Royal Academy, 2022
Review by Andrew Bay
William Kentridge, a prodigious South African artist, makes drawings and reshapes them into films, animations, theatre sets, and even operas. At the heart of his touring retrospective, first shown at the UK’s Royal Academy in 2022, is a large gallery room replicating his Johannesburg studio. It contains an impressive range of artefacts, tools and items: print-making equipment, draperies, sculptures, film projections and hundreds of pencils and brushes.
Kentridge was born in 1955 to parents who were barristers, defending the civil rights of those oppressed by the apartheid system. Throughout the exhibition, Kentridge confronts the dark and disturbing implications of his privileged, white upbringing in South Africa, perhaps most powerfully in the show’s centrepiece, an automated mechanical theatre called ‘Black Box’.
The idea for the piece emerged after Kentridge staged a production of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. The South African artist wanted to reexamine the opera’s approach to the glorification of European Enlightenment from the sobering perspective of colonialism. Many countries in the world, including South Africa, are yet to recover from the enormous impact of the violence of the colonial enterprise. The grim and graphic, mostly charcoal-based, artworks mimic that violence: there are explosions; snarling dogs; mutilated human beings; and much bloodshed.
The whole exhibition, which at times threatens to overwhelm the visitor and draw them into consideration of their own complicity, is inflected by South African politics and what it means to live in a divided society. The full weight of the country’s brutal authoritarian history is inescapably on show, and Kentridge’s ability to capture and redeem these collective memories in physical creations is remarkable.
Elsewhere in the exhibition there are giant colonial maps, tapestries, film projections and animations (including a witty self-interview), Chinese ink drawings, and a scaled-down theatre. All serve to amplify the elaborate developments which usually take place in Kentridge’s Johannesburg studio space. He erases and reworks the charcoal drawings, photographing each stage to create stop-motion films that reveal their granulated coarseness.
The multidimensional soundtrack by South African musicians Philip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi thrums throughout the retrospective from subtly positioned megaphones. It includes traditional acapella ‘mbube’ song cycles and quietly rhythmic tape loop compositions that mysteriously sweep through the halls and adumbrate the complexity of the installations.
Kentridge is ultimately a provocateur. Some drawings, discretely arranged on the towering walls, are simply pop art slogans and phrases: ‘Recreational danger’; ‘Find the less good idea’; ‘A safe space for stupidity’. These intriguing puzzles appear unsolvable to the viewer.
Unflinching questions about mortality, fate and language lie at the centre of Kentridge’s conviction: meaning must be constructed, as opposed to being received; an idea that informs his views on South African politics. Will the country escape its conflicted fate and find renewed hope in its future? These compelling ambiguities and uncertainties interpenetrate Kentridge’s drawings, films and paintings. They are about a spectral language yet to be found, at the edge of meaning, of our comprehension and compassion.