Review of William Kentridge – Black Box / Chambre Noire at the Jewish Historical Museum


(an earlier version was published on Daily Serving  in 2012)



     At the end of William Kentridge’s miniature theatre piece Black Box/Chambre Noire (2005) a rhinoceros gets shot. The shooting, taken from old black and white film footage and projected onto the theatre’s back screen is clumsily executed by a clearly inexperienced rhinoceros hunter. After the deed is done, said hunter runs back and forth between the animal and his original position to check the status of his prey, anxiously trying to ensure he killed the beast. The awkward killing foregoes a celebration of the victory over the immense powers of the rhinoceros. Seconds after the first shot, a group of human beings is seen strapping the animal’s legs together, preparing it to be carried away. A strange mixture of guilt and pride can be sensed in the hunters’ eyes.

        Black Box/ Chambre Noire is a 21-minute performance, starring sometimes quirky but often deeply sinister motorised creatures in a theatre crafted from paper and wood. The creatures, including a melancholy megaphone and robotic soldiers who commit violent killings, move in rows across a multi-layered stage. In the background, images of charcoal drawings, postcards, documents and archival video footage are in an intentionally chaotic manner projected onto the theatre’s structure. The work draws inspiration from what the UN named the first genocide of the 20th century. In 1904, in what is now called Namibia, over 80.000 people found their death when the indigenous Herero and Nama people came into resistance against the German colonists. Many died instantly through the force of the violence, others were forced into the desert and died from exposure to extreme temperatures and draught.

        Kentridge created the theatre as a means to communicate his contemplations about the killings.  He ploughed through Namibian state archives, visited sites and collated material. He did extensive research and visualised his findings and thoughts in charcoal drawings - of people, landscapes and rhinoceroses - often on the original Namibian papers. It was a project born less out of political conviction and than out of social engagement and intrigue. The work is explorative – Kentridge asks questions about history and behaviour, in an attempt to pierce through the core of human nature to find our need for violence. It is something that crosses borders, cultures, and times.

        Saying that Black Box/Chambre Noire tells the story of a genocide would not be doing Kentridge justice, and it wouldn’t be true. The story of the genocide is told by the museum – written on the walls and available to take home in the shape of the freely available literature. Kentridge’s work is a visual landscape in which fragments of information follow each other in a quickly changing, seemingly illogical sequence. This manner of animating and projecting gives the historical events a place in the world, but it also makes them anonymous and archetypal.

        As Kentridge says in an interview about his earlier charcoal animations, two of which are shown downstairs at the museum (Felix in Exile [1994] and The History of the Main Complaint [1996]) there is something in the act of drawing an object and in the hours of physically studying it that makes the act compassionate. Kentridge notes that artists use other people’s pain as raw materials for their work, but that the act of contemplating it and spending time with it, redeems the activity from merely being exploitative or abusive. Moreover, the act of spending time with the pain of others, of compassionately contemplating it and translating it into work, makes it possible for us to feel and digest the pain. It gives us a tool to learn from others’ mindless killings. 


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