William Kentridge is wrestling with a messy, bloody, uncomfortable past. The South African artist grew up in a nation gripped by a colonial, racist violence that defined every aspect of life then, and still casts its inescapable shadow now.
From the very first works here - big, terrifying charcoal drawings front he 1980s - he tries to make sense of the heinous oppression of apartheid and teh wider colonial endeavour. Hyenas and warthogs represent government officials, stalking ravaged african landscape. White men in suits dine and leer, there are stacks of severed heads, black figures cowering behind trees. The charcoal marks are thick and aggressive, the works ripe with death and pain.
Then his background in theatre and TV comes to the fore. He uses animation to tell stories of a greedy white tycoon exploiting the land and people, or a police officer cast as the absurdist king Pere Ubu. They’re loud, brash films; aggressive, rough and bawdy. In the tycoon works, Kentridge works directly on the studio wall, the charcoal scrawls appearing and being erased, but always leaving behind marks, like scars of the events they describe. It’s Kentridge at his most angry, desperately trying to understand life under the weight of apartheid, and striking a delicate balance between directness and allegory.
A combination of stark aggression and arty diversion that drags you into darkness.
His work then gets a bit more expansive. He covers tapestries with images of maps and migrants on boats, he copies drawings from a nineteenth century book about African exploration. One standout piece is a full mechanical miniature theatre telling the story of Africa being parcelled up and divided by European nations. The continent wasn’t only apart physically, by troops, but bureaucratically too, by office workers and cartographers. They’re all acts of arrogance and oppression.
And Kentridge’s monochrome approach for the most part works brilliantly, a combination of stark aggression and arty diversion that drags you into darkness.
But his flower works are a little dull, and his more recent, grander film and opera projects are pretty bloated. WIth more budget and more time comes more self-indulgence. And he loses his directness and impact in the process. I mean, the opera about trees – shown here as a stage set and film – manages to be huge, ambitious and also somehow totally forgettable.
I guess after decades of wrestling with the legacy of colonialism, you can't really begrudge the guy a night at the opera.