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  • Archive of DarknessWilliam Kentridge's Black Box/Chambre Noire
  • Ferdinand de Jong (bio)

We have reached a point where all destinations, all bright lights, arouse mistrust.

William Kentridge, Six Drawing Lessons (2014)

Since the Holocaust was recognized as a historical calamity without precedent, Germany has publicly atoned for its history through official apologies, financial reparations, and public commemoration. While the Holocaust has been acknowledged as a crime against humanity, atrocities perpetrated under German colonialism slipped from public attention and were subject to colonial aphasia. Ironically, the memorial politics commonly referred to as Vergangenheitsbewältigung have obscured German involvement in atrocities perpetrated in the colonies. Apart from a memorial stone in Berlin's Neuköln neighborhood and a rededicated statue of an elephant in Bremen, no permanent display currently bears testament to the genocide of the Herero perpetrated in German South-West Africa.1 However, in response to political demands by the descendants of the Herero victims for recognition of atrocities committed and legal procedures for reparation payments, Germany's colonial past is receiving increased public attention. In this context, the question arises: What art can contribute to the calibration and commemoration of colonial pasts? This article examines the intervention of one work of art in the public debate about Germany's colonial past. It suggests that Black Box/Chambre Noire by the South African artist William Kentridge has provided a forum for the calibration of archival evidence and ethical considerations on reparation, reconciliation and forgiveness.

Black Box is a piece William Kentridge produced after he had been working on an interpretation of Mozart's opera Die Zauberflöte. Drawing upon the history of cinema, theater, and opera, Black Box/Chambre Noire is a tightly packed play of automata that perform against a backdrop screen on which images are projected to a haunting soundtrack composed by Phillip Miller. Lasting for 22 minutes, the performance tells the history of the Herero genocide perpetrated by the German army in German South-West Africa. Recasting Mozart's Magic Flute as a shadow play in a miniature theater, Black Box/Chambre Noire reflects on the opera's associations with the Enlightenment. Illuminating its shadows cast in the colonial encounter in Africa, Black Box revisits established views on the Enlightenment as a project of human progress and perpetuates a critical inquiry launched by the members of the Frankfurt School.

Tellingly, the work is entitled Black Box/Chambre Noire, referencing the camera obscura, the room of shadow plays that served scientists since the second half of the sixteenth century as a technology for the exploration of vision (Crary 1992). The term chambre noire also references the main chamber of the analog camera, through which light falls on the photographic plate, but the title's references are multiple and are not confined to the field of vision. In aviation technology, the black box is a device designed to record conversations of the flight crew in a cockpit. Installed in anticipation of disaster, it is a technology to answer questions about the operation of the aircraft when its pilots are no longer alive to give testimony. Finally, the title also references the black box theater as it was designed for experimental theater pieces in the 1960s and 1970s. Typically, this kind of theater was constructed to enable the audience to have a full view of the stage and to break down the boundaries between performers and audience. Referencing different technologies of vision, the piece situates itself in a history of reflection on light and shadow and engages with Plato's allegory of the cave, which has served as a pivotal metaphor for enlightenment since antiquity. In short, Black Box/Chambre Noire examines techniques that shed light on [End Page 10]

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William Kentridge. 2005. Drawing for Black Box/Chambre Noire, showing the German eagle ruling the world.

what is cast in darkness and subjects to scrutiny how they affect perception, an epistemological exploration appropriate to the examination of forgotten histories.

Black Box uses a range of technologies to commemorate the Herero genocide, perpetrated by the German army between 1904 and 1908 in what was then German South-West Africa (Fig. 1...


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