Kentridge was born in Johannesburg to Sydney Kentridge and his wife Felicia Geffen. Both were attorneys who represented people marginalized by the apartheid system.
He was educated at King Edward VII School in Houghton, Johannesburg. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Politics and African Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand and then a diploma in Fine Arts from the Johannesburg Art Foundation. In the early 1980s, he studied mime and theatre at the L'École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. He originally hoped to become an actor, but he reflected later: "I was fortunate to discover at a theatre school that I was so bad an actor [... that] I was reduced to an artist, and I made my peace with it. Between 1975 and 1991, he was acting and directing in Johannesburg's Junction Avenue Theater Company. In the 1980s, he worked on television films and series as art director.
Kentridge is an expressionist. The feeling that is manipulated by the use of palette, composition and media, among others, often plays an equally vital role in the overall meaning as the subject and narrative of a given work. One must use one's gut reactions as well as one's interpretive skills to find meaning in Kentridge's work, much of which reveals very little actual content. Due to the sparse, rough and expressive qualities of Kentridge's handwriting, however, the viewer sees a sombre picture upon first glance, an impression that is perpetuated as the image illustrates a vulnerable and uncomfortable situation.
In 1980, he executed about 50 small-format etchings which he called the "Domestic Scenes". These two extraordinary groups of prints served to establish Kentridge's artistic identity, an identity he continued to develop in various media. Despite his ongoing exploration of non-traditional media, the foundation of his art has always been drawing and printmaking.
Between 1989 and 2003 Kentridge made a series of nine short films that he eventually gathered under the title 9 Drawings for Projection. In 1989, he began the first of those animated movies, Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris. For the series, he used a technique that would become a feature of his work - successive charcoal drawings, always on the same sheet of paper, contrary to the traditional animation technique in which each movement is drawn on a separate sheet. In this way, Kentridge's videos and films came to keep the traces of the previous drawings. His animations deal with political and social themes from a personal and, at times, autobiographical point of view, since the author includes his self-portrait in many of his works.
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