William Kentridge and Mateo López

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 6)

During the mentoring year William Kentridge wanted to show Mateo López how his work could expand and flower. In encounters in the United States and the Netherlands, and, most of all, for several weeks in Kentridge’s Johannesburg studio, the mentor encouraged his protégé to find radically new ways to create art. For López, Kentridge’s willingness to share his work space presented an extraordinary opportunity. “Talk is important, but the possibility of someone to work with is better,” he said.

William Kentridge and Mateo López

A year of mentoring

Choosing a protégé (Chapter 2 of 6)

July 2012

William Kentridge, 2012-2013 Visual arts mentor

What qualities made you choose Mateo López as your protégé?
A clear demonstration of skill and accomplishment in the area in which he has worked, and also an awareness on my part of the ways in which this particular field could be expanded or developed. In other words, both a sympathy with and connection to his project, and an interest in engaging it on its own terms.

What do you hope to contribute to his career?
His career must take care of itself. I hope to be able to show him, both in his work and in mine, ways that his work (which is always behind any career) can expand and flower.

How do you envisage working with Mateo over the next year?
I think the work will be partly through conversation, partly through his observing the work happening in my studio, and primarily through two or three periods of working in the same studio space – initially in parallel, each working on our own projects – and then seeing what seems comfortable in terms of crossover or collaboration. Seeing whether the collaboration extends as far as conversation, or into practical “making”. There is openness for this to happen, but not pressure that it must. The works of Julio Cortazar will serve as good a mentor as any.

Has someone acted as your mentor during your career? How did that person – or people – help you to establish yourself?
Bill Ainslie, who ran the Johannesburg Art Foundation, was an important teacher for me, and a mentor in the sense that what he demonstrated through his life was a capacity and a need for – and a hunger for – the hours spent in the studio; and the studio as the central space for thinking and discovery.

William Kentridge and Mateo López

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 3 of 6)

Mateo López is a highly skilled and imaginative artist who bases his work solidly on drawing, like his Mentor William Kentridge. López has already created several enigmatic works that show his aptitude and originality. Here he explains why his work, not his personal life, must come first in the mentoring year.

I’m a shy person, perhaps that’s why I’m drawing, because it’s an introspective process. Drawing transforms ideas onto paper. Being shy is not a problem for an artist. I prefer to be recognized for my work rather than my personality.

It is important to ask yourself all the time what you are doing. You don't need to be part of every exhibition that you're invited to, don’t overexpose your work.Sometimes drawing is like writing: you are using few elements – it is you and a piece of paper.

I aim for a narration in my work that describes the process of creation with a thread that connects one project with another. The view of a drawing recalls another drawing. It can include a drawing that is mistake. In this way it is biographical, but not in the sense of going back on your own story.

I try to involve the creative process in my work that describes the process of creation with a thread that connects one project with another. The view of a drawing recalls another drawing. It can include a drawing that is mistake. In this way it is biographical, but not in the sense of going back on your own story.

I keep a sketchbook in my pocket where I make notes. Drawings that I want to make. It’s like an image bank.

When I was invited to apply to the Rolex Arts Initiative, I started making the video I was required to submit with my application. I thought: “I don’t want to be in front of a camera, I prefer that my works talk about my artistic practice.” So my drawing became a kind of character in the video, with moods, mistakes, achievements. I decided not to appear in front of the camera, so when I did appear it was a drawing of me.

The first meeting with the mentor, William Kentridge, when he was deciding whom to choose as his Protégé, was really friendly. I was in a panic, in front of a big artist. But he is a really kind person and he made things go easily. He didn’t want to get into a deep conversation. He was more interested in doing things together, drawing at the same time, using the tools he works with. I was very happy as that’s the way I work. Talk is important, but the possibility of someone to work with is better. That made me calmer, more relaxed.

When I was at art school, Kentridge was one of the artists who appeared in many catalogues and magazines. I was interested in his work because his body of work is concentrated on drawings.

Another thing that interested me was the theme of his work – he is talking about his own context, apartheid and the recent history of South Africa.

The main thing I will get from the year of mentoring is to gain confidence and to see my work in different ways and open myself to possibilities. Not to do the same thing as my Mentor. He told me: “I’m not here to teach you how to draw, just to let you see your work from a new angle.”

I like this idea of a more traditional way of learning, as they did centuries ago – you are invited to work in an artist’s studio to help your mentor to work, learning different ways to approach the visual experience.

I hope that everything that happens in the mentorship is good for my work, not necessarily for me. My focus is meeting with William Kentridge rather than with getting attention for myself. I want to be concentrated on what is real. I don’t care about being in the mainstream.

I’m both happy and nervous about the mentoring year. I’m just an ordinary guy who organizes as he goes along. Now, as part of the mentorship, I will visit Documenta in Germany, where William Kentridge has an installation, The Refusal of Time, as well as see a performance of his latest work in Amsterdam, Refuse the Hour, in June. The performance is a collaboration with a choreographer and musician. There is also an exhibition of Kentridge’s work in Brazil and a visit to South Africa. Rolex will help organize the travel. It’s completely new to me.

It’s hard to say who is the greatest artist ever, as a lot of good artists do not get recognized. It depends who tells the story. Whether it’s from western or eastern culture or north or south. Marcel Duchamp is one of my favourites but here are a lot of good artists in Colombia and South America.

It’s difficult to know the future, so I can’t say what I’ll be doing in five years. I have an artist friend from Colombia, called Jose Antonio Suarez Londoño who repeatedly writes on his drawings: “Hacer siempre lo mismo y hacerlo siempre distinto.” This means: “Always do the same and do it differently always.” I think I will be drawing, but differently.

William Kentridge and Mateo López

A year of mentoring

First steps with the mentor (Chapter 4 of 6)

December 2012

Opening up to others

The true value of collaborating with leading South African artist William Kentridge, says protégé Mateo López, will become fully apparent only in the years to come.

Rolex Arts Initiative: You once said you aim for a narration in your work, a process of creation that connects one process with another. Can you see a storyline in this mentoring process?

Mateo López: Absolutely. The beginning of this story is when I was working as an artist on my own. Then there’s the middle of the tale with the mentorship in which I discover and learn many new things. And, finally, although this particular story is due to finish in 2013, I’m sure it won’t end there. It’s rather like a journey of happenstance where you meet someone on the road who introduces you to someone else, and they in turn introduce you to another individual. Then a world of opportunities opens up. This narrative is taking me in many directions.

Are you sketching this narrative?
Not exactly sketching, but certainly taking notes and picking up souvenirs from travelling around. I’m collecting samples of the different places and situations and impressions of the people I’ve met, such as: a piece of notepaper from a Rolex meeting, a paper coaster from under a drink in a bar, airline tickets. I’m documenting the experience. It’s a narration through objects and images. There’s been a wealth of inspiration. I can already see that some of these objects will play a part in some way in a future work of art.

What have you learned from the mentoring process so far?
Many opportunities have already opened up to me. And so much new information has come my way that it’s not measurable. I feel it will be only after the event, many years down the line perhaps, that I’ll look back, reflect and be able to absorb it all. Only then will I be able to describe in concrete terms: “I learned this then, or I learned that here.” But I am gaining more confidence in my own work.

What has impressed you about your mentor’s way of working?
During a rehearsal for one of Mr Kentridge’s performances [of a multi-media work, Refuse The Hour] in Amsterdam, I observed intently the way he worked with a team of nearly 20 people on the project. Everything was perfectly synchronized and planned. So I started seeing how it was possible to create collaborations with people – an important experience for me. I was accustomed to working alone in my studio, concentrating and obsessively working on my drawings. Then, after watching Mr Kentridge at work, I realized I could open up to working with others. This has already manifested itself in a recent work of mine in Bogotá with a bookbinder, a carpenter and a sound producer.

How does the experience differ from learning elsewhere?
It’s good to get out and see art being practised outside an academic institution. There are many fine art teachers and professors in Colombia, but much of the teaching is theoretic and conceptual. This mentoring is not unlike the kind of apprenticeship the Old Masters used to offer, and it’s very valuable. Perhaps this is something more art institutions could think about. For example, pairing up working artists with students, rather than them being in the classroom all the time.

You recently went to Boston with William Kentridge.
Going to hear Mr Kentridge speak at the Norton lectures in Boston was a real privilege. These lectures are of an extremely high calibre. Away from the lecture hall, we simply wandered around the campus and discussed many things. Although I can maintain a conversation in English, sometimes, when the conversation goes deeper, it’s harder for me to express what I’m trying to say. But I feel with Mr Kentridge, it doesn’t matter, because we can communicate visually. I recently sent him some images from my recent exhibition in Bogotá, and he replied by email with some really poetic, insightful thoughts. He’d looked at my work with a keen eye and his comments were very helpful.

He also took me to see the Glass Flowers exhibition at Harvard. It’s a huge reproduction of flowers from around the world, created in glass. Mr Kentridge had seen it before, and he thought I would like it. I certainly did, as it was intriguing. We also went to see a vast collection of stones and minerals at the Mineralogical Museum. We marvelled at the incredible colours of some of the stones and talked about them together.

What are you looking forward to in the next few months?
There’s no specific goal or project. But I’ve already been inspired to try working with other forms of art, such as when I worked with sound in my recent exhibition. Mr Kentridge was then able to comment on it and offer his opinion. I’m also thinking about working with animation or experimenting with the formats of books. I can see there’s going to be lots of new and different work on the horizon.

William Kentridge and Mateo López

A year of mentoring

After a year with a master (Chapter 5 of 6)

September 2013

A spontaneous touch

South African mentor William Kentridge took a radical approach with his Colombian protégé Mateo López, pushing him out of his comfort zone and his past, punctilious creative patterns. To his surprise, López enjoyed the experience and has embraced a more spontaneous approach to his art.

Rolex Arts Initiative: After accompanying William Kentridge on visits to exhibitions of his work in Europe and listening to him give lectures in the United States, you decided it was important to go and work in his studio in Johannesburg, South Africa. Why?

Mateo López: I decided to install myself in Johannesburg for five weeks to discover this African continent that was completely new to me and to get to know the people involved in William’s work. The other option was to meet with him while he was doing all this travel to Europe. That option would be to meet, to have lunch, to have coffee, to have 30 minutes to talk. I felt I needed more time to know William, to know his work, his environment and the context where he produces his projects.

Were you surprised at what you found in his studio?
I was very surprised working with William in the beginning. I was expecting someone different. This level of big artist was completely new to me: an artist known worldwide who has participated in Documenta [held once every five years in Kassel, Germany], the Venice Biennale, has had retrospectives two times, three times. Some people lose their head when they get recognition at that level. I was expecting to approach a difficult, eccentric artist with no normal conversation. It was completely the opposite. William was accessible. He was interested in talking and collaborating, and easy to know.

How did you interact with him in Johannesburg on a day-to-day basis? William received me in a very domestic way. I met the people he works with, lived in a room in the studio, had lunch with him and his wife Ann. I was very comfortable.

Did you establish a framework for your mentorship?
When I arrived in Johannesburg, I thought I wanted to work with William to make certain projects. You need to have a plan. If someone asks you what you are doing here, you need to have an answer.

How did that work out?
William asked me what I wanted to do, and I said that I wanted to learn to make animations. He explained that this is how to work, this is how to do the lighting, here is the camera, here is an example of an animated book.

How did you go about working on animation?
About a week after I arrived in Johannesburg, William left to tour Europe with his performance [Refuse the Hour]. In his studio, I decided to make some drawings that I had been thinking of doing in my own studio. I started drawing accurate lines and images. I filmed them frame by frame, as though I were assigning myself homework to show him when he got back.

What was his response to this homework?
When William returned, I showed him my small movie, and he said, “This is not working.” He said, “You are spending too much time on this. Try to draw faster; you will see that the image appears out of the movement. Imagine moving without control. Leave your body. Move.”

Were those suggestions helpful to you?
William was pushing me to another scenario, to a limit where I was getting desperate. This is not the way I work, not the way I draw, not the materials I use. He said that it could be more interesting for me if I worked outside my zone of comfort. He was very accurate on that point. When you are out of your comfort zone, you become more creative, more alert and aware, more open. When I got to know that, I was very happy.

You say that this was not the way you worked. What was the way you worked?
At art school, I learned to build a concept, a solid statement, and from there create a work of art. Since meeting William, I am trying to figure out how to do the opposite: create your statement out of the work itself. Try to play, try to make mistakes, work more freely.

How have these experiments with play and the freedom to make mistakes affected your art?
With my project that is now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, [A Journey From Here to There], I started with an idea. The idea in 2008 was to take several journeys around Colombia and find souvenirs and make drawings that document the process. I was really controlling the situation, deciding where I wanted to go to find something. Now I am thinking that I could travel without any concern for control. There could be another part of the project that would make it more adrift.

Do you think that the experience with William Kentridge will have a lasting effect on your work?
I’m trying to use what I have learned for projects ahead. I’m trying. It’s going to take me a little bit longer.

William Kentridge and Mateo López

A year of mentoring

After a year of mentoring (Chapter 6 of 6)

October 2013

Outside the comfort zone

Working side by side with William Kentridge in his studio, protégé Mateo López learns to crash through his training in precision drawing and make art with his hands instead of his head. With help from his mentor, López finds how creativity derives from embracing chaos.

By Amei Wallach

"Mateo comes out of training as an architect, with an architect’s way of drawing. It may be fine to have that very precise, fine instrument, but I think it would be useful to think in a different way, a rough way, to do something that’s messy. In the long term the work has to allow the vulnerability of the self into it. So I’ve encouraged him to draw himself walking, to perform in front of a camera. [The act of drawing] yourself walking through an animated book is a fine start. It gives you all the supplementary images that can amplify who you are, what you are thinking about. From that you’ll build up a rich vocabulary with which to keep working: Here’s something else I haven’t drawn, here’s something else I haven’t thought before. You have to open up the work if you are going to go on working another 30, 40 years."
William Kentridge

It was February 2012 when Mateo López first met the great South African artist William Kentridge. López was one of three visual arts finalists for the year-long Rolex Arts Initiative programme, and he was five days late for his interview. The other finalists had already come and gone by the time the young Colombian artist arrived at Kentridge’s studio in Johannesburg.

“I was feeling really bad,” López recalls. “There were problems with my visa. There is no South African embassy in Colombia, so they had to send my passport to Venezuela. It was a mess and the visa arrived a week late. But in the end I feel like it was destiny, because I had more time alone with William.”

Kentridge’s studio is set at the edge of the lawns and flowerbeds surrounding the Johannesburg house in which he grew up and raised his own family. In the studio’s high, white central room, where drawings-in-progress, prints and experiments in storytelling are pinned to the wall, he set López the task of drawing some of the objects that function as stock characters in Kentridge’s repertoire: a horse, an old-fashioned dial telephone. López transcribed each with the fastidious line he had learnt in his art and architectural studies in Colombia. “And then William said, ‘Now we are going to tear up the drawings’,” López remembers with undiminished wonder.

Out of the scraps of López’s drawings, as well as his own, Kentridge “collaged” a three- dimensional paper sculpture of a prancing horse. “For me that was radical,” López says. “It was as though a door could open to another way of working.”

That was when Mateo López understood that the Rolex programme was going to challenge his way of looking at art and the world. In life and work, Kentridge and his protégé are a study in contrasts, and that has made all the difference in their dynamic encounter.

“I am very shy,” López says, “like a shell.” Beneath his smiles and polite accommodations, Mateo López hides a diffident reserve.

Drawings of himself drawing are the closest he came to breaking through that shell to make an appearance in the video he submitted when asked to apply for the Rolex Arts Initiative. The drawings were stand-ins for López as he narrated his themes and the succession of exhibitions that mark him as a rising artist of interest on the international scene.

Every tiny splatter
There’s a restraint and exactitude to the drawings, which López sometimes cuts out along the outlines. He’ll articulate every tiny splatter spreading from the diminutive drawn ink blots that attract the eye amidst the planters made from discarded tin cans, the scale models of railway stations and the cut-out paper vines draped over books and chairs in his installation Travelling without Moving, which spent early 2013 as the centrepiece of an exhibition, A Trip from Here to There, at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.

“Mateo has this amazing precision,” says William Kentridge. “When he cuts something out, everyone in the studio gathers to watch.”

Kentridge himself has the loose-limbed ebullience and alert presence of a performer. The South African master of drawing, animation, sculpture, performance, video, film, theatre and opera design and direction is an arresting figure on film and onstage, in the black trousers and white shirt he also wears in his Johannesburg studio. With or without his pince-nez, which he wields like a stage prop, his take-it-all-in eyes under shaggy grey brows dart piercing glances or retreat into reflection. He’ll smother a quizzical smile as he grabs pen or charcoal and executes wide gestures with arm and hand.

López, on the other hand, keeps arm and pencil close as he renders his meticulous lines. He hides his eyes behind conservative glasses, quietly observes and thinks things through. Then he makes a drawing. Kentridge’s animated drawings can change direction on an evanescent thought or vagrant emotion. His meandering line doesn’t just accumulate meaning as it curls and unfurls to describe a cat, a typewriter, a pin-suited business man, a telephone, a cat’s cradle of tangled wires. That line creates meaning through the relationships it contrives, the stories that emerge from what Kentridge calls “the activity of making”. The process of catching meaning as it metamorphoses into other meaning, other questions, other recognitions is what interests him about making art.

For López, meaning is the starting point. “I’m an artist from a generation that has a very conceptual approach to art practice,” he says. “Every step you make starts with a concept.” He begins with a big idea, which often has to do with time, memory and the porous boundaries between reality and fiction. From there, he exhaustively plots the drawings and installations through which he will explore it.

Paper shards
When they met in February 2012, Kentridge was working his own way through preparations for the six Norton Lectures he had been invited to present later that northern spring at Harvard University. Kentridge conceived the lectures as Six Drawing Lessons. And torn paper shards that his hands resolve into a variety of collaged silhouettes of a horse in motion would play an essential role in those lectures.

Kentridge bent the Norton Lectures to his own ends, presenting them as a multimedia rumination/performance, complete with orchestra, in which he was part cosmic thinker, part stand-up comic, part questing artist in his studio. The mutating paper shards, projected on a video screen behind him, became a leitmotif throughout.

“This is what the artist does: takes the fragments, the shards and rearranges them,” he said in the last lecture. “The meaning is always a construction, a projection and not an edifice, something to be made, and not found. There is always a radical incoherence and radical instability.”

At the studio that February, López witnessed the rhythms of a multitasking studio, as Kentridge prepared the lectures while juggling collaborations on other projects whose themes, strategies and activities would interact and intersect with the Norton Lectures and one another.

For Documenta 13, in Kassel, Germany, Kentridge had been exchanging stories with the science historian and philosopher Peter Galison on the inventions of modernity, the standardization of time and the effect of both on colonialism. The collaboration grew into The Refusal of Time, a monumental installation that included short films and animations, as well as a Rube Goldberg machine as sound-emitting sculpture.

In turn, Kentridge’s collaborations with Galison, the dancer Dada Masilo, the composer Philip Miller and the video-maker Catherine Meyburgh morphed into the performance piece, Refuse the Hour.

Mateo López saw them all. He travelled to Cambridge in the U.S. to hear two of the Norton Lectures, to Kassel for The Refusal of Time, and to Amsterdam for Refuse the Hour, where Kentridge tried to interest López in performance. Performing in public? It wasn’t in his DNA. Instead, López suggested a dialogue in drawings, in which each artist would make a drawing in response to the other, as he had done with the older, established Colombian artist José Antonio Suárez Londoño. That wasn’t quite what Kentridge had in mind.

“Presumably the interesting thing of being a protégé in this programme is that you want something to expand, want new thoughts and new ways of working,” he says. In the end they agreed that in November López would spend a substantial chunk of time working in Johannesburg.

In the meantime, López, who was accustomed to working alone, pondered the bustle and stimulation of collaboration that he’d witnessed in Kentridge’s studio. For Kentridge, the easy access to provocative artists from different disciplines was a very good reason to remain in Johannesburg, no matter his international demand. In Kentridge’s example, López found verification of his own choice to stay home in Colombia, which shares with South Africa a violent history. “Both William and I are coming from conflicted social situations,” he says. López does not want to confront his history head-on as the generation before him did, but it is there underneath, informing both the subject and the possibilities of his work. In London, he had been unable to find a watchmaker capable of devising a mechanism for his paper watch that would run backwards, touching on his themes of memory and time, of “going backwards”. No problem for watchmakers in Bogotá, where everyone is accustomed to making do, through upheavals and deprivations. “We are very used to improvising,” he notes.

A few months into his mentoring year with Kentridge, López completed Avenida Primavera, Casa No.2, an installation of rooms conceived as a walk-in book of often three-dimensional drawings. Taking a hint from the studio practice of his Rolex mentor, he sought out collaborators for experiments in sound (ambient noise from his current apartment) and smell (the perfume of old paper). “Talking with William influenced the whole exhibition,” he says.

When he sent Kentridge photographs of the installation, he received a poetic critique and also the observation that these rooms suggested the setting for a performance.

A delicate dance
Then, beginning in November, for nearly a month and a half, López moved into Kentridge’s Johannesburg studio. During the first week, Kentridge introduced López to techniques of animation and gave him a stack of pages from an old Oxford English Dictionary to draw on. Kentridge had his own stack of pages from a duplicate dictionary. Each of them would make autobiographical drawings of themselves walking. These might become separate films or a joint project.

“You’re not saying, ‘Here’s a way of making an animated film’, but through the actual making of an animated film you’re thinking about what it is to put yourself in the film,” Kentridge says. “How hard-edged can it be? I think for Mateo it would be useful to do something that’s messy, that’s less precise.”

It is a delicate dance for mentor and protégé to work closely together, but Kentridge and his wife, the rheumatologist Anne Stanwix, have an affable generosity that encompasses a large circle of friends and family. Kentridge went to great lengths to care for his young studio-mate, including a top-speed car ride through Johannesburg in order to make it to the foundry in time for López to witness his first bronze casting.

A week into López’s residency, Kentridge went off on the European tour of his Refuse the Hour performance. López stayed in the studio, making drawing after drawing, filming each version from above. He drew himself walking, but he also drew squares of colour, scientific diagrams of hands, a clock whose numbers fall down into a heap and fly away. He took lunch with Stanwix or the studio staff, at home in the Kentridge kitchen.

On a damp December afternoon after Kentridge’s return, the mentor stopped by the table where López was working yet more charcoal into a cloud of smoke that billowed behind his walking figure.

Kentridge watched for a moment. “I would keep working: erase and add to the meaning. See how far it can go,” he said. “Nothing to lose.”

“If I make it any darker, it disappears,” López protested.

“That’s nothing,” Kentridge urged. “See what happens if it all goes black. You’ve got it in a neat form now. Try a brush, thick charcoal, erasers. Push much, much further.”

Back in his Bogotá studio, with its walled courtyard and the kitchen-in-progress, to which he hopes to lure other kinds of artists and artisans, López sat at his own drawing table, making precise plans and diagrams of the paper combs and dishes, the lounge chairs and lamps with which he will furnish Casa Disorientada, a floating house that is a collaboration with the architect Lucas Oberlaender for Art Basel in 2013.

“I understand what William was suggesting, but it’s more about the process than the final result. It’s about taking me out of my comfort zone,” López said. “I can be messy when I’m working, but it’s not me. What I understand from our conversations is that I could try not to control things too much, try to create something from chaos. That is interesting.”

Messy drawing may not be in the DNA of Mateo López, but it is possible, after all, that performance is. Working with collaborators, he’s been improvising a performance piece. It’s centred on his collection of salsa vinyls, musical evidence of the historical and racial connections between Colombia and South Africa. There’s video in the performance, also animation. Most of all, there’s Mateo López, out there in public, making meaning.

Amei Wallach is a New York-based arts writer and film-maker. She is president emeritus of the U.S. chapter of AICA (Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art).