Prof. Christopher Roy, Wendy Parker
Arts of Africa
16 November 2015
Power Is the Root of Weakness
When apartheid was implemented in South Africa in 1948, citizens of color became victims of intense systemic oppression at the hands of the newly empowered National Party. Institutionalized segregation and the stripping away of basic human rights marked the next four and half decades in the country. When apartheid finally came to an end in 1994, South Africa faced a difficult transition from a corrupt and prejudiced political system to a democracy that valued progress and social justice for all people. In 1993, South African artist William Kentridge created The General in anticipation of such events. (Fig 1) The print, which features a National Party general covered in smears of blood red and a multitude of sharp black lines, addresses the impact that loss of power could have on the high military officials who used their status to contribute to the violence and corruption of apartheid. The General makes a strong statement regarding the intertwining of power and social injustice during apartheid by depicting a brutal and mighty man tainted by decades of contributing to a poisonous government system. The painting also confronts how the man’s power became his greatest weakness.
Kentridge created The General on handmade paper that he painted using watercolors, before using an electric engraver to drypoint the image onto a polycarbonate sheet. The painting features bold yellows, blacks, reds, and blues that work together to give the work an eerie and violent feeling. Kentridge has a reputation for creating art that embodies “loyalty and loneliness, action and introspection, corrupt power structures, and larger human issues—race relations, love, personal accountability,” and The General is no exception.1 The military badges of honor, which dot the front of the general’s official jacket, work to emphasize the general’s loyalty to the National Party, while his deep frown and worried eyes scream loneliness and heartache. Similarly, his naked eye hides behind the lens of a large monocle, a symbol of being blinded by power. The red smears under his eyes mimic spatters of blood, indicating that the general committed violent actions during apartheid. The fact that they are so deeply imprinted on his skin shows that the blood of his victims forever stains the man. In addition, the red smears represent the corruption of power at the hands of this prestigious military official. One smear in particular, which drips down his neck until it disappears beneath his badge-covered jacket, directly connects his horrifying actions to the success he has found within the military. Frantic and sharp black lines are scattered across the general’s frowning face. These lines could symbolize wrinkles or scars, embedded into a man deeply impacted by his own brutal acts. The scars, which cover more of the general’s face than the red smears do, are just as prominent as his badges, showing the permanent consequence of performing as a military official under the National Party. The general’s skin is painted with a bold yellow, suggesting that the man depicted is white. Yellow is the brightest color that Kentridge uses in The General, causing the general’s race to be heavily emphasized. The general’s thin lips and hair also work to indicate the man’s race. The sparkling badges and yellow skin demonstrate a corruption of power at the hands of white men, pointing out that apartheid is “a policy of white dominance” against people of color.2 The same shade of yellow is also splattered in the background of the print, further demonstrating the importance of the general’s skin color. Kentridge’s use of color, dramatic brushwork (sharp lines and thick smears), and symbols of success (the monocle and badges) show the close relationship between violence and power during apartheid. His ability to use these tactics to also show how acts of hatred and violence have permanently impacted the perpetrator prove Kentridge’s ability to engage with the “complexity of . . . [the] intense political undertones” that are so prevalent in his work.3
The General is an important piece in the discussion of power corruption and social injustice during apartheid in South Africa. The print was made just a year before the country officially began its transition from apartheid to democracy, when under the first elected leader, Nelson Mandela, “the arts were given government recognition by the establishment of a Ministry for Arts, Culture, Science, and Technology.”4 Mandela felt that expressing emotion and trauma through art was a key step in healing the wounds left by the National Party. The General is an excellent example of how such artwork can attempt to make sense of such a complicated and painful time for South Africa. The victims of apartheid suffered, after all, under the hands of the officers like the general depicted. The sad irony is that military officers are meant to protect all citizens of their country, but apartheid officers instead brought harm to those of color. In The General, the symbols of power, such as the badges and monocle, are placed on the same man whose cheeks are spattered in blood and embedded with scars, pointing out this irony. The military officers were rewarded for their hostile behavior toward the oppressed citizens. During apartheid, “thousands of individuals died in custody, frequently after gruesome acts of torture” committed by officers of the law, high political figures, and members of the military.5 The deaths of these civilians was unjustified, the result of political protest or failure to adhere to the intense and unjust laws upheld by the government. The red smears featured in The General are representative of the blood of every victim of apartheid, just as the general himself represents every high-powered official that contributed to the horrors of the system.
Because Kentridge created The General in 1993, it not only confronts the impact that powerful figures had on civilians during apartheid in South Africa, but it also addresses the fate of the oppressor once apartheid was over. Following apartheid, most high officials of the National Party were “sentenced to death, banished, or imprisoned for life.”6 It is likely that one of these would be the fate of the general featured in Kentridge’s painting. In this case, the badges on his jacket not only represent his high status during apartheid, but they also symbolize how weak he would be once South Africa became a democracy. The cruelty of the general, which is already permanently affecting him in the form of scars and bloodshed, will ultimately result in his demise. His heavy frown and worried eye indicate that the man is somewhat aware of this, and is holding onto his status for as long as he possibly can, before he is deprived of the lifestyle that he made for himself as a National Party military general. The power, then, has switched hands completely, from the oppressor to the oppressed, and the general will have to suffer the consequences. The long drop of red that slides down the back of the general’s neck is a warning then, that the general’s acts will catch up to him. Kentridge seems to be viewing “South Africa’s long history of social inequality” as something that empowers the victimized rather than the perpetrators.7 He seems to be indicating, through this smear and all the others that reside on the yellow stained face, that hate can never win.
The General is depictive of a time of evil in South Africa, when innocent citizens were forced into systemic oppression simply due to the color of their skin. The print focuses on the villain of this period, the man who is eternally haunted by the acts he committed for wealth, status, and power. Through the eye beneath the monocle, Kentridge argues that power makes people blind, and through the scars and blood he points out that the blindness cannot last forever. The oppression is sure to haunt the man later in life. In this case, he will be punished once apartheid is finally put to an end. The General is a prime example of how art can work to fight social injustice, by pointing out the flaws put forth by society and demonstrating the monstrous impact that oppression and violence has once anything but love is placed in the forefront of mankind. The yellowness of the general’s skin demonstrates the role that race plays in social injustice, and the splattering of yellow behind the man’s hand further emphasizes how often violence is the result of racism. Kentridge’s print excellently points out the role that power has not only in apartheid, but in social injustice everywhere, and makes the argument that power is actually the root cause of weakness.
Brown, Carol. “African Art, African Museums.” African Arts 40, no. 4 (2007): 1-6.
Farrell, Laurie Ann. “William Kentridge.” African Arts 35, no. 2 (2002): 81-83.
Ogbechie, Sylvester Okwundodo. “Are We There Yet?” African Arts 35, no. 1 (2002): 1-7.
Figure : The General, William Kentridge, South Africa 1993 (Published 1998). Watercolor and Engraving. University of Iowa Museum of Art, Museum Purchase with funds from Shawn Zeitz and Emily Gatsby, and the Print and Drawing Study Club, 2001.4