Europeand colonial Africa. In this melancholia, Kentridge's history of the 20th century's firstgenocide in Namibia links a tremendous number of global histories.The focus in optical discourses, particularly the stereoscope is not new inKentridge's work but (un)Fixing the Eye considers a number of tools that have notpreviously been a part of this optical work in Kentridge's art. It expands the politicalscope of Kentridge's work to include colonialism and class issues, insisting on theirplace in the current political landscape. Ultimately this project argues that Kentridge'swork through a destabilized optical apparatus works both formally and allegorically asa way of conceiving of narrative and ideological critique in an expanded sense fromthe narrow confines set by the TRC.
Date of Award1 Aug 2011
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorCarol Mavor (Supervisor)


  • Stereoscope
  • Witness
  • Photography
  • Optical toys
  • South Africa
  • Truth and Reconciliation Commission
  • Apartheid
  • Namibia
  • William Kentridge

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