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On screen, South African artist William Kentridge presents himself as a figure of fun – irascible, ageing, struggling with creative anxieties, distracted by recipes for fondue when he should be making art. At his solo exhibition at the Royal Academy, we come face to face (indeed – face to face to face) with the artist in a series of short split-screen Studio Life films made during the pandemic. He remonstrates wearily with himself for the camera. This is a portrait of the artist as an old bear – avuncular, with his white hair and pince-nez.

This approachable comic façade is part of the Kentridge shtick. He comforts you only to catch you off guard. It is a technique that extends across his endeavours, from the immediate appeal of his hand-drawn animations to the goofy cast of anthropomorphised coffee pots, ampersands and table lamps that populate his sculptures and puppet theatres.

From the luscious ink washes of his outsized paintings of flowers and trees to the transporting choral music flooding through his films, all this loveliness, all this surreal humour, floats above a lake of concern, fed by Kentridge’s worries for his native South Africa, about forgotten histories and coming troubles on the global stage.

The show starts in the mid 80s, in the experimental theatre world of Johannesburg, from which the artist made his first leap into drawing. Rendered in scrubby charcoal, wild animals of Africa – hyena, rhinoceros, warthog, cheetah – appear as a proxy for, or perhaps witness to, exploited territory and people.

Elegant grotesques dance in evening dress while outside their café, traffic sits gridlocked below barbed wire-topped walls. Exploring the ills of 80s South Africa, Kentridge looks to the art of the Weimar Republic – the corruption and menace pulsing through the work of George Grosz or Otto Dix.

Kentridge quickly moved from theatrical drawings full of movement, to “drawings for projection” – animations in which the traces of erased charcoal chart the movements of limbs and objects across the screen.

We encounter a cast of characters in charcoal-drawn animation: Soho Eckstein, a jowly property developer in a chalk-striped suit who guzzles food, yells into telephones, and encloses vast stretches of public land for development; Felix Teitlebaum, an angsty cypher for the artist himself; and Mrs Eckstein after whom he lusts.

There are occasional flashes of colour – Felix’s anxiety flows like blue water, filling up half his apartment. Red tinges tabloid headlines, street signage, fly posters and graffiti. But there are also weird lines, arcs and graphic marks that flicker across the picture.

A few galleries later, a context for these emerges in a series of landscape and map drawings Kentridge made from colonial photographs. Images are not innocent objects, and the coloured arrows and lines that float across these drawings assert ownership and the carving-up of territory.

The galleries showing drawings, tapestries and sculpture become important spaces to breathe between enveloping episodes of sound and movement.

The show’s centrepiece Black Box/Chambre Noire (2005) is a mechanical theatre blending film, animation and robotics, inviting the audience to mourn atrocities in German south-west Africa in the early 20th century. Again, brutality against animals becomes a proxy for violence that extends to the level of genocide in the human realm.

The work is the acme of Kentridge performing his double game: who would not be charmed by a little puppet theatre full of automata? But oh! The horror revealed within.

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The exhibition is overwhelming, but this, too, is part of the artist’s modus operandi. Since I first encountered Kentridge’s work more than 20 years ago, I have seen him direct operas, confect immersive film installations and mount the breathtaking live performance The Head & The Load (2018) commemorating unrecorded African lives taken in the First World War.

I emerged feeling I had only experienced a fraction of the art, action and music on offer. Kentridge’s is an aesthetic of excess. He will provide you with more screens than you can watch at one time.

Painting at scale on hundreds of sheets of printed paper taken from old dictionaries and ledgers, he invites you to make a choice between seeing the bigger picture or observing the detail. Whether choreographing puppets and projections for Black Box or drawing tensions erupting into a fight on the streets of Johannesburg, images switch and transform too quickly to piece together a coherent narrative.

Kentridge came from a family of anti-apartheid activists. My instinct is that Kentridge furnishes this overload because the idea that you can know or understand anything fully carries a kind of violence.

His work is thus full of excess and overlaps. References spill over one another. In both the final two film works here – Notes Towards a Model Opera (2015) and Sibyl (2022) – Kentridge looks to the issues of the present day through a historical lens.

Notes Towards a Model Opera recalls the state-sanctioned ballets of China’s Cultural Revolution. A South African ballerina designer dances en pointe in a red army beret, brandishing guns, against the backdrop of shifting maps. Sparrows – killed in a disastrous bid to boost crop yields – fly across the pages of accounting ledgers. What to think of China’s growing influence in South Africa against this historical backdrop?

Sibyl is adapted from a chamber opera composed by Nhlanhla Mahlangu and Kyle Shepherd. Kentridge serves us luscious visual tricks: a sculpture of a tree turns into a typewriter from a different angle; another tree, painted on the leaves of a book that flutter in the wind like actual leaves.

Kentridge doesn’t do things by half measure – this is an operatic epic of a show. It may be too much for some people. He’s a giant of the cultural scene: an artist of wit, intelligence and generosity. If you have three hours to give this exhibition, you will be richly rewarded.

Royal Academy of Arts, London, 24 September to 11 December

William Kentridge at the Royal Academy is an overwhelming, operatic epic of a show

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