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14/12/2017 11:49 SAST | Updated 14/12/2017 14:48 SAST

EXCLUSIVE: Behind The Scenes With William Kentridge

HuffPost at home with Africa's most prolific artist.

Garreth van Niekerk

Up high in the hills of Johannesburg's northern suburbs, Africa's most powerful artist, William Kentridge, is busy in his studio -- one of three active William Kentridge art studios around the city -- where he is in the midst of creating one of his most ambitious works to date.

In 2018 Kentridge will premiere a 50-metre long theatrical work, with a cast of some 35 performers, titled "The Head and the Load" -- a reference to a Ghanaian proverb that explores "the capture of Africa", he tells HuffPost.

The work will be one of the biggest ever shown at the Park Avenue Armory in New York and another major European museum (which has yet to make its own announcement about the staging). It will combine all of the artist's signature elements into one sprawling multidisciplinary installation, full of his distinctive hand-drawn charcoal animations, original music, physical performance and extraordinary sculptural set designs.

As HuffPost enters the steel-and-glass studio that adjoins his family's sprawling stone home on Houghton's "Randlords" ridge, we see him busy with a charcoal wall drawing. Cameras capture the drawing's progression as his hands fly back and forth over the page, collating the frames into animated sequences that project onto a scale model set up on the other side of the studio.

Garreth van Niekerk
A scale model of artist William Kentridge's forthcoming work The Head & the Load, due to premiere in 2018.

Scanned historical maps rotate on the separate projections, while sketched animations move across the map surfaces -- extra, hand-drawn cast members of the forthcoming production. In front of the screens, cardboard figurines are caught in the light of the projectors, casting their own silhouettes onto the backdrop as well.

All three of his studios are currently engaged in preparations for the work, he says, with the downtown workshop currently creating "ransom note" text animations, the sculpture studio busy casting sculptures that will appear in the work, and his home studio getting on with the technical production of the monumental undertaking.

Garreth van Niekerk
Kentridge's home studio in the suburbs of Northern Johannesburg, where teams of experts are currently preparing the artist's latest projects.

It's just one of the big events on the cards for the artist, who seems to be running at full speed. In 2017 he has had gallery exhibitions in Berlin, Milan, Paris and New York, and significant shows at SFMOMA [San Francisco Museum of Modern Art] and the Cincinnati Art Museum, while his "Thick Time" exhibition toured from the Whitechapel Gallery, London, to the Museum der Moderne Salzburg and the Louisiana Museum in Denmark.

This is above and beyond the bewildering 550m-long frieze that the artist unveiled in Rome in late 2016, and his output at "That Which We Do Not Remember" -- his expansive solo show currently on at Cape Town's Goodman Gallery, which exhibits some of his first experiments with virtual reality alongside new work from two recent opera productions, Lulu and Wozzeck, and drawings, prints, sculpture, tapestries and a kinetic model theatre created specifically for the show.

Johannesburg usually slows its frenetic pace in December, but it will be full steam ahead for the Kentridge studio this year. 2018 holds more than just "The Head and the Load" for them –– the studio will also be preparing for "O Sentimental Machine", a large exhibition of sculptural and related work at the Liebieghaus Museum in Frankfurt, "Thick Time", a substantial survey exhibition which opens at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester in March, his opera "Die Zauberflote" that premieres at the Tokyo Opera, as well as gallery exhibitions all over America, Africa, and Europe.

The man is busy, but he isn't tired, he says.

"There are always more projects in the pipeline to do than there are hours to make them, but I'm going to go and spend three weeks at the beach with my family, walking for miles along the beaches, doing a lot of reading, a lot of swimming, more eating and drinking than I should –– so it's not like I can't switch off. I switch off very easily. And then I'll gather energy in January again for the next projects," he says.

Before we've closed the door, the artist is already back at the drawing wall, on to the next work.

Check out our video of the studio below: