Bringing together three of the country’s greatest artists, the artwork Six Characters embodies the South African art world in a single, stunning artistic achievement
In 2008 and 2009, three South African art luminaries – the revered William Kentridge, the subversive Robert Hodgins, and the mystically inclined Deborah Bell – united to create one of South Africa’s most significant artworks. A combination of charcoal, ink, watercolours, gouache and collage, the work, now hanging in Delaire Graff Estate’s Wine Lounge, is an unparalleled embodiment of the South African contemporary art world.
This was not a spontaneous occurrence. The three great artists became acquainted through their involvement at Wits University: Bell was tutoring, Kentridge was a student, and Hodgins lectured. Neil Dundas, senior curator at the Goodman Gallery, recalls that the first major collaboration between the three resulted in a series of prints entitled Little Morals. What ensued was a flourishing meeting of minds, resulting in prints, etchings and a series of collaborative animated films, with Kentridge directing, Hodgins acting and Bell creating the set.
Six Characters was made during a later period in the artists’ careers. It was not the only work that the three did during this time, but was the largest and most remarkable. “It is very unusual for three artists of this stature to create a piece like this at the zenith of their careers,” Dundas explains. “This was a marvellous case of three prodigious talents enjoying the process of challenging each other. It’s a very significant work.”
All three artists are known for their use of human figures as a means to express subversive ideas and to satirise traditional power institutions. Six Characters is a collage of the distinctive styles of each artist, capturing the focus of each at the time. It was created as part of a series of exhibitions held at the Goodman Gallery located in Cape Town, beginning with Robert Hodgins. He initiated the artwork with two figures on its periphery, indicative of his infatuation with audiences and their reactions. After his exhibition finished, the work remained, making way for Deborah Bell, who added her sculpturally-inspired goddess on a horse to the canvas. Kentridge then stepped in, using push-pins to create a shadowy effect from pieces of dark paper.
However, the piece was not yet complete. The final touches speak of the capricious relationship between the three. Bell sketched into the background a nose on horseback – a reference to a series of works created by Kentridge when producing Shostakovich’s opera, The Nose, in New York. It recounts an absurdist tale by Nikolai Gogol about an official whose nose leaves his face and takes his job, and his horse. Kentridge then got involved, replacing the shoes and head of one of Hodgins’ creations with pins and paper. Hodgins retaliated by drawing a face in white chalk on the black paper.
Much of this work took place in the gallery in front of the public, during each artistʼs exhibition. One such audience member was Laurence Graff, who was enthralled with the piece and purchased it for his collection in 2009. The painting today occupies pride of place above the fireplace in the Delaire Graff Wine Lounge, seamlessly blending with the interior. Because it fits so perfectly, many have mistakenly assumed that it was commissioned for the space, but it was rather the interior that drew inspiration from the piece.
Not only significant for South Africa, this artwork is a unique creation of the Cape, where it was brought into being. It is now part of the fabric of not only the artistic history of the country, but also Delaire Graff Estate’s legacy.