William Kentridge: In Praise of Shadows

William Kentridge: In Praise of Shadows, The Broad, Photo Credit Lorraine Heitzman

Transformative Gestures in Black and White

The Broad, los angeles
Through April 9, 2023

Written by Lorraine Heitzman

William Kentridge: In Praise of Shadows, is a tour de force by an artist unafraid to address the perils of racism and the wonders of transformation. In a stunning, encyclopedic show curated by Ed Schad of the Broad Museum, a convincing argument is made in favor of the creative impulse to give meaning to life and to confront the injustices we perpetrate and/or face. In Kentridge’s charcoal smudged hands, he demonstrates that artmaking is transformative in both personal and political ways. The changes he creates are literal and metaphorical, from his animations that are in constant flux, to his embrace of the idea of magic, particularly vis-à-vis early cinematic and animation methods. Trickery isn’t the point, however; it is only the means for delivering the message. Kentridge connects to his audience primarily through the simplest and most fundamental way possible, through drawing. His style is forthright and bold, and yet he achieves a wide range of expressions with only charcoal and his formidable skills as a draftsman. With minimal definition he is able to capture the energy in the throng of a crowd, as well as the subtle emotions reflected in the faces of his protagonists. In Praise of Shadows reaffirms Kentridge as one of the most memorable and accomplished artists living today.

Kentridge, born in 1955, is from Johannesburg, South Africa and has lived through both apartheid and the end of minority rule. As the child of lawyers who represented those killed in political protests, he was aware early on about the deadly ramifications of apartheid. While studying art and politics at the University of Witwatersrand during the years of unrest, Kentridge became active in the Junction Avenue Theater where he first combined the practices of drawing, politics and performance. After two years studying at the Johannesburg Art Foundation he subsequently joined the L’École Internationale de théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. It was only after that, when he realized he was not an actor, that he went back to the studio to dedicate himself to art. Much of his life’s work has been addressing the changes he witnessed, using the same tools he harnessed early in his career. Civil unrest and social injustice wrought by the effects of the mining industry in South Africa are constant subjects; we see them again and again through heroic depictions of conflict on paper and film. His sensibilities skew towards a masculine expression, yet there is also an accessible, universal appeal that comes from the empathy he musters, and from the seductive magical element to his work.

In Praise of Shadows draws heavily from the Broad’s extensive collection of his art; all of the films related to Drawings for Projection will be screened throughout the duration of the show. The black and white animated films made from his drawings are part of Kentridge’s well-known method of stop-motion animation. Charcoal drawings are alternately drawn and erased, morphing into a fluid, poetic world of dreamy transitions. It is a humble method that in Kentridge’s hands is capable of eliciting complex emotional narratives. The films paint a devastating portrait of Johannesburg through the story of a wealthy fictitious mining magnate, Soho Eckstein. The city was originally a gold mining town, and all its riches as well as its ecological and social degradations are rooted in the ruthless industry. Kentridge has said that he felt he had to acknowledge his debt to those who enabled him, the workers who did not have the benefit of white privilege, and he has effectively done that with tremendous empathy and lyricism.

One of the most moving and deliberately personal installations in the show is his tribute to Georges Méliès, an early filmmaker best known for his innovative techniques on display in his most famous film, A Trip to the Moon, (1902). These “tricks” created a sensation with audiences unfamiliar with filmmaking, and like the early Kinetescope, were equally magical and delightful. Kentridge tries to emulate the sense of wonder that Méliès created. Within a darkened room, three films are projected onto the walls to surround the viewers: 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, Day for Night, and Journey to the Moon, all from 2003. In this mélange of black and white film clips, we find Kentridge in his studio, at times climbing up and down a ladder and at other times seated at this desk while drawing and erasing. Other fragments show the artist lost in thought or handling sheets of paper. In one commonly used trick he reverses the film so that the paper flies up into his hands rather than being cast away. Another segment shows ants in silhouette crawling over map-like diagrams, but seen at this large scale they could be mistaken for stars in a map of the galaxy. The culminating effect is not only a summation of the artist’s life, but also a celebration of the creative process.

Another compelling installation is The Refusal of Time, 2012, a five channel video installation with sound, four steel megaphones and breathing machine. The darkened room, illuminated by video projections, envelops the viewer with insistent rhythmic images and sounds. In the center of the space, a wooden machine expands and contracts like the bellows of a camera, a pulse or an iron lung. In an interview after an earlier installation of The Refusal of Time, Kentridge discussed how the work was inspired by developments in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries related to cinema and Einstein’s theory of relativity (1905). In his own unified theory, he transforms the zoetrope’s use of repeated imagery into scenarios of repeated actions, processions into death marches, and pendulums of oversized metronomes into symbols of time passing. Kentridge regards the passage of time in our lives and the construct of time itself and concludes that it cannot be stopped, nor controlled.

The impact and scope of this exhibit recalls another exhibit, Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage, presented at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2017. Both artists were heavily inspired by the theater, and each conveys an operatic exuberance that is difficult to contain. The immersive nature of Kentridge’s work, whether through his animated drawings or installations, creates empathy between the viewer and the subjects. We want to believe in magic and be transported. Kentridge understands this and crafts the environments for maximum, theatrical effects. In Praise of Shadows is both a visceral and mesmerizing experience, confirming his genius as well as his humanity.

William Kentridge: In Praise of Shadows
The Broad Museum
November 12 – April 9, 2223
Check the Broad website for tickets and special events


  1. I wish every artist sees this formidable exhibition. Deeply moving, Kentridge evokes the range of emotions about tragedy, loss and hope. Protest is equaled with tenderness. There’s so much protest in art and life these days, feeling more like cathartic release or propaganda; all at the expense of poignancy. Kentridge stands apart in his ability to distill the missing equation today – EMPATHY.
    This is a must see exhibition!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *