A brass band marches into the deserted and desolate landscape playing melancholy music, reminiscent of funeral processions in Mexico or South Africa and heightened by the fact that the whole scene is in black and white - there is little colour here – and what is coming next is hidden until the band moves on round the room. Gradually the scene unfolds into a danse macabre, a procession of priests carrying what could be a lilies – symbolising death, or what could be palm fronds – symbolising life, followed by a variety of sad figures including patients holding their saline drips and others carrying giant classical busts, portraits, bird cages and miners’ heads, with a platform of three figures which appear to have the regalia of leadership, but are skeletons. Along the way a figure, said to be William Kentridge’s collaborator Dada Masolo, appears at times to be dancing with a rifle; at other times takes on the silhouette of the devil with a scythe.
The elegant upper gallery of the Marion Goodman Gallery, which is normally flooded with daylight, has been darkened for this eight screen film by the South African artist William Kentridge “More Sweetly Play the Dance” where the viewer sits on a variety of second-hand office chairs and watches the scene move around the room. The work is described as representing a procession of refugees: ‘My concern has been both with the existential solitude of the walker, and with social solitude – lines of people walking in single file from one country to another, from one life to an unknown future’. (William Kentridge, “A Dream of Love Reciprocated“, 2014). In an adjacent gallery are the giant classical busts and heads shown in the film, made of everyday materials – cardboard and sewing pattern paper – covered in black poster paint.
William Kentridge, born in 1955 in Johannesburg, studied Politics and African Studies at the University of Witwatersrand, Fine Art at the Johannesburg Art Foundation and then Mime and Theatre at L’École International de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, at that time hoping to be an actor but he decided to take up art and his work seems to be influenced by his different areas of study and by his parents’ work as attorneys assisting people disadvantaged by the apartheid system in his home country. His work moves easily between prints, drawings, sculpture and animated films.
Downstairs another film, “Notes Towards a Model Opera” uses many of the images on display in the adjacent gallery, and draws on research in Beijing to reflect on life in China under the communist regime and on the welcome which countries such as South Africa give to Chinese immigration and investment. Dada Masilo in revolutionary uniform dances over the images while whirling guns through the dance.
Revolution and the unintended foolishness of political leaders is explored in a series of huge images of flowers drawn on old printed pages and through the use of slogans, poems and parables, exploring the links between the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the events of May 1968 and the Paris Commune of 1871.
Finally, in another gallery are two groups of bronze heads: five “Polychrome Heads and three “Roman Heads” on stands, where Kentridge shows how little material is needed to create a head – pine, fragments of Chinese maps, scraps torn from a 1906 miners cashbook and corrugated cardboard.
Kentridge’s work is powerful and bold in its imagery and in its simplicity using only limited materials and colours, making statements about the impact of conflict on people who never fulfil their full potential and often become refugees. This is a powerful exhibition, especially at the current time of the Syrian refugee crisis. Perhaps it raises a question – “why do we never learn?”