During the last two months of 2014, the galleries of the Wits Art museum were hung with remarkable tapestries after William Kentridge's designs. These weavings looked custom-made for this space. Displaying twenty weavings along with preparatory and related objects—raw materials, mock-ups, cartoons, motifs cast in bronze, etc.—curator Fiona Rankin-Smith took visitors deep inside the artist's studio Figs. 12). To anyone who knew Kentridge's work well, that studio was already a familiar place, because in drawings, films, flipbooks, lectures, performances, and installations, the artist has frequently portrayed himself pacing his workspace in Johannesburg.

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William Kentridge Self Portrait as Coffee Pot III (2011) Tapestry; 278 cm × 235 cm Edition: 6 + 2 AP's

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William Kentridge Self Portrait as Coffee Pot III (2011) Tapestry; 278 cm × 235 cm Edition: 6 + 2 AP's

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GPG Core Gallery, Wits Art Museum, with skeins of wool in foreground and tapestries in background.

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GPG Core Gallery, Wits Art Museum, with skeins of wool in foreground and tapestries in background.

But it is also a special property of tapestries to seem everywhere at home. Among the earliest human artifacts, weavings connect us to our nomadic past. The Bible states that Adam and Eve tied leaves together to cover themselves; early theorists of architecture, puzzling over Adam's house in paradise, speculated that human dwelling started with textiles hung between upright supports. Tapestries are also a portable home. Hanging them out makes any place domestic. Fittingly, in his works in this medium, Kentridge makes mobility the fundamental theme. Dark figures command the tapestries. Riders on horseback, marching compasses, forward-traveling noses, porters carrying great loads: all struggle to move from here to there. Monstrous and comical, these forms enact the human condition in according to physics’ basic law that work equals force times distance. As the exhibition's accompanying material showed, these figures also travel backwards through the artist's oeuvre from Kentridge's 2014 collaboration on performances of Schubert's Winterreise, through his 2012 production of Shostakovich's The Nose for the Metropolitan Opera, back to Shadow Play of 1999.

Schubert's song cycle begins where Kentridge's weavings do: in motion from the start. With the piano sounding the wanderer-singer's footsteps in winter away as he departs from his fickle love, and with the singer locked in an shifting duet with nature, these Viennese Lieder proved an illuminating matrix for Kentridge's art, heightening its melancholy and embellishing with storylines its landscape of single trees, uncanny crows, windmills, and weathervanes. With each new project generally, Kentridge launches new messages and forms, expanding steadily his reach while remaining aesthetically and ethically consistent. Long before his tapestries, the artist cast the figure of the porter as the anti-hero of his 1991 animated film Monument.

Designing for tapestries places special demands on an artist. Forms have to be simple enough to look good enlarged and from far away. They must also be interesting enough to sustain attentive viewing on that scale, and to justify the labor expanded in weaving them. It's not by accident that two of Europe's great virtuosos of monumental painting, Raphael and Rubens, designed the greatest tapestry cycles of the tradition. Through his expansive installations, civic sculpture, and opera set designs, Kentridge has mastered big formats (Figs. 34). And in his animated films, through drawing, erasing, and redrawing, and elsewhere in his oeuvre, through collage and the use of printed pages as supports, he achieves a density similar to weaving. In the tapestries, figures appear like moving shadows projected on lighter grounds. Those grounds reference travel, too. Consisting of old maps, they read like the world through which the shadow figures trudge.

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William Kentridge (l) Chasing Your Own Tail III (2011) Tapestry; 240 cm × 360 cm (r) Diva (2011) Tapestry; 242 cm × 223 cm In situ Wits Art Museum

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William Kentridge (l) Chasing Your Own Tail III (2011) Tapestry; 240 cm × 360 cm (r) Diva (2011) Tapestry; 242 cm × 223 cm In situ Wits Art Museum

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William Kentridge The Porter Series, tapestries in situ in the Mezzanine Gallery, Wits Art Museum

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William Kentridge The Porter Series, tapestries in situ in the Mezzanine Gallery, Wits Art Museum

Kentridge distinguishes figure and ground sharply, as dark to light, and elevation to plan. The black silhouettes are deliberately haphazard. The artist made them by tearing rough forms from black construction paper. To recognize the figures as porters, horses, noses, compasses, etc., takes a projective imagination that—in the artist's words—“meets the image hallway.” By contrast, the maps consist of exact contours that took centuries of meticulous effort to achieve. The shapes of coastlines, rivers, and mountains arose from an immense cumulative labor: travelers bringing little bits of information home, mapmakers collecting and collating the bits, travelers setting forth now with maps to gather more information. The geographies on and through which the Kentridge's shadow processions move seem like indisputable facts, as something found in the world rather than made in the studio—pictorial ground figured as terra firma. But it's the contrast between the natural and the human order which Kentridge's tapestries complicate. When woven, figure and ground become a continuum, thematically, through the artist's imagination, and materially, through knotting that entwines threads into a whole.

In one of the Porters series, a fabulous Tree-Man (one of Kentridge's signature motifs) marches left to right against an old French school map of Asia Minor (Fig. 5). The figure's leafy branches meld with the map's rivers and valleys, suggesting the eons of human movement through the earth's terrain (here, perhaps, out of Africa) that brought the map about. In another tapestry, a figure drags a huge compass, evoking not only the labor that brought about the cartographic ground but also, via the burden that this compass evidently is, the oppressive effect the mapmaker's knowledge and power have on the mapped. What's most remarkable about these tapestries, though, is how the thematic meshing of figure and ground is materially achieved. The conceptual epiphany, say, that what seems “found” (the world through which the figures trudge) is humanly “made,” is transcended by the visual epiphany of the tapestries themselves.

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William Kentridge Asia Minor (Tree Man) (2006) Tapestry; 248 cm × 343.2 cm Edition: 5 + 2 AP

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William Kentridge Asia Minor (Tree Man) (2006) Tapestry; 248 cm × 343.2 cm Edition: 5 + 2 AP

Anyone who spends time before these weavings can't but be awestruck by the uncanny patters the weavers at Marguerite Stevens’ studio have created. First there are the translations of complex prototypes (maps with inscriptions, legends, and cartouches; pins and patches of the paper shadow puppets; further pins that, in the original cartoon, hold bits of paper in place, and so forth) into woven threads. Then there are the weaver's trompe-l'œil additions—for example, the semblance that Stephens and her team create, of shadows cast in the original working model by paper loosely pinned to the underlying ground. Not quite of Kentridge's art, these effects are nonetheless in tune with that art in its willful display of process. Yet these tapestries also outdo their model through the magic of weaving. Look at any section of these works, pick out any figured surface and attend to the weaving of which it was made, and wondrous new patterns come to light. What was, in the artist's model, the mark of a crimson Prismacolor pencil becomes, woven, a mesmerizing coil of red more saturated, palpable, and enigmatic than anything a pencil could make. Woven, the blacker black of the masking tape that Kentridge pastes on the black construction paper becomes an absorbing figure in and of itself.

Freud lined his consulting room with tapestries and rugs. Whereas the little museum of antiquities installed in that room aimed to return patients to the archaic substratum of the human species, the “Persian” rugs that cocooned the famous couch encouraged a more abstract thought process. For in Vienna at 1900 it was believed that the ornamental art of weaving, with its arabesques, rhythms, and repetitions, and with its dizzying alteration of figure and ground, was a visual analogue to the “free association” that Freud demanded of his patients for their talking cure. Add to the power of tapestry's patterns the mysteries of the weaver's craft (the rapid twists, returns, and knots remain technically opaque even when observed up close in the workshop) and the result is a depth of imagery over and above—and under and in-between—the enigmatic pictures and stories that Kentridge's designs encompass.

These are ancient metaphors. Thought is a thread. The storyteller spins yarns. And poets do something more: they weave. The great poem can be likened to a weaving or tapestry because it doesn't simply set forth plot and characters but also conjures and entire world, a cosmos encompassing events, peoples, and places and embracing, too, ourselves as, listening, we are psychically woven into that tapestry. Later, the scribes began to write down—first in scroll, then in codex—these poetical weavings. And when they achieved on the written page a thing of similar consistency and complexity as the poem, they called what they made a text. The word comes from the Latin textus (“thing woven”) from textere (“to weave, braid, fabricate, build”), and before that from Proto-Indo-European teks (“to weave, to make, to make wicker or wattle”). So originally the text was a weaving, and only subsequently, by analogy and metaphor, did text become writing or Scripture.

Kentridge's tapestries return texts to this primordial condition. The artist's texts—the stories this poet-artist tells in imagery, in performance, and in the enigmatic narratives of his “drawings for projection,” are all about the imponderables of history, memory, and the human condition. In the tapestries, through the weaver's craft, these become texts in that original sense of weavings. Examined closely, as this exhibition allowed us effortlessly to do, these collaborative creation do what great tapestries do plus reciting the poems that Kentridge, over the course of his career, has through his images composed.