Given the historical connection between South Africa and the Netherlands, it will come as a surprise that William Kentridge, one of South Africa’s most prominent contemporary artists (along with Amsterdam’s adopted Marlene Dumas) might still need an introduction in the Netherlands. The internationally admired artist is currently having his first ever exhibition in the Netherlands, hosted by the Jewish Historical Museum in partnership with the Deutsche Bank and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.
The exhibition centers on a mechanical theatre called Black Box/Chambre Noire, a project commissioned by the Deutsche Bank and Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and exhibited in the Deutsche Guggenheim in 2005. During a twenty-one-minute performance, six mechanical sculptural puppets operate in front of animated charcoal drawings and archival footage projections. In addition to the black box theatre itself, about fifty drawings function as complementary background information, a sort of making-of. These drawings, models, and sketches which reflect those used in the main work aren’t all necessarily strong as individual artworks, but they do shed critical light onto the cultural and historic references in Black Box, revealing layers of its conceptual depth and poetic meaning. For instance, Kentridge made the animation’s drawings on various archival documents, and a list of their sources is available for the audience to see.
William Kentridge, Installation view of Black Box/Chambre Noire, miniature theatre (detail); © William Kentridge / Photo: John Hodgkiss. Deutsche Guggenheim.
This additional context also allows the viewer to focus on Kentridge’s working methods, a nice touch given the event of his first show in the Netherlands. Kentridge is best known for his hand-drawn charcoal animations focusing on apartheid- and post-apartheid-era South Africa. His signature technique reflects recurring themes like memory and history: Kentridge draws, photographs, erases, and reworks his charcoal drawings and traces of previous drawings linger in the resulting animations. Their ineradicable history haunts his frames, connecting the often uncomfortable past to the present. Kentridge’s elaborate multi-disciplinary oeuvre evolved from these animations to feature works in a wide array of media including drawing, sculpture, puppetry, theatre, opera, and filmmaking, often combining them, as in Black Box.
For Black Box Kentridge chose a pitch-black page in German colonial history, an almost forgotten event some have called the first genocide of the 20th century. In 1885, Southwest Africa (now Namibia) became a German protectorate. As German settlers increasingly encroached upon and confiscated the land of the Herero and Namaqua peoples, the tribes’ frustration about these injustices grew, leading to an insurgence against the Germans. German troops, directed by the ruthless General Lothar von Trotha, launched a swift counter strike and many Herero and Namaqua fled into the desert to avoid the massacre. The harsh climate resulted in thousands of deaths, adding to the already significant toll of those killed directly by the troops. Despite objections to General von Trotha's actions by Germans in the colony as well as at home, it wasn't until 1905, after 75 percent of the Herero population was decimated, that the general was removed from command.
William Kentridge, Untitled (drawing for Black Box/Chambre Noire), 2005; © William Kentridge / Photo: John Hodgkiss. Deutsche Guggenheim
Recurring elements in Black Box are the machine (men turning into machines beating a person), the German eagle (sitting on top of the world), the African rhinoceros (gracefully dancing or being hunted), and numerous skulls. The act of measuring is also a recurring theme. One of the kinetic sculptural actors is a measuring device, a reference to both phrenology and geography. Symbolic allusions to this horrific history are only the starting point; the wide array of sources and ideas layered in the work are rich and complex. Enlightenment is another major underlying theme. When he began the Black Box commission Kentridge was working on a production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, an opera influenced by Enlightenment philosophy, and certain themes and even parts of the music and libretto are incorporated in the work.
Kentridge describes his multi-layered exploration of the past as a Trauerarbeit, referencing Freud’s ideas about dealing with trauma through re-experiencing it. Black Box/Chambre Noire revisits a historical trauma, showing the complications involved in reconstructing events through the lens of a particular time, place, or politics. This small-scale exhibition in an inspired venue will whet Amsterdam appetites for this exceptional artist and hopefully we will get to see more of Kentridge’s evocative work in the Netherlands in the future.
(Image on top: William Kentridge, Installation view of Black Box/Chambre Noire, miniature theatre (detail); © William Kentridge / Photo: John Hodgkiss. Deutsche Guggenheim.)