William Kentridge, Still from Invisible Mending from 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, 2003.(Photo: John Hodgkiss, courtesy the artist, and the Museum of Modern Art)

The 54-year-old South African artist William Kentridge was born into a family of lawyers: a grandfather who was elected to Parliament, a grandmother who was the first female barrister in the country’s history, and liberal Jewish parents who were powerful anti-apartheid figures in Johannesburg’s legal community. And so when Kentridge—who had dabbled in performance, theater, and even mime—decided at age 30 that he would commit fulltime to his drawing, he was, in effect, turning his back on the family business. But the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. In the body of work Kentridge has created over the past quarter-century—much of which is on view now at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in a retrospective titled William Kentridge: Five Themes—the artist has essentially put his homeland on trial, as he’s explored the richly complex, morally complicated landscape that emerged from apartheid and its wake.

It isn’t easy to describe Kentridge’s work succinctly. His media range from monotypes, etchings, and aquatints to sooty charcoal drawings on paper to torn-paper shadow progressions pasted on the pages of old encyclopedias to full-blown theatrical productions, the most recent of which—a staging of Shostakovich’s 1930 opera The Nose—finishes its run at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on March 25. Then there are the literary and historical references—MoMA’s second-floor galleries ricochet with the artist’s allusions to William Hogarth, Luis Buñuel, Kara Walker, Georges Méliès, Jean-Luc Godard, and others. But the work is wholly his own, and the MoMA exhibition ably traces a line from Kentridge’s earlier pieces on the social and political ramifications of apartheid through the years in which he was consumed by the deconstruction of the art-making process itself to his latest fertile period, which has found Kentridge exploring what constitutes an identity, both personally and universally.

At the heart of the exhibition is a series of nine animated films Kentridge created between 1989 and 2003. Called 9 Drawings for Projection, they offer a glimpse into Kentridge’s creative process and an examination of the themes that recur throughout his work. The films revolve around two characters: Soho Eckstein, a cigar-smoking, espresso-drinking, square-jawed, pinstriped industrialist who regards his wife and the scads of poverty-stricken miners who work for him with indifference, and Felix Teitlebaum, a sensitive, nude, alter ego who is involved in an affair with Mrs. Eckstein, Soho’s wife. (Kentridge has claimed that the Ashkenazi surnames came to him in a dream and mean nothing beyond that, though one could read into them the confusion Kentridge felt from growing up white, Jewish, and privileged in a strictly segregated Johannesburg.)

Kentridge created the films using what he calls “stone-age animation”: A 16- or 35-mm camera shot frames as the artist drew, erased, and altered strokes of charcoal on paper, creating a living document complete with smudges and phantom marks. As the Italian curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev explains in the exhibition catalog, Kentridge “uses erasure as a metaphor for the loss of historical memory—the complete amnesia with which society confronts injustice, racism, and brutality.”

And it is here that Kentridge’s work approaches the universality that has in part made it so appealing to an international audience since the cultural boycott against South Africa was lifted in the early 1990s. His films, depicting images of violence, a desolate landscape, and people who cannot be free in their own country, reverberate with a host of potential associations: Namibia’s Herero and Namaqua Genocide, American slavery, Stalin’s purges, and the Holocaust.

But this all makes Kentridge sound very grim, and, in fact, part of the joy of the MoMA exhibition is the way it demonstrates Kentridge’s ability to move easily from tragedy to comedy, and from the merely comic to the absurd. These qualities are most fully on view in his staging of The Nose, the story of a Russian bureaucrat who awakes one day to find his rather prominent Baltic schnoz missing from his face. After a mad search, he confronts the appendage in a St. Petersburg cathedral, only to realize that the nose has achieved a higher rank than he has, and it refuses to pay him any attention. Luckily the same fate won’t soon befall Kentridge: Between the MoMA exhibition and the opera, a small show of his etchings on view at New York’s David Krut Projects and a forthcoming exhibition at New York’s Jewish Museum, the whole world is paying attention to South Africa’s most famous artist.

Jill Singer is a New York-based freelance writer and the co-founder and editor of the online magazine Sight Unseen.