Performance Art

Blinded by Kentridge


ORDINARY MAGNIFICENCE: Kentridge’s polyptych of birds in flight make this exhibition something to see. Photograph by Geoff Sifrin.

AS SOON AS most gallery visitors and those who boast an interest in the creative industries announce that there’s a William Kentridge exhibition in town, a sense of respectful silence embraces the conversation. It’s like a declaration that God has landed in Johannesburg and may be seen on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Kentridge, who started showing his work at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg in 1989 has unquestionably become South Africa’s biggest arts celebrity. He has exhibited all over the world and his achievements boast not only a meteoric rise in the popularity and collectability and prices of his work, but also a work ethic that is genuinely second to none. But when it comes to critically engaging with Kentridge’s work, you’re up against such a powerful brand that has been so successfully marketed that you’re robbed of opinion as you stand in front of the pieces.

You shouldn’t be, however. While Kentridge’s drawing skill in this exhibition remains unequivocally magnificent and surprisingly quiet in a beautiful polyptych of a bird in flight, rendered with a fat brush and loose ink on disused ledger pages, this exhibition’s central piece is a videoed tour de force which closes out a regular visitor who hasn’t done sufficient homework.

Academic art at its most dangerous, this Kentridge installation is violent and an assault on the senses. Lots of things happen in this utterly impeccably made three-channel experience, which is punctuated by words and phrases like bullets from guns, as it is supported by the faux-military and vaguely threatening pomp and circumstance of brass band music, with a sense of quirky and revolutionary malevolence.

You’re not sure if these slogans are Kentridge’s own words, or ones which draw from Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book or a combination of the two. A gun-toting Dada Masilo, in a red beret, a guerilla-evocative skirt and traditional pink satin ballet shoes, features considerably, as do other performers in surreal contexts. But there’s a level of ominous undercurrent that is difficult to read with clarity, refuting the basics of the opera tradition.

Is this an opera? Is it an embryonic gesture toward an opera in the tradition coined by Monteverdi in the 17th century? Or should it be seen to conflate with the rudiments of Chinese opera that stretch to the Zhao Dynasty in early Chinese culture? That it’s Chinese is obvious. This work  premiered in Beijing and is currently on show in Seoul and it speaks with impeccable design and digital articulation of the contradictions in modern China. You’re left not really knowing where it all fits together, but infused with a sense of awe that you have been in the presence of the master, that is actually blinding.

You don’t have to believe this – but you do have to read the supporting material, where you will glean that Kentridge’s Notes toward a model opera is informed by a lecture Kentridge delivered in 2015 in Beijing about Chinese culture and what it is currently undergoing. How you, as a Johannesburg gallery visitor, get seduced by this material, is a different issue. Without focused immersion into the underpinning literature, you’re left with an overwhelming after-image of a cosmogony of beautiful birds, aggressive filmography, dance and collaboration which is exhaustive.

  • Notes towards a model opera, an exhibition by William Kentridge is at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg until February 12. The exhibition features contributions by Dada Masilo (choreography), Philip Miller and Johannes Serekeho (composition), the First St John Brass Band and members of African Immanuel Assemblies Brass Band (music performance), Zana Marovic and Janus Fouché (video construction), Yoav Dagan (video installation), Gavan Eckhart (sound mix) and Greta Coiris (costumes). It is performed by vocalists: Joanna Dudley, Tlale Makhene, Ann Masina, Moses Moeta, Thato Motlahaolwa and Bham Ntabeni; instrumentalists: Waldo Alexander (stroh violin) George Fombe (tuba), Adam Howard (trumpet and spoons), Charles Knighten-Pullen (guitar),Tlale Makhene (percussion) and Dan Selsick (trombone); and performers Dada Masilo, Tlale Makhene, Thato Mothlaolwa, Bham Ntabeni and Thabane Edwin Ntuli. Call 011 788-1113 or visit

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