South African artist, William Kentridge, is best known for his prints, drawings and animated films. The current exhibition at the Royal Academy is an electrifying journey through the last 40 years of his life and his multi-layered work which includes drawings, tapestry, maps, film, a puppet show, an opera, music, shadow-play and sometimes all of this at once.
The show starts in the mid 80s with Kentridge’s charcoal and pastel drawings of wild animals of Africa in the apartheid era (animals as substitutes for politicians) and moves on to these drawings for projection accompanied by stirring music and sound. The size and sheer volume of videos and installations in this show is at times overwhelming – there are only so many screens one can watch – but they are also mesmerising.
A mechanical theatre combines film, animation, and robotics. The theatre performance comes with a warning sign about the brutality against animals (a theme in the earlier charcoal paintings). The animals are a substitute for an exploited territory and people and this lovely little puppet theatre reveals the horror of genocide
Away from the screens, in more recent years (in the later rooms) Kentridge has created some vast works using ink on paper which are extraordinary. Never straightforward, the massive flowers pictures are inked on sheets torn from dictionaries and encyclopaedias.
Everything in this show is teaming with imagery and ideas – all of which I’m not sure I’m quite getting. It takes me a while to decide to relax into it and enjoy the pure originality and experimental journey because I’m never going to ‘get’ the exact symbolism and be able to put the ideas into a neat soundbite. Everything feels very BIG and noisy and (over?) stimulating – but then its work taking aim at huge issues, whether that be colonialism, capitalism, or political corruption.
Allow several hours to experience only a fraction of what is on offer here and acknowledge that you’ll need to work quite hard to un-layer the motivation behind many of these pieces. For a young person and/or Kentridge first-timer, a bit more context and/or straightforward explanation is needed to make obvious the research and experience that underpins these experimental works. But you really can enjoy the show on a more superficial level and be bowled over by Kentridge's creative diversity and experimental ambition.
Until 11th December
Anya Waddington 20th October 2022