In an age of video, film and electronic art, traditional tapestry weaving might seem archaic, even irrelevant to the pace of modern life. Yet William Kentridge's bold, psychologically disturbing tapestries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art dramatically revivify a medium often regarded as primarily decorative.

Kentridge didn't produce these textiles by himself. He provided the designs, in the form of small collages - silhouette figures pinned to backgrounds of antique maps. Beginning in 2001, weavers at the Stephens Tapestry Studio in Johannesburg, South Africa, translated these into a suite of 17 large-scale hangings that the artist calls the Porter Series.

The Art Museum exhibition, organized by contemporary curator Carlos Basualdo, features 11 Porter tapestries, along with a number of the original collages and some small sculptures.

Kentridge is South Africa's most respected artist internationally, in large part because his work generates profound moral authority. His animated films have been screened at the Venice Biennale, Documenta X in Kassel, Germany, and the Museum of Modern Art. In 2001, one of his films, Shadow Procession, was projected on a huge outdoor screen in Times Square.

A survey of his art toured several American museums in 2001. A sequel, being organized by Mark Rosenthal, former curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is scheduled for 2009-10 in West Palm Beach, Fla., San Francisco and New York. In 2006, the Art Museum acquired a large tapestry called Office Love, around which Basualdo has organized this show as part of the museum's Notations series.

Born in Johannesburg in 1955, Kentridge grew up during his country's apartheid period. His parents were lawyers who represented South Africans oppressed by the government-imposed racial segregation. Although he is white, his art reveals that living in a divided society was a transformative experience.

The Porter tapestries represent the most recent expression of Kentridge's response to the inhumanity and repression of apartheid.

The tapestries aren't overtly political, like the paintings of Leon Golub or the silhouettes of Kara Walker. They're monumental archetypes that speak of lives - not specifically black African - burdened by dispossession, diaspora, injustice and suffering.

That describes not only the effects of South African apartheid ("separateness" in the Afrikaans language) but also the consequences of social and political conflict all over the world - in Darfur, for instance.

The Porter images consist of bulky, anonymous human shadow figures seen in profile, striding from left to right, and bearing burdens that are sometimes recognizable (chairs, a giant telephone, a space capsule) and sometimes not. In several cases, the burden and the figure merge into a single exotic being. The male figure in Office Love sports a typewriter for a head. Another figure, called "tree man," sprouts branches.

Both in the collages from which the tapestries are derived (the exhibition calls these "drawings," even though they aren't drawn) and in the textiles, the figures are superimposed over reproductions of antique maps, most taken from a 19th-century European album.

The maps imply a journey - as Kentridge explains, not only geographically but through time. This element imparts universality to the figures, which otherwise are somewhat crudely expressionistic and nonspecific as to race or historical context.

The collages reveal that Kentridge composes in small scale, by tearing black construction paper into appropriate shapes, then pinning these to a support. For the weaving, these maquettes are enlarged photographically to produce full-scale cartoons that guide the weavers.

As if to anchor the tapestries firmly in the social history of South African, Kentridge has them woven, in small editions, in Johannesburg by the Marguerite Stephens studio. The wool is mohair taken from Swaziland goats and custom-dyed (Swaziland being a small kingdom embedded in the edge of South Africa). The weavers and dyers are black African women.

Unlike historical tapestries, which typically present complex, multi-figure narratives, Kentridge's are symbolic, animated by powerful striding silhouettes that lean forward in a way that implies determination, or resignation, and momentum.

Initially I was puzzled by the tiny white marks on the figures that resemble Acura logos. When I studied the collages, I realized that the weavers had included the coiled heads of the pins that fasten the bits of torn paper to their background.

I also wondered why these works are tapestries and not, for instance, paintings or large drawings on a rigid support. What do the images gain by being woven?

Kentridge isn't a painter, so that wouldn't have been an option. On the other hand, translation into tapestry imparts a pronounced material character to the images, with concomitant durability and portability, while preserving the details of the cartographic backgrounds.

They represent drawing by other means - the artist normally conceptualizes his ideas as drawings. In the past he has converted drawings to animated films. Now, thanks to the virtuosity of Stephens and her skilled artisans, he's able to ennoble his images in fiber.

One problem with tapestries is their reproductive character - they're one generation removed from the direct imprint of the artist's hand. Kentridge's tapestries are more primal in this regard: They read more like paintings. While the small collages are fresher and more spirited, the tapestries translate his imaginative, humanistic passion with memorable vigor.

Art: Burdened by Life

"William Kentridge: Tapestries" continues in galleries 172, 173 and 176 of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway, through April 6. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and to 8:45 p.m. Fridays. Admission is $14 general, $12 for visitors 62 and older, and $10 for students with ID and visitors 13 to 18. Pay what you wish Sundays. Information: 215-763-8100, 215-684-7500 or www.philamuseum.org.

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