Bogs of war, parodied heroes and the value of Kentridge


THE land, rich with blood and life: Untitled charcoal drawing from Wozzeck 4 by William Kentridge. Photograph courtesy Goodman Gallery.

HE STANDS WITH assumed dignity on a plinth made of a wooden crate. His face is a morass of rough finger-worked texture, his body is constructed along the classic principles of the portrait bust. On his head, there is a stylised fish, or is it a loaf of bread? Either way, there’s a presence to this figure, named Hero by William Kentridge, which is both solemn and parodied in the same breath. It’s not an obvious starting point for Kentridge’s current Johannesburg exhibition, Kaboom!, but like many pivotal works in this supremely important foray into the paradoxes of colonialism, it is magnificent.

The exhibition is something that Johannesburgers thirsty for some fresh Kentridge should flock to, particularly if you haven’t been able to zip off to the Tate Modern in London or even Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town, which have most recently hosted his performed pieces, The Head and the Load and his interpretation of Alban Berg’s opera, Wozzeck (2017), respectively.

But even if you haven’t seen those works, the energy and conviction tying all the parts of Kaboom! together, from the tapestries, to the drawings, sculptures and film, lend a readable gravitas to what Kentridge is saying about humanity and its battles to be on top of things.

Kaboom! grabs your attention by the Pop Art-evocative tone to its title, but the closer you look, the deeper you’re drawn in. This body of work is so much more than a cartoon-language explosion. If you have been following Kentridge’s career since the 1980s, you will recognise some of his colonial landscapes in chalk, here. Through them, he forces your thinking deeper, with the barbs and interjections of words and contexts that he’s inserted between the reeds, in the whiteness of the waterfall.

It’s about the elitism of white men in the face of the horrors of the Great War. The focus of the eponymous 15-minute long film that forms the rich, dark, multifaceted heart of this exhibition is on the black men from Africa who were mandated to serve as ‘carriers’ for those fighting the war. The film tells a complex processionary tale of bodies and minds broken in a war that was not theirs. With an astonishing use of fragments and the segueing of three-channel technology, it’s a tour de force of choreography and music – you will hear work by Philip Miller, Fritz Kreisler and Paul Hindemith – drawings and words that will leave you reeling.

And it is for this reason that you should save the experience of seeing the film for last. There are quieter (but no less violent) pieces that vie for your attention in the various rooms and interstices of the gallery, including a serious foray on Kentridge’s part into the medium of cast solid bronze. And here, in assemblages such as Lexicon, we find a rich alphabet of symbols which are uniquely Kentridgean, reaching through the trajectory of his considerable career.

In many respects, this notion of a lexicon that reflects an inner language devised by Kentridge is central to a reading of this important exhibition. Kentridge is so immersed in the internal discourses presented in his works that his thinking has offered up material to last a legacy and ideas are articulated and re-articulated in a way that attests to Kentridge’s humility and boldness as a maker of objects that feed ideas and vice versa, where nothing is static and everything is subject to growth.

But you cannot really engage the value of Kentridge without a deep respect for his talent as a collaborator. While many of the drawings on show bleed out of the process of the making of the film, Kentridge brings together the cream of artistic professionals, as is his wont, in a way that lends the work the spice of the classic Gesamtkunstwerk that people of the ilk of Richard Wagner dreamt of.

It’s a real privilege to be able to climb into the heart of this exhibition and experience it for all you’re worth. On so many levels, it represents a culmination of Kentridge’s language, thinking and discourse, for now. Don’t miss this one. One visit may not suffice.

  • Kaboom! by William Kentridge is at the Goodman Gallery, Rosebank, Johannesburg, until November 10. It features performances by Waldo Alexander, Shannon Armer, Hamilton Dlamini, Merinda Fourie, Lwanda Gogwana, Alex Hitzeroth, N’faly Kouyate, Tlale Makhene, Kgaugelo Mpyane, Bham Ntabeni, Vincenzo Pasquariello, Tsepo Pooe, Lyle Potgieter, Jill Richards, Justin Sasman, Dan Selsick, Mncedisi Shabangu, Christi-Louise Swanepoel, Riaan van Rensburg and Kate White, supported by design work by Philip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi (music and sound); Paul Hindemith, N’faly Koute, Fritz Kreisler and Philip Miller (composition); Gavan Eckhart (sound editing and mixing); Janus Fouché (video editing), Chris-Waldo de Wet and Jacques van Staden (technical construction) and Marguerite Stephens Tapestry Studio (tapestries). Call 011 788 1113.


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