Last Sunday, my dear friend Mary Kate and I ventured over to the Broad Museum to see the astonishing exhibition of South African artist, William Kentridge‘s work. William Kentridge: In Praise of Shadows. Having never been to the Broad before, I was surprised at the ease of getting tickets, entry, and the vast and comprehensive layout of the exhibit, which invites you to linger by the framed pieces that are featured in his films, which play in four rooms, growing in dramatic tension as you move through the exhibit until the penultimate room, featuring The Refusal of Time, (2012) a multimedia installation featuring “a five-channel video installation with sound; four steel megaphones; breathing machine.” I will be going back – there was way too much to take in in any complete digestion of his work’s themes and energies.

Charcoal seems an apt material for the expression of erasure, both literal, societal, and emotional that he describes throughout his work, beginning with apartheid. His choice of materials on which to disrupt are ledgers of mining companies, dictionary pages – so many dictionary pages. His skills are bountiful: film maker, actor, dancer, writer, scenic designer, director, sculptor, engineer. Each room of the exhibit demands our attention and delight. In spite of the harsh political critique of South Africa, at times, his whimsy is infectious; for me, most accessibly in his animation of the coffee pot as it jets off to the moon, evades his grasp as he tries to pour a cup of coffee at his work table, the saucer, jauntily scooting off the paper. His heavy, rough drawings in his films pivot 45 degrees, becoming a person, now a tree, now a horse, now a crow who taunts him before flying off.

One of my favorite pieces was the last film that exits you (reluctantly) out of the exhibit. Throughout the exhibit, we’d seen his charcoal or india ink drawings render the dictionary pages nearly invisible, but the figures marching across the pages, sometimes contrasting with large red letters delivering instructions that are profoundly comforting:

Phrases like “whichever page you open, there you are,” “start dying assiduously,” would seem to be a manual to life that one in a suggestible end-of-semester frame of mind can’t ignore. I came home so enamored from the visit that I spent the evening uncovering from the internet all that I could, encountering a series of lectures done at Harvard by Kentridge in 2012 entitled “Six Lessons in Drawing.” These are (thankfully) available on YouTube (links below in a list).

Lecture One: In Praise of Shadows:
Lecture Two: A Brief History of Colonial Revolts
Lecture Three: Vertical Thinking: A Johannesburg Biography
Lecture Four: Practical Epistemology: Life in the Studio
Lecture Five: In Praise of Mistranslation
Lecture Six: Anti-Entropy

What I found so compelling about them (I’m midway through Lecture 2) was his inaccurate (to my mind) disavowal of being an academic, and his invitation for us through the course of the six lectures to explore The Allegory of the Cave, or Plato’s Cave. Via his studio. An invitation I was unable to eschew.

In the allegory “the Cave,” Plato describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners’ reality, but are not accurate representations of the real world. The shadows represent the fragment of reality that we can normally perceive through our senses, while the objects under the sun represent the true forms of objects that we can only perceive through reason.”


Kentridge in his first lecture really explains the Allegory of the Cave, illustrating it’s concepts through showing the mechanics of his 1999 piece “Shadow Procession,” a technique he promises to revisit throughout the series. His self-effacing style in beginning the lecture shows his visual wit whilst minimizing our expectations for his scholarship. And yet, his scholarship never disappoints – these are, after all, the Charles Eliot Norton Series of lectures at Harvard, which are moderated or introduced at each session by Harvard faculty in the arts and humanities. But Kentridge uses this allegory to jump off and via his investigation through drawing, collage and the ricochet of his practice with politics and social orders in South Africa takes us on a fascinating exploration of his mind, for which I am so grateful. I look forward to delving even deeper through the last four lectures. When I get a minute.

It’s hard to find a minute at the end of the semester, with portfolio reviews, finals, grading, and preparation for the spring semester, but this interlude at the Broad reminded me to keep on living and experiencing the culture of my city of Los Angeles.

Last night I went to see Lynn Nottage’s transported production of “Clyde’s” at the Mark Taper Forum. I heartily recommend the trip – it’s here about one more week, through December 18th.

Whilst is a word invoked by Kentridge in his film “Second Hand Reading” and I’ve flashed back to that film many times this week since seeing the exhibit.

Whilst….tying my shoes I imagine the peace of my morning walk

Whilst…conducting my “final exam,” I enjoy watching my students playing Nintendo Switch and eating donuts

Whilst…defining the scope of a future project, I consider the loss of a brother

Whilst…visiting with a friend in their back yard, I feel again the profound grief of losing a partner and note the distance and healing that has transpired

Whilst…writing my Christmas cards I consider the sanctuary of friendship with each recipient and simultaneously acknowledge that this missive inadequately measures their meaning to me

Sometimes through exposure to an artist such as Kentridge, we are given permission to turn our heads in the cave and compare the reality of the figures that cast the shadows to the living breathing reality outside that cave.

Finally, my Mom would have been 90 today, and earlier this week, I stumbled upon some old photos our cousin Connie had sent. I share them here. She was an amazing woman and I’m so grateful for her wisdom and grace through her too brief life. So, whilst I finish up the semester, I think of her and wish her a Happy Birthday, Mom!

Posted in Art

5 thoughts

  1. The exhibit really is spectacular – all-encompassing and very thought provoking. And I could not have gone with a better fellow voyeur. Some of the drawings/paintings seem to invite the viewer to just climb right inside, and the films really are mesmerizing. A wonderful venture, all around.

  2. As always, the writing so crisp and clear. I find myself transported to your adventures, Els. Thank you for this.

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