William Kentridge at the Royal Academy of Arts
Despite the instruction at the entrance to the exhibition – Let the Drama Begin at the End – we start at the beginning of William Kentridge’s artistic career. In the 1980s, while acting and directing at the Junction Avenue Theatre Company in his hometown of Johannesburg, Kentridge began to produce large-scale monochromatic charcoal and pastel drawings – observations of everyday life in the city, employing a visual language rich in symbolism to portray South African society under apartheid.
From these early drawings, we voyage through the last 40 years of Kentridge’s multimedia, multidisciplinary, multisensory work. But no matter how ‘multi’ his work, at the core of it all is drawing; this seemingly old-school medium with a reputation for being preparatory sketches rather than stand-alone works of art. The beauty of the exhibition at the Royal Academy is to see, to almost experience, how Kentridge ‘thinks’ drawing and how his fascination with this medium over decades evolved into animated films, tapestries, collages, opera, and much more. With Kentridge, drawing has acquired renewed potential.
If drawing is the tangible foundation of Kentridge’s work, the intangible is his ongoing interest in the process, (its) open-endedness and ephemerality. He enjoys working with charcoal because of the indeterminacy of where a piece of charcoal hits the paper (in contrast to knowing where a pointed pencil does), and the quickness with which he can work and equally undo his work by erasing it. This process of doing and undoing dominates his Drawings for Projection that he started in 1989. Working with only a few sheets of paper to create an entire animated film, he draws, erases elements, adds new ones, all the while moving back and forth between the sheet of paper on the wall and the camera to capture the changes. The results, of which five can be seen in the exhibition, are dominated by the erasures, ghostly lines, like scars or memories. The ephemeral is present in the exhibition’s architecture too, where simple wood constructions or strips of paper hanging from the ceiling serve as screens.
Many of the works on show have never been seen before. Some have even been created especially for this exhibition. Such as the drawings on the walls that accompany the film Ubu Tells the Truth and which depict the metamorphosing protagonist Ubu in his various appearances. Or Carte Hypsométrique de l’Empire Russe, the largest tapestry made by Kentridge and the Stephens Tapestry Studio to date. The central image is an all-black silhouette of a boat crowded with people that is set against a backdrop of collaged maps and red lines; a reminder of the perilous journeys which migrants undertake.
Kentridge’s work is inherently political. We see this through his early drawings and animations, his film Notes towards a Model Opera for which he assembled thoughts on Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and contemporary Chinese expansion of state interests across Africa in a South African setting or his mechanical miniature theatre Black Box / Chambre Noir, an investigation into the genocide of the Herreo and Nama in modern-day Namibia by colonial Germany. Despite these very specific examinations of some of history’s dark – black, noir – events, Kentridge has the rare skill to leave room for humour (unless humour is at the heart of a piece, as it is in his highly amusing Drawing Lessons), surrealism and absurdity, and to keep his work open for viewers to create their own interpretations. ‘I hope people can see it with an openness and understanding that they are going to construct the meaning as they move through the exhibition,’ Kentridge told the Royal Academy.
The last room of the exhibition offers a spectacular installation for his chamber opera Waiting for Sibyl. Let the drama begin at the end, but make sure to take in the entire Kentridge drama from start to finish.
William Kentridge will be in conversation with Prof. Tamar Garb, Centre for the Study of Contemporary Art, UCL on 2 November at 5pm in the IAS. The event is open to UCL students and staff; click here to register.
William Kentridge is on view at the Royal Academy until 11 December 2022. His work is also on view at Goodman Gallery until 12 November 2022.
MARTHE LISSON is the Editor of Think Pieces.
Edited by NICHOLAS LACKENBY
Proofread by ANNA STELLE
Lead image: William Kentridge, Carte Hypsométrique de l’Empire Russe, 2022. © William Kentridge