Connecting William Kentridge: Thick Time and Bodies Of Colour through a brief exploration of animation and early cinema.

“Kentridge uses erasure as a metaphor for the loss of historical memory—the complete amnesia with which society confronts injustice, racism, and brutality.” tablet

Being faced with the daunting but thoroughly enjoyable prospect of unpicking the levels of meaning and influence running through William Kentridge’s Thick Time, our current showpiece exhibition, I found myself drawn back to a long held fascination with the history of early cinema and its pioneers.

I was reading about the history of early Hollywood and its creation, starting of course with the Lumière Brothers and George Méliès and moving along through time some interesting patterns emerged, for example Harold Lloyd came up several times. A pioneer of early cinematic comedy and dramatic techniques, also a well known supporter of racial segregation, “Safety Last” is probably his most well known film with its famous scene of the man hanging from the clock, challenging time as Kentridge does so well, and it highlighted for me a connection between Thick Time which, among its explorations of time it investigates racial inequality, and the Bodies of Colour exhibition, one that examines portrayals of race and stereotype in our wallpaper collection.


Image: Harold Lloyd in Safety Last (Image from Kanopy)

The racism in early Hollywood was not limited to stereotypical portrayals in film, in fact it was far more insidious than just that as the town of Beverly Hills was created as a planned all white community, a caveat that was upheld by Lloyd himself, among others. All non white people and Jews were barred from living there and when some did begin to move in there were protests by the Hollywood elite, signs in lodging houses proclaiming “no Jews, actors or dogs” did little to advance things. How Interesting it is, given the fact that the modern day entity of Hollywood is largely Jewish in its positions of power.

It is no secret that the inherent racism in Hollywood and the film industry survives quite openly, steps are being made, conversations being had and stereotypes slowly being chipped away at but, it is still very much a part of the place, the industry and the psyche of the machinery of the movies.

Much like all colonial powers, Hollywood fiercely imposes, protects and enforces its own ideals, preferences, aesthetics and myths, defending them from anyone with the temerity to oppose them, women of course and non white groups are the ones who have historically suffered from this and continue to do so.

Kentridge’s family were prominent human rights attorneys in South Africa, the fight against apartheid being chief among their work, coming from this and a Jewish heritage there are certainly connections to be made. His mother, it should be said was the first female attorney in the country.

To begin with it will be clear to all who have watched the film work of William Kentridge, and has a knowledge of early cinema that a great deal of his animation process and method is derived from the work of films such as James Stuart Blackton’s “Humorous Phases of Funny Faces”, widely considered to be the first animation, however this is not entirely accurate as Pauvre Pierrot (1892) by Emile Reynaud preceded it by 16 years. It is however the first one to be shot on standard film stock as a sequence.


Image credit

Clip of Humorous Phases of funny faces

One can instantly see the origins of Kentridge’s “stone age animation” style of drawing, erasing and redrawing in this clip.

His desire to address human rights violations in his homeland, as well as further afield and to incorporate his skills with theatre sets and his peerless drawing abilities come together in his beautifully and inextricably layered works, no element of which should work alone, yet many do. With his palimpsest drawings on display alongside kinetic sculptures, tapestries and films it is undeniable these layers belong together, all existing as part of one giant thing, and not as separate things.

But I wanted to lift up these layers and attempt to look at just where they do all connect.

It is clear that the great and overarching influence in his film work is George Méliès, in particular his film “A trip to the Moon”, parts of which Kentridge has paid homage to in his work 7 Fragments for George Méliès , itself a study of and love letter to cinematic techniques.

Méliès saw the potential of the Cinématographe created by the Lumiere brothers as a way to take his on stage magic shows to a new level, to truly create magic that could be seen.

(Watch a Trip To The Moon)


Le voyage dans la lune, Image imdb

The original film really was the first literary screen adaptation, (from HG Wells First Men in the Moon) it was groundbreaking and parodic of the hubris of the scientific establishment of the time which can be seen first with the collected scholars arguing and again when the native Selenites attack the “heroic” explorers (a theme William Kentridge weaves elegantly into the Refusal of Time) who return home to a congratulatory parade.
Read a transcript from the narration of the film.

This was a common colonial theme both in reality and in fiction, in art, and of course, in the case of Bodies of Colour, wallpaper. Examples such as the whitewashing of the figure of Africa, (Paris, 1870) presented as a very classically posed European woman, nothing whatsoever to indicate Africa or its people exists in this picture, reinforce the ideals of the time that wherever conquering explorers ventured, they were superior to the native inhabitants.

The parade in Refusal of Time, of course is directly linked to Plato’s Allegory of the cave, a philosophy which asks us to think about what we see and take as truth and how we may challenge this.


Selenite aliens in A trip to the moon credit

This philosophy runs through all Kentridge’s work, it is certainly relevant to how the gallery has challenged the depictions of race in the wallpaper collection leading to the Bodies Of Colour exhibition.

As a side note, the sculpture that hangs just outside this gallery in the stairwell, David Batchelor’s “Plato’s Disco” gives a brightly coloured visual but abstracted representation of this philosophy.
Perhaps it is saying, now we can see and not only the light but expanded into colour, we have learned, we have come further out of the cave.

In Bodies Of Colour we see work that would have adorned the walls of stately landowners, industrialists and the like, people who will have, in the majority made their fortunes on the back of slavery, invasion, Empire and all that went along with those institutions.

Pieces such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin which depict slaves, itself a relic of this time having been manufactured in Manchester and kept in a home in the southern US until returning here, Hanged Man Sleeping Man illustrating the inequality in the balance of labour and power and the chinoiserie, a stylised Victorianised watered down depiction of Chinese people and culture.

The whitewashed depictions we see in the wallpaper designs predate those in Hollywood but there are of course intersections. People of races other than white being presented from a white point of view, their own origins and nationalities being erased and replaced or reduced so as to appeal to the blinkered sensibilities of the day.

uncle toms

A section of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin wallpaper

In terms of animation and race we of course go primarily to Disney and Mickey Mouse, a character widely known to have been based on the black and white minstrel shows of the early 20th century.

Walt Disney himself was known to be a supporter of racial cleansing ideals like eugenics,  utterly horrifying theories, practices and experiments that were not as fringe in certain circles as we may like to think. Disney incorporated many characters with derogatory stereotypical racial elements. There are some great articles out there that can talk about this in far more detail than I have space for.
This Article on the Characters in more recent films is certainly worth a read.

Disney’s Mickey’s Mellerdramer famously recreates Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in animated form, and to confirm any doubts as to these characters origins and inspiration that this film is a minstrel show, it highlights the application of blackface to the characters, cruelly caricatures African American people and reinforces derogatory and damaging stereotypes.  This was made before the 1930 Motion Picture Production Code came into being, a set of rules on censorship that could have prohibited this film from being made on moral grounds.

Arguably a worse stereotype is seen in Trader Mickey where the native tribe is depicted as barely human, overly simplistic and stupid, of course they are cannibals. This film has not stood the test of time well and is rightly viewed as archaic and highly offensive by most accounts.

In fact, George Méliès himself used blackface in his 1901 short film of just over a minute, “Off to Bloomingdale Asylum” A clip of 4 people changing from black men to white men to black men and back again over and over.
Of course this film was intended to showcase the magic cinema could produce and not to provide commentary on racial matters, none the less it vibrates differently today that it would have in its time and no matter the intention or lack thereof, no one would think to create such a work now.

Watch the short film here


Mickey applying blackface in Mickey’s Mellerdrammer
Image from Tom’s second blog

Animator and cartoonist Winsor McCkay uses his total mastery of drawing to great comedic effect in his early 20th Century animations, Little Nemo sees him promise to produce thousands of drawings for an animation, in the first part of this short film we are introduced to a favourite of McKay’s characters and one that is an obviously cartoonish racial stereotype of a “savage” African known as Mr Imp. In a fragment of “Nursery Wallpaper” in Bodies of Colour we see a very similarly cartoonish depiction of an African person.


Winsor McKay Little Nemo Image

Depictions such as these were unfortunately all too common in their times and did nothing to advance ideas of racial parity but did much to reinforce the belief in these stereotypes as acceptable.

There were countless racist stereotypes in early cartoons, it was not only accepted but a staple of the medium in the early to mid 20th century and beyond.

Repetition is a tool we see repeatedly, pardon the pun, in both the way wallpaper is designed and in Kentridge’s work, his kinetic sculptures employ methodical repeated movements, his animations are wholly dependent on repetition, but unlike in wallpaper prints, this work employs an evolutionary type of repetition; micro adjustments to each version to give a subtle change.
Viewed individually it can be a task to distinguish one drawing from its predecessor, wallpaper conversely consists of exact replicas of the same image, certainly in the case of Hanging Man Sleeping Man this drives home the point much more firmly than were there to be only one image. The message of this work that there is enormous racial imbalance and inequality becomes impossible to ignore.


Hanging man Sleeping Man, Robert Gober

William Kentridge uses a film technique pioneered by Méliès in his 1902 (1900?)  film “The one man band” where a row of George Méliès are seated interacting with each other. (Also employed in “Off to Bloomingdale Asylum” however this time with blackface)

In this way Méliès sought to explore the many parts of the self at once.

William Kentridge has employed this technique to wonderful effect in his Norton lecture series, in particular the episode In praise of shadows and, of course it can be seen throughout the Refusal of Time with the looped scenes of the Williams changing hats, William carrying his dancer Dada Masilo and, in general the often whimsical manner with which Kentridge presents his hefty subject matter. Another highly effective use of repetition.


George Méliès in The One man band image

We learn through repetition, a thing is drummed into our heads over and over that we may have it with us forever, I certainly see this as an important element in the use of wallpaper to present an alternative to the archaic views on race and stereotype, prejudice and preconception.


William Kentridge in a scene from “Refusal of Time” image


The one man band, only the one George this time IMAGE

It is necessary to look at D W Griffith’s Birth of a nation, an uncomfortable but important piece of cinema history and a film that was famous for its use of white actors in blackface and, tragically, catalytic in the rise of the ku klux klan.


Still from D W Griffiths Birth of a nation

The NAACP tried in vain to have the film banned at its release in 1915 staging mass nationwide protests at screenings.

Griffiths responded to this with another behemoth of a film, “Intolerance”, an undisputed classic of the era and a supposed apology for the offenses of the last film, however too little too late was and is the consensus on this.

Mickey Rooney’s wildly offensive faux Japanese character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is well known but as many people as profess to love the classic film, rarely if ever is this character mentioned, Audrey Hepburn is the one we always hear of in reference to this film, perhaps as an easy and acceptably conventional white person. Of course there have been countless stereotypical racist portrayals of Asian people throughout the history of cinema, many as it happens in westerns.



Native Americans were treated with no cultural consideration or sensitivity in this area of film making either and there is much documented evidence that in many westerns where Native American actors were used for scenes where their language was desirable, yet not at all understood, (the filmmakers of the times cared little to nothing for the differences between nations and their languages and there were many instances where native American actors spoke in a melange of tongues) the actors used these opportunities to say whatever they felt like… often talking openly  about the people they were working for and with and having a laugh at their expense.


Burt Lancaster in Apache
Image and article Red Face USA

There has been a great deal written about the evolution of the depiction of Native Americans in film and is an in depth topic of study on its own, however as the above article  shows, there are still many negative and cartoonish stereotypes being trotted out in major studio films.

This treatment of Native Americans reverberates in their omission from so much western themed wallpaper, in particular two pieces in the exhibition, Cath Kidston’s Cowboy paper and the Cowboy Wallpaper piece that hangs under glass on that wall. 

Image credit

Cowboys but no “Indians”, why not?
Were the designers aware of the impropriety of any depiction of Native Americans in this setting? It would perhaps provide a visual historical record of their subjugation.

To return to D W Griffiths, his 1912 film The Massacre deserves a mention for going against the grain of vilifying the “brutish” natives and has been held up as an early example of showing the humanity of the Native Americans, despite the fact they were ultimately viciously slaughtered.

The “Hollywood Indian” being played by white actors has mostly gone the way of the dodo but, as we know, not entirely; prominent examples including Johnny Depp’s much maligned turn in Disney’s recent Lone Ranger film show that we still have a long way to go until this racial stereotyping and cinematic whitewashing is truly a thing of the past.

There is no good reason, other than the impact of a Hollywood star driving ticket sales, that a Native American actor could not have played this part.

Native American filmmaker Neil Diamond presents an exemplary documentary on the history and portrayal of Native Americans in film in Reel Injun

It seems however that it is as much a part of the fabric of the film industry as the films themselves, typecasting and stereotypes are accepted as an intrinsic part of the business and are not likely to disappear entirely any time soon.

Like Plato, the exhibitions of William Kentridge’s Thick Time  and Bodies Of Colour present us with an opportunity to look all these preconceptions, stereotypes, our colonial past and continued inequalities square in the face and challenge ourselves to think and evolve beyond them.


A Saturday Matinee will be held on the 9th of February 2019 running a programme of films discussed in this writing.

Further viewing and reading:

Racial Portrayals in cinema:
The following films are available to stream on Amazon and Kanopy

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