Past and Present: The mines in South Africa and William Kentridge: The Black Box

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The death toll is rising rapidly among miners who were shot at the mine in South Africa, 70 kilometers from Johannesburg. 34 men died according to the national Dutch news. This platinum mine is, according to news accounts, responseble for 12 percent of the world supply of platinum.  The shares of the minecompany are falling, and the price of platinum is on the rise, woldwide.  The company is closed.because two unions are  fighting for power, the papers write . What is true here will only become clear later …… yet …..

A strange feeling comes over me that this undeniable actuality is connected to the artwork I saw two days ago at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam (JHM).


William Kentridge : The Black Box / Chambre Noire 

Kentridge is relatively unknown in the Netherlands, but you can safely say, in the rest of the world famous. His work can be seen at this time (2012) in the Documenta in Kassel and a major retrospective toured to several mayor museums in the world (MoMa, NY Jeu de Paume Paris). Unfortunately not to the Netherlands. But fortunately, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam bought a few years ago an interesting  work. I saw it once in the SMCS (Post office), 5 or 6 years ago?? In my memory it was a beautiful self-portrait in the shape of charcoal ‘animations’ projected on four walls. The title is 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, and the work is listed as one of the 435 highlights from the collection on the website. (finally a small piece of the SMA collection online!)

William Kentridge is a South African, and lives in Johannesburg. The South African city which a century ago was only a tiny village, but because of the surrounding mines quickly grew and has now about 17 million inhabitants. The city is now known as the commercial center of the whole of Africa.

A famous district is Soweto (South Western Township). The district has its origins in the thousands of black South Africans who came to Johannesburg to work in the mines, or because they lost their land to the (white) government. The neighborhood became during the Apartheid period an important center of resistance. Many people, including children, were killed during the riots by the trigger happy police.

Kentridge’s Black Box has links with all these facets. And of course many more. It is, among other things, also about theater, about European eighteenth century, the age of Reason in the form of Mozart’s Zauberflote, about science and more. He focuses on the backs of progress, especially the Enlightenment. The side effects of all that beauty and ideas that Europe has produced. And about all those people and animals around the world that lost ground to the European Modernity dream.

All this in an associative and intriguing design, initially incomprehensible but beautiful.

The material he used consists of old maps, old drawings, old scientific editions, old newspapers and old movies. Besides this, also “dolls” occur on his stage. And of course his charcoal animations or as Kentridge calls them his:  ‘Drawing for projection’ can be seen. It is presented in a theater with many wings, and not only the theater is layered, the story is also layered. An example by the countless layers is to be found in the music.. If you listen carefully you can hear the aria of the Queen of the Night and the aria In diesen Heiligen Halle from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte.. (Mozart 1756-1791).

The text of the final aria is:

In diesen heil’gen Hallen
Kennt man die Rache nicht,
und ist ein Mensch gefallen,
führt Liebe ihn zur Pflicht.
Dann wandelt er an Freundes Hand
Vergnügt und froh ins bessre Land.

In diesen heil’gen Mauern,
wo Mensch den Menschen liebt,
kann kein Verräter lauern,
weil man dem Feind vergibt.
Wen solche Lehren nicht erfreun,
verdienet nicht ein Mensch zu sein.

In these hallowed halls

One has no knowledge of revenge,

And if a man has fallen,

love indicates to him his duty

Then he walks hand in hand with his friends

Cheerfully to a better land.

In these sacred walls,

Man loves people,

No can be traitor lurking,

because the enemy is forgiven.

Who does not like these lessons,

Does not deserve to be human.

Die Zauberflöte multiple layered and the recording Kentridge  uses is from 1937. It turns out not to be a by chance choice. In JHM, a very helpful usher told us that the entire Nazi top was present at this performance. What would the fascists have thought about this text? Their “sacred or hallowed hall” was not peaceful at all.  People had to be removed, they did not deserve to be human in this hall. Perhaps Kentridge came to that choice because he is Jewish?

This is one layer to the ‘story’, but Kentridge also refers to the Germans who went to South Africa around 1904 for the mining industry. The Herero and Nama peoples, who lived there, successfully rebelled against the taking of their land by the Germans. In response a German general was appointed , with the result that about 80,000 people were killed in a massacre. This massacre is now known as the first genocide of the twentieth century.

Other music that can be heard is a Herero lament, a traditional Herero praise and Namibian string music.

The story that Kentridge wants to tell us is veiled and wrapped. You have to visit this “performance” several times to look and listen to all these layers. Each time other details will emerge. For instance the rhino who runs through the work like a red thread . One of these rhino fragments is a film (early twentieth century?) in which a white hunter shoots a mother rhino up close. Her young stands beside her and stays with her ​​when she falls. The white hunter also shows to black people how they should divide the animal. I suppose to make trophies to decorate his house. Although it is probably filmed more than a century ago, it remains shocking. The Sergei Eisenstein like repeats in the film, making it even more dramatic.

Black Box drawing url

The exhibition also shows  the materials and drawings Kentridge used and made for the Black Box. And two of his most famous films including Felix in Exile are projected in cinema of the museum.

Most of the above mentioned films can be seen on You tube, however a location presentation is still essentially different..I’m glad Kentridge is Jewish and that the JHM thus had a good opportunity to put together this exhibition.


And again today  (17-8-2012) .The work is affiliated with the news or contemporary condition..

website JHM

Used literature:

oa. Johannesburg The Elusive Metropolis ed. Sarah Nuttall, Achille Mbembe, 2008

JHM magazine .

Kentridge Mine uit 1991.

William Kentridge Mine url


See article: The End of South African Exceptionalism on the mine shooting

All photos on this site are not inteded for any commercial purpose. I have tried to trace all the rules and rights of all images. As far as I know, these images can be used in this way. If you ar a copyright holder and would like a piece of your work removed or the creditline changed then please do not hesitate to contact me.

See also A certain Southafricanness

From the Goodman Gallery site:


William Kentridge will hold is first large-scale solo travelling exhibition in South America starting October this year. This extensive retrospective – conceived in close collaboration with the artist and designed especially for this tour in Brazil and other countries in South America – will highlight Kentridge’s unique artistic process rather than focus on a particular theme. The exhibition will feature six to seven rooms or sections comprising works ranging from 1989 to 2012. The retrospective will take place at Instituto Moreira Salles (IMS) in Rio de Janeiro from 23 October 2012 – 17 February 2013. It will then travel to Fundação Iberê Camargo (FIC), Porto Alegre from 07 March 2013 – June 2013 and then Pinacoteca Do Estado De São Paulo, São Paulo from 28 August 2013 – 17 November 2013.
A major video installation by William Kentridge recently donated to Tate will be displayed for the first time in the UK in The Tanks at Tate Modern. The presentation of I am not me, the horse is not mine(2008) follows the success of The Tanks’ opening festival. The Tanks at Tate Modern are the world’s first museum galleries permanently dedicated to exhibiting live art, performance, installation and film works. I am not me, the horse is not mine comprises eight six-minute films which share one soundtrack. Kentridge will be present for an artist’s talk at Tate Modern on 11 November (£12/ £8 concessions, booking recommended). The presentation will run from 11 November 2012 to 20 January 2013.
The exhibition Vertical Thinking by William Kentridge rotates around installation The Refusal of Time, produced on the occasion of dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel and presented in Italy for the first time at MAXXI. The Refusal of Time was born out of a long-term reflection on the concept of time developed by William Kentridge together with the physicist and scientific historian Peter L. Gallison and has been realised in collaboration with the composer Philip Miller and with Catherine Meyburgh with regard to the video processing and editing. Dada Masilo worked on the choreography. The exhibition will run from 17 November 2012 – 3 March 2013.

About me:

In 2008 I was the guest-curator of the exhibition Black is beautiful. Rubens to Dumas. Important advisors Elizabeth McGrath (Rubens and colleagues), Carl Haarnack (slavery in books), Elmer Kolfin (slavery in prints and paintings) en Adi Martis (contemporary art). Gary Schwartz made his research for The Image of the Black in Western Art available.

Black beautiful Rubens to Dumas cover
Black beautiful Rubens to Dumas cover

In 2014 my essay ‘Painted Blacks and Radical Imagery in the Netherlands (1900-1940)’ was published in The Image of the Black in Western Art Volume V (I). (ed. David Bindman, Henry Louis Gates jr.)

In 2017 I published a book about the black servants at the Court of the Royal Van Oranje family. More than a thousand documents have been found about their lives. (only in Dutch)

Cupido en Sideron Cover 30-8-2017

All photos on this site are not intended for any commercial purpose. I have tried to trace all the rules and rights of all images. As far as I know, these images can be used in this way. If you ar a copyright holder and would like a piece of your work removed or the creditline changed then please do not hesitate to contact me.