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Anne Rutherford

William Kentridge’s Black Box: The Cog that Turns the Wheel


This article is a piece of creative non-fiction that explores the construction of place in the multimedia installation work of artist William Kentridge. The article explores the installation Black Box, an acclaimed miniature theatre work that traces the roots of the racist ideology of the Nazis back to the German massacre of the indigenous Herero in south-west Africa in 1905 and the methods of racial management that prefigured the development of the Nazi concentration camps. Through the exploration of the German colonial adventure, the article raises questions about the links between German colonial policies and those developed in Australia.
The installation is an experimental work and the article works with a performative writing style to evoke the dynamics of the artwork as it oscillates between historical detail and audiovisual phantasmagoria. As such, the piece experiments with structures of rhythm and repetition and the use of excess in a way that mirrors the kaleidoscopic montage that characterises the installation.
Keywords: William Kentridge, multimedia installation, creative nonfiction



If you want to kill a man, draw a rifle.
If you want to kill a people, draw a map.

A black box, two metres square, sits atop a wooden frame, one side open as a stage. Thirteen painted flats carve it into depth: side drops and top flats that fill the square with a proscenium. The third flat back is a blackboard, dropped down at the beginning, with the title scratched on it in chalk: Black Box. The blackboard lifts. A projector at the front throws images across the scene; from behind more images stream forward to collide in a tumult of conflicting sights.

How can this box be a place? Does it carry the traces of its history like the grains of sand built over time into a mighty desert, etched across its face in rippled sediments? Does it carry the memories of the people who have passed through this space and made it their own? Does it smell of the bodies that have sweated in it, of the blood that has been shed into its earth?

A black box is a dark hole. It hides its secrets inside.  But this Pandora’s box started to crack open in 1985. Now we can hear the whine of the hunter’s bullet, the shrill cry of the sergeant major. We can see the mute figures hanging limp on the gallows.  We can feel the anguish of the children as they slowly die of thirst, hunted into the pitiless Kalahari.

A mechanical puppet trundles out from the wings, a paper cutout megaphone on wheels, and creaks its way around to confront us with a placard: Trauerarbeit. Grief work: this is a work of mourning.


In 1884, the great powers of Europe held a conference in Berlin to carve up the territories of Africa and decide who would take dominion over the new colonies. Germany was allocated the right to carry the flame of the European Enlightenment into the dark corners of the Southwest, which became German Southwest Africa. Germany was crowded and the influential minds of the day argued that, in order to grow and prosper, Germany needed space. Thus was born the policy of Lebensraum. Southwest Africa had land; its people needed civilizing. All the Prussian Empire had to do was join the dots. Germany was in the fortunate position of having great thinkers who had already drawn the lines that would make this picture whole. Not least among these was the Social Darwinist, Eugen Fischer, whose pioneering work on ‘racial hygiene’ would become indispensable to the racial hierarchies of the National Socialists. So began the great influx of German settlers into the lands of the Herero and Namaqua pastoralists. The ensuing struggle over land would lead to the first genocide of the twentieth century — the extermination of up to 100,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama. The bones of the Herero still lie strewn across the Kalahari desert. Vast tracts of unmarked graves appear like an ocean of tiny hillocks as far as the eye can see, pockmarks laid out geometrically like dots on a matrix across the landscape of current day Namibia.


Source: Genocide & The Second Reich, BBC Four, dir. David Olusoga, 2004
Photographer: Jaff Gaydish

Germany had confronted its world war two genocide. Few countries have faced their own history with such courage and integrity. But this other dark shadow on Germany’s past was kept hidden away. Denied or hidden under the carpet for nearly a century, the massacre was recognised as attempted genocide by the United Nations in 1985 and finally acknowledged by Germany in 2004. Black Box, commissioned by the Deutsche Bank, exhibited in the Deutsche Guggenheim in the heart of Prussian Berlin in 2005, aimed to bring this other shame into the light of day. The installation was produced by the acclaimed South African Jewish artist, William Kentridge, known for many works confronting the assumptions of racial supremacy that underpinned the system of apartheid.


Inside this box, the smallest gesture carries the weight of the world, everything reduced to crystalline form. The box is a miniature theatre run by motors and wheels. Mechanical puppets appear like schemata — a carved metal figure on a bicycle, the creak of its pedals scratching across the stage. A woman. Black paper cutout for head and headdress. A tall metal rod for a torso, straight and proud. A metal coil for legs. The body shrouded in light gauze. Three articulated joints. The woman glides into the frame, bends her body forward sixty degrees, slowly, excruciatingly slowly returns to upright and arches back impossibly far, the head tilted low as if the back will break. A theodolite — the tripod of the surveyor — shuttles across the stage, arms waving manically, now a semaphore man, now a praying mantis, now a swastika.

Maps on the flats tell us we are in Africa, but the images projected from in front and behind take us from Africa to Berlin and back. Images fly in from the wings: big game hunters in the jungle, the murder of a rhinoceros, rallies in Berlin, Nazi insignia, black faces, maps and more maps, images spinning on discs. A bird materialises in the frame and two giant hands make a shadow play as they become a puppet, a bird, a butterfly. The hands close down the bird and pull it back up, transforming it into a lamp with a stand. They push the lamp head down into the stand and pull it back open and hoopla! Now the lamp has become a showerhead. Water streams from the shower. In a miraculous genesis this is what is born of the light. A nozzle with water, or is it gas? And now we are at a gallows and two black bodies hang by the neck. Strange fruit born of the light.

Grids, measuring scales, tools of calibration. A dancing rhinoceros. Severed heads. And everywhere a skull juggles its mandible open and closed like a giant forcep.

Words spin out: Zwischen den Razzen: between the races; Vernunft: Reason; Totenlisten: Lists of the dead.

 Lists proliferate: the quotidian bureaucracy of annihilation.


The surveyor’s tool carves up the land, measures the land with precision as clearly as any accountant’s ledger. Five pounds of Herero land, two pounds of the flesh of child labour, a hundredweight of lead pellets and three gallons of strychnine. A mark on the land is as good as a Mark in the hand. Pieces of silver, pieces of silver.

If you want to kill a man, draw a rifle. If you want to kill a people, draw a map.


Source: Black Box (Chambre Noire). William Kentridge 2005
Reproduced with kind permission of William Kentridge



When the Herero and then the Nama rose up in 1904 against the expropriation of their land, Berlin sent the ruthless Prussian general, Lothar von Trotha, to crush the rebellion. He wrote:

I know enough of African tribes that they give way only to violence. To exercise this violence with crass terrorism and even with gruesomeness was and is my policy. I destroy the rebellious tribes with streams of blood and money.

I believe that the nation as such should be annihilated.

Von Trotha was not the only soldier to explicitly state the ruthlessness of the Vernightungsbefehl — the order to annihilate the Herero. After the infamous Battle of Waterberg, which defeated and expelled the remaining Herero, the official publication of the German army wrote:

no pains, no sacrifices  were spared in eliminating the last remnants of enemy resistance. Like a wounded beast the enemy was tracked down from one water-hole to the next, until finally he became the victim of his own environment. The arid Omaheke [desert] was to complete what the German Army had begun: the extermination of the Herero nation.

In 1905 the Herero appear in chains, herded into reserves, rented out as labour to German farmers and industrialists. Forced labour built the cities and towns of Southwest Africa, the churches and town halls, the elegant residences, the railway that carried more settlers into the interior. The inconvenient abolition of slavery required creative solutions. The great innovative minds of Germany could make it their mission to find new ways to manage the social, as the contradictory demands of cleansing the land of its inhabitants butted up against the demand for labour. New ideas in social engineering and racial management festered and bred in this ferment.


Black Box has a haunting melancholy tone. But it is not just haunted by the spirit of the men hanging by the neck from trees. It is haunted by the ideas that drove these executions.

Europe imagined Africa as a place that existed inside the scientific grid. Science was a tool to capture, measure and label Southwest Africa, to make it not just physically, institutionally, German territory but to fit it into the European imagination. Craniometry used the grid and ruler to calibrate the skull; the development of precision instrumentation would bring the products of a rational, scientific mind into the service of the colony.

Jena, Zeiss, Voigtlander: pillars of industry. The names jump out from the stage. Precision instruments — products of the great German industrial machine.

The finely-ground lens with which to spy on you. The meticulously-crafted timepiece with which to discipline you. The expertly-turned surgical instrument with which to dissect you. The rule with which to measure you. The grid to grasp the dimensions of your cranium. And the pièce de résistance: the finely-honed reason to prove to you that we are your masters.


The precision of clockwork makes Black Box function. Everything slots together: the hammer grabs the cog that turns the wheel that drives the hammer. One cog out of place and the whole mechanism malfunctions.

For this system to be possible, every intermeshing cog must fit together. If a single cog failed to do its work, the whole mechanism would stall, would lose its momentum.


What place is this? It is Africa but it is Europe too. Africa is a seed that has been planted, starts to germinate, will be ready to flower in the next generation. From Southwest Africa came the herding of people into concentration camps, the system of forced labour, the integration with industry in the sharing of labour resources, the bureaucracy of this new demographic strategy — the numbering of inmates, archival records registering the dead, work to exhaustion and the social philosophy that animated this enterprise.

The camps are here — the packing together of bodies for labour, the germ of an idea that slave labour can feed the coffers of Germany. The program for extermination is here. The built-in attrition is here — planned death by starvation and overwork — death certificates pre-printed with the cause of death: ‘death by exhaustion’. German science is here — the doctors streaming in to perform their experiments, the instruments of German dominion. The ideas are here. The philosophy of racial supremacy is here. And so are many of the people who become the mentors for the next generation of racists, those who take their quest to a larger stage.


Kentridge has written of his difficulty coming to terms with the knowledge that guards of the concentration camps would go home at night to listen to opera. How is it possible that the same human being could coldly render bodies to the gas chamber by day and surrender to the great passionate arias of German opera by night?

In and across the kaleidoscope of monstrous images in Black Box, Mozart’s Magic Flute weaves its mellifluous tones.


Black box. Black-in-a-box. Jack-in-a-Box. Pull another one out of the hat. A bird to fly away and I will turn it into a German eagle. A king to challenge me and I will put his skull in a vice and show you why I am king. A list of the dead. And I will turn it into the melancholy slide of a cello. And in the evenings while you search for water among the poisoned wells, I will recline in my salon and listen to my gramophone. The deep-throated voice of the baritone will resonate through the fibres of my being. The bel canto of the tenor will stir my passion and the tremolo of the soprano will fill the ample space of my cranium. I will recline and ponder the sublime depths of the German soul. And while the mellow tones of the aria fill my soul, your ears will ring to the shrill cries of the buzzard waiting to pick out the entrails of your gasping child and the death rattle of the ravaged women of Waterberg. My tears will fall as I weep to The Death of the Maiden. You will weep blood into the desert while your children sink into the crimson dusk. Your bones will linger strewn across the Kalahari for all to remember the lessons of history.


This is a history, moments made of images, fragments, feelings, passions, details.  Why stage it in this way? This is the stuff of investigative journalism and a documentary film that traces this history lays out the links in meticulous detail: the words of the commandant that commit the policy of annihilation to paper; the cartoons that figure the Africans as subhuman; the postcards that commemorate the collecting of skulls, tallies adding up like game trophies on the wall. The statistics, the documents, the photos … in Black Box, all of these fly in, explode in a momentary conflagration and give way to another fragment. For these are not just facts, but pieces in a puzzle that is much bigger than a list of dates, facts, statistics. So many connections fly out. How do they all fit together? The documentary draws a straight line, but this is a web — threads that wrap around this history like a ghastly shroud and reach their tentacles well into the present. Fragments that brush each other and bounce off in new connections.

This is Africa. But what is this place? Echoes of other places reverberate across this scene. Traces of other stories. In the photos from 1905 the surviving Herero appear in neck chains, herded onto reserves, rented out as slave labour to German farmers and industry. Herero heads were severed, skulls boiled down and packed into crates for shipment to the museums of Europe. The remaining liberated Herero were pushed to marginal land, surviving in shanty towns. Adults were forced to wear tags with a registration number; Herero were banned from owning land or cattle.


Like a transcontinental spider’s web, threads of thought straddled the oceans in loops. Along with soldiers, settlers and capital streaming in to the new colonies came new ideas, schemata to help the colonist build his worldview on a solid basis. And back from the far-flung outposts came the insights of trial and error: new programs for managing populations, methods of subjugation and regulation, bureaucracies of control. The colonies provided a laboratory to test out new methods of racial management.

Germany came late to the colonial endeavour but others had already perfected these methods. The exhibition of Black Box for the first time in Australia in 2012 brings a shock of recognition. Neck chains were commonly used to remove Aboriginal people from lands required for the growing cattle industry. Segregation into reserves succeeded massacre; Aboriginal labour became essential to the burgeoning cattle stations, the running of households, the building of a nation; a bounty was placed on skulls… Was there a colonists’ gazette that shared the lessons of these field trials, a manual of techniques of dominion? Did the hothouse experiments of colonial subjugation feed from Australia into Southwest Africa and from there mature into the concentration camps of Hitler?

Kentridge’s installation flings this history into a cauldron of associations and throws it straight back out to assault the viewer with a plethora of other black boxes.



Kentridge, W 2012 Black Box (Chambre Noire). William Kentridge Five Themes exhibition, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, March-May 2012.
Wikipedia 2013 ‘Herero and Namaqua Genocide’, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herero_massacre (accessed 15 April 2013)

Olusoga, D 2004 Genocide and the Second Reich, BBC Four, 58 minutes..





Anne Rutherford is a Senior Lecturer in Cinema Studies in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at the University of Western Sydney. She is the author of ‘What Makes a Film Tick?’: Cinematic Affect, Materiality and Mimetic Innervation (Peter Lang 2011) and numerous essays, including studies of cinematic affect and embodiment, documentary film, ‘animate thought’ in ethnographic photography and film sound.  Her current research explores the relationship between cinema and architectural space in the installation work of William Kentridge.


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Vol 17 No 1 April 2013
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo