What Have They Done with All the Air?, a stirring new exhibition by William Kentridge, features works that form part of his new theatre production in the making, in which the famous Johannesburg-based artist and Design Indaba alum uses the setting of a boat as a prompt for unpacking issues of power, colonialism and migration.
The upcoming theatre production, The Great Yes, The Great No, employs the technique where actors perform against green screens so backgrounds can be added later. Kentridge draws on the green itself, with the colour assuming a prominent place in the final work, rather than disappearing, as a green screen usually would. What Have They Done with All the Air? features a series of drawings to be used as backdrops in the performance, including portraits of the characters and imagined scenes.
The story behind The Great Yes, The Great No began in June 1941, when a converted cargo ship, the Capitaine Paul-Lemerle, sailed from Marseille in France to the Caribbean island of Martinique. Among the passengers escaping the Second World War in Europe were surrealist André Breton, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, Cuban artist Wifredo Lam, communist novelist Victor Serge and author Anna Seghers.
‘The captain of the boat is Charon, the ferryman of the dead, who calls other characters on to the deck – [Martinican poet, author and politician] Aimé Césaire, and the Nardal sisters, who, together with the Césaire and Léopold Senghor, founded the anti-colonial Négritude movement in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s,’ explains a press release from the Goodman Gallery. ‘Frantz Fanon joins the group, along with Trotsky, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.’
The exhibition will also debut a set of new Kentridge aluminium and steel sculptures hand painted in vivid colour. Although not directly related to the theatre production, these sculptures speak to the process of costume-making that the Kentridge team refers to as a ‘paper procession’: they work with paper as a way to think about costumes and their colours. Paper collages become proto-costumes, which sometimes become self-standing figures – like the sculptures in the exhibition.
What Have They Done with All the Air? runs at the Goodman Gallery in De Waterkant, Cape Town, until 20 January 2024.