Aastonishment and violence fill the Royal Academy’s investigative exhibition of Johannesburg-born artist William Kentridge. Glimpses of hangings and torture, sex in the pool, old footage of a white hunter leaping towards the rhino he’s just shot to give it a final shot in the head. An ampersand turns into a gallows and body parts are thrown into the shower. Snippets of crackling operatic tunes, singsong African songs and paranoid voices on the phone fill the air, along with the steady clang of a miner’s hammer against a rock. Kentridge’s show is filled with sound and fury.
Now in her late 60s, Kentridge has spent more than half her life under apartheid. The system itself, and the complications of its consequences, were his key subjects. The artist’s parents were both lawyers, playing a leading role in defending human rights and those accused of treason.
The artist paces, first in one direction, then in the other. Back and forth, between one thought and the next. Kentridge walks between the drawing and the camera, in order to register what he has just drawn and to allow himself a break before returning to the charcoal image, in order to wipe or rub something, shift part of the action and add a new element, to move the action forward. The successive changes in the drawn image eventually become the sequences of his primitive animated films, which develop intuitively and with a sense of inevitability. If there is no resolution, there is none; his animations are less stories than situations.
The AR show is also necessarily fragmentary and incomplete, filled with stops and starts. Retracing the evolution of his art from the 1980s to the present day, where drawing plays the main role, it also includes animations, filmed performances and sculpture, and sometimes works that combine all these elements. Kentridge continued to work for the stage, designing and directing large-scale operas and other theatrical productions around the world. Certain motifs recur throughout – the megaphone, the stovetop coffee maker, the old-fashioned typewriter, the camera, the trees and the leaves and pages of books, plus a cast of characters, including the the artist himself, lumbering, bald, aging, incarnating himself as a character as much as he is at the origin of the work.
Kentridge’s early animations were scathing and full of sarcasm and bite, as he delved into the inequalities and brutalities of the apartheid system and the white culture that sustained it. It was their central theme, as well as being made from dirty charcoal dust drawings themselves – murky stories told in dirty materials. Their baseness could also evoke the filth of corruption, the stench of his creation The Cigar of Soho Eckstein, his tongue sticking between his wife’s legs, his greed and ugliness; panoramas of poor land strewn with graves, the grime of the mine and the wreckage of a museum collapsing in on itself. A number of these screened films, made between 1989 and 2020, fill a large, semi-darkened gallery. There’s no respite and too much to take in and follow as we move from movie to movie, from one set of benches to the next, with their scenic overhanging cone speakers, with the leaks sounds and insistent images in charcoal.
Eckstein, real estate developer and mining magnate, a recurring figure in his chalk-striped suit, is a crude caricature, free in a world where the African National Congress has finally received legitimacy and his world is on the brink. His love rival, Felix Teitlebaum, is another replacement for Kentridge himself. In another film, we find a protagonist (we don’t know which of the two we’re looking at) hiding behind a newspaper in a deckchair on the beach, dominated by uniformed characters on a balcony. There is a baptism in the waves, with black devotees. The tide rises and falls, time returns and advances, optimism is swept away. Kentridge’s drawn and animated narratives are incomplete and unresolved situations, filled with the ambiguities of what the South African novelist JM Coetzee has called, writing of the artist’s early films, “the troubled white South African psyche and amnesia”. This is the subject of the artist, his as much as that of his protagonists.
In another gallery, Kentridge drew directly on the walls: a camera on its tripod, a rhinoceros, screeching loudspeakers and a radio, while in the center of the space the artist-animated version of the he invention of the writer Alfred Jarry, Père Ubu, pushes, and finally tears out, the eye of his victim. Animation gives way to film with a real, glowing, terrified eye. Jarry’s King Ubu became a security force agent whose wife, a wallboard tells us, thinks he might be having an affair, but is relieved to learn he only tortured and murdered suspected political activists. We never meet Ubu’s wife, unless she is that gelatinous eye, seeking to uncover the truth. The whole story, which we learn was developed as a play, Ubu and the Truth Commission, written by longtime Kentridge collaborator Jane Taylor and directed by the artist and performed in 1997 at the Laboratory of the Market Theater in Johannesburg. Ubu Tells the Truth is a vignette, and the wall drawings and accompanying prints and drawings in another room don’t really flesh it out.
Much more successful and visually compelling, 2005’s Black Box/Chamber Noir is a mechanical theater with automated puppets, moving backgrounds, and projected film. Sitting and watching the events on their small stage, it is often difficult to distinguish between the live action, albeit mechanical, and the filmed projection. We can believe it all the same, because the work delves into the violent repression and genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples of Namibia in 1908 by the German colonial armed forces. The most unnerving aspect of Black Box is its seductiveness, the almost childlike quality of wonder exhibited by this miniature toy world, and its gruesome subject matter and slapstick stage action. And here comes the Great White Hunter, and the rhino comes down.
Next are tapestries, derived from ancient maps, detailing the fragmentation of a continent by 19th-century European superpowers, and a three-screen film based on operas created by Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, during the Revolution. Chinese culture. Kentridge moved the action to South Africa, where a black ballerina dances with a flag and a rifle, in a work that alludes to Chinese economic colonialism in present-day Africa. Elsewhere in the exhibition, we meet Kentridge in his studio. He stands beside himself, a self divided by a simple cinematic trick; both dressed identically, both bald, both with the pince-nez on his black ribbon. Kentridge the artist sits at his desk, surrounded by drawing materials and the tools of his trade. Beside him stands his authoritarian superego, scolding and sneering like a schoolmaster at his indolent, lethargic double. Moments of humor here are welcome. And here he is again, an animated, hand-drawn Kentridge pacing the chapters of the Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, by the 19th-century Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis, which waver beneath him. Kentridge on the move, then, is going nowhere.
The best comes last, a film called Sibyl based on a chamber opera (Waiting for the Sibyl) commissioned by the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome in 2019. It is screened behind an almost bare stage, and we are at the entrance of the Underworld, where the anxious would leave questions, written on sheets, inquiring about their fate for the Sibyl to answer. She also wrote her responses on sheets, but no one could tell to whom her responses were addressed. Kentridge’s Sibyl mixes animation and filmed Chinese shadows, using drawing and life-size projected actors. The sculptures become rotating silhouettes and the silhouettes become drawings. The characters become trees and the trees become birds. The transitions are lovely. A solitary, frenetic and passionate dancer becomes a drawing by Goya, a bird, an electric fan. Trees dance across an inordinately enlarged page alongside the Sibyl’s often enigmatic responses. “You will live longer than a horse but not as long as a crow.” “Begin to die, diligently, wisely, optimistically. Waste no time. Screens fall, spin and fold into each other, and people move among windblown scraps of paper, as in a gust of wind. “Starve the algorithm”, say the newspapers, and “the execution site is never empty”. Beautiful voices rise and fall in the music composed by Nhlanhla Mahlangu and Kyle Shepherd. Relentless, vertiginous and amazing, I found myself unexpectedly moved in this game of illusions and shadows.Sibyl is Kentridge at its best.