Jumping on the King’s Bed

William Kentridge


Isis Tragédie

When does the tour start?

I’d like to see the


the monuments,

the marbles,

the sarcophagi

the death masks

the sar cophafa copha copha copha copha

the sarcophagi.

I met a traveller from an antique land

I met a traveller from an antique land

Where are your antiquities?

How old is the mummy?

Show me your ruins.

Which dead king is this?

On what floor are the Egyptian antiquities?

A sneer / a sneeeerrrr

A frown / a frooowwwn

A cold command

Nothing besides


Who said? Who said?

Slaves were we to Pharaoh in Egypt

A pedestal that beside these nothing command

Who said who said who said lip round and on those

passions and antique which yet decay lone and level pedestal survive


Lone remains mocked passions



And wrinkled lip round stamped on these lifeless things and my name the sand which yet survives.

This is how flat the world is, the million and cinnabar

Croo croo croooo

Here are the shards

Damo birridamo holla do funga

The beginning

Brei brei brei

Voila the horses

It would have sufficed

Voila the legs

It would have sufficed

Voila the crack

It would have sufficed

And the shaft

Voila the rivers of wax

It would have sufficed

Voila the rust

It would have sufficed

Voila the ash

Bo bo bor botchon ortishell copha

copha copha copha copha copha, sarcopha cophagus.

Eer bar obibor

The flap of the pants is now closing

Impara the glass and the tooth is now out.

Ha laghmar aniyar, diyaghulu avartanu baraah di mitzrayim, imparatanoh jatanoh zafungu daborsch karamba jaborscha dabar elor

And with an outstretched arm

It would have sufficed

And with great terror

It would have sufficed

And with signs

And with wonders

Will I execute judgement

It would have sufficed

Voila the rust

It would have sufficed

Voila the ash

It would have sufficed

Where is the exit?



Notes on Carnets d’Egypte


Isis Tragédie

This fragment was scored for two male voices, two euphoniums, and a soprano (in a megaphone).  Part of the music is a fragment of music by Lully from the prologue of Isis Tragédie (1677). The opera recounts the history of the water nymph Io, pursued by Jupiter. In the last act of the opera, she is saved by being transformed into the Egyptian god Isis. The subtext, apparently, was the clash between two mistresses of Louis XIV, as well as the war in Holland. The key line is ‘Happy is the Empire that follows its laws!’ The text and music of the opera are fragmented both programmatically, taking their cue from the fragments of Egypt in the room, and through their construction. The different voices were recorded separately, as was the Lully. The piece was then constructed both musically and textually by collaging and editing the fragments together. The final piece is one of many possible pieces constructed from the elements.

With some fragments, like The Plagues, the voice recording preceded the writing of the music. The sound of my voice was translated into a line of atonal/toneless music, which became the basis for the piano accompaniment played by Jill Richards.

The composer Philip Miller and I wanted to have echoes of both the sound of Egypt and the fragments in the Egyptian collection in the Louvre; and echoes of the space in which they find themselves – the king’s bedroom. In the recording, the Lully is sung by Linda von Copenhagen, the euphoniums performed by Daniel Bouyer (tuba) and Etienne Mecloen (trombone). The Egyptian antiquities in the room are fragments that allude to a larger coherence, just as the text and sound allude to larger pieces.


Pure Fiction

 Carnets d’Egypte is the second Egyptian project I have undertaken. The first project that used in part an Egyptian vocabulary was Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which is set in a Masonic imaginary Egypt. Coming back to Egypt in this project, I had as a central question for myself the task of trying to track an internal geography – uncovering the Egypt lodged inside me – particularly, the question of what the connection is between that internal world to the vast array of fragments from ancient Egypt that sit in the Louvre. These fragments exist for me as a bridge between a world of history and a world of mythical fiction – the stories of the Bible, Old and New Testaments – in which all stories and events recounted are as unreal and impossible as either the six days of creation, or the Garden of Eden, or any other fantastical invention. I understand there has to be a crossing point between an imagined fable, and the world of verifiable history. I can believe that Julius Ceasar existed, both from the wealth of documentary material surrounding him, and from the voice of his own writing – and so reluctantly, must also believe in the existence of Cleopatra. But I am still filled with scepticism from her Hollywood and Shakespearian presence. I would need a lie-detector to see whether I do really believe in her existence. And once she exists, of course an infinite regress of believability is possible.

Approaching history from the front, from the convincing substance of recent events and working backwards – from Julius Ceasar for example – one can realistically go back to Egypt and the pyramids, and believe in their existence; and from there, why not, even to Exodus. But coming from the back, from Genesis forward, the story of Moses, the pharaoh, the Exodus, is only a fable. Egypt has to be both believed and disbelieved at the same time. A solo performer is not sufficient to embody this contradiction.



The Sphinx is also the meeting point between different worlds. It first provides a crossing from the Egyptian world to the Greek. The riddle of the Sphinx that Oedipus has to answer (the title of one the film fragments, 4:2:3, is of course a reference to the Sphinx’s riddle), is a riddle of generations and age. The Oracle who later predicts Oedipus’ future is also giving another answer to the riddle of the Sphinx. From the Sphinx and Oracle, we cross Europe, ending in Vienna, in the consulting room of Dr Freud – whose books make the way past Egypt, going round the other side of Africa, to get back to Johannesburg.

The scribes, both in the films and in some of the drawings, and in the museum itself of course, seem to me to celebrate – even thousands of years later – secular values: someone worthy of sculpture who is neither king, nor priest, nor god.

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!



I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias was one of the poems to be learnt by heart when I was at school. But my memories of the text had fragmented. Certain lines would not come back, certain phrases would link into the wrong lines – in my head, I could not reconstruct the poem. Then I re-read the poem and could no longer find the fragmented form. I had to find an artificial way of shattering the poem again.  I did this by randomly writing numbers on top of the printed text of the poem, eyes closed. I followed the numerical sequence of the words in transcribing the words and phrases in the text of Isis Tragédie.

Shelley wrote the poem after reports of the discovery of fragments of a monument to Ramesses II, the 19th dynasty pharaoh, by the Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni in 1816. The inscription on the pedestal, ‘King of kings, look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ is of course the central irony of the poem. But in fact through the careful work of Belzoni, Champollion and an army of archeologists, these fragments have been retrieved, restored, placed, a virtual empire reconstituted. This reconstitution of Ozymandias has been placed inside a shell of another empire. Again you have a presence, not lost in the desert, but standing above a sea of 20,000 people who pass by them daily in the museum.  Every object in the Egyptian collection asserts both the disappearance of that Egyptian civilization, and its ongoing presence as part of our historical memory.


Slaves were we

Sections of the text are from the Haggadah, the book of prayers and stories that accompany the Pesach celebration in Jewish households, not just in South Africa. The phrases from this book and the Pesach service used in this text were familiar to me even before the Ozymandias poem. They were read out every year by either my grandfather or my father. The Aramaic transcribed into the text is my memory of the words from the service, rather than an accurate record of them. The Passover (Pesach) story of course records the story of Exodus.


Holla da Funga

 In my last year at high school, I came across a book on Dada, and was intrigued not just by the images but also the incomprehensible poetry – a mixture of non –sequiturs, onomatopoeia, and made-up foreign languages. The incomprehensible lines which are not Hebrew have been appropriated from this Richard Huelsenbeck poem.

Perhaps I was struck by its similarity to the nonsense words and language of my high school war cry, which somehow managed to combine free-flowing absurd language with authoritarian enthusiasm:

ichy ballagoota
skittarama doota
sas kanady
son of karnusty
budias budias budias sas sas…



When I was twenty, I traveled to Paris from Johannesburg for the first time. I still have the sketchbook I carried with me. It contains drawings of people sitting in cafés, or at the hotel. There are also three drawings I made in the Louvre. Two are of Egyptian granite baboons; one is of a museum guard, resting in his chair. I am not sure why, of all the Egyptian objects, the only ones I drew were these two baboons – perhaps it was the surprise at seeing such a familiar southern African animal in such an utterly transported place – first from South Africa to Egypt, and then from Egypt to France. I now know that the sculptures were in fact of the Egyptian deified baboon, Baba or Babi, scribe to the gods. The southern African link is both geographical and temporal; baboons are still common here in South Africa – but baboons had disappeared from Egypt long before the Pharaohs, and the sculptural baboons relied on some pre-dynastic memory.  The baboons were reassuringly familiar. The visit to the Louvre was of course overwhelming. The number of objects, the scale of the collection, the muchness, made our Johannesburg museums, our city, seem so puny. I think this is what was intended. All those objects that had been seen only as slides and illustrations in textbooks, were suddenly present. Sculptures and paintings that before had easily fitted onto the page of a book, suddenly filled huge galleries. After the baboons I made no further drawings from the Louvre.

My visit to the museum followed our school textbook. It started in Egypt, crossed the Mediterranean to Greece, went on to Rome, and then sat and waited for the Renaissance, with a brief excursion to Chartres and Gothic France. In fairness to those textbooks, there were side-excursions to the Middle and Far East, but they were not part of the school syllabus, nor part of my visit to the Louvre.  According to convention, after Egypt, art history left Africa, never to return. Other traces and artefacts from Africa were sent to the museums of ethnography. The question of where they should be housed – Quai Branly, the Louvre, or back in Benin, is ongoing.

In the years since then, I have always traveled with drawing books. I take a sketchbook with me – or rather, usually I take the same book, as most often I return without any marks having been made. I should have learned my lesson from my visit to the Louvre. I do not keep a traveler’s sketchbook.  And the sketchbooks I have in my studio are generally filled with notes and phrases, not drawings. What drawings there are, are diagrams, rather than renderings.

A sketchbook would traditionally have been used for retaining a quick impression, or made as a preparatory version of a more considered work, or the testing of an idea or image. In all instances, lightness and speed are essential. The small scale of the drawings is incidental. The book itself is incidental. But the activity, of thinking aloud, of thinking on one’s feet, is the heart of the sketch. My drawings and sketchbooks are rather drawings of sketchbooks, of the idea of traveler’s notes. The real sketchbook is the video camera.


Home Movies

We had an 8 mm movie camera which my father used, and which I later took over. Each spool of film would give between one and one and half minutes projection time. The films were always of family events. The subtext of all the films was anxiety. The whirring of the camera made one aware of the painfully short time available for filming – shots would last two or three seconds, panning from one child’s face to another, trying to catch the dog as it ran around the garden, recording a badminton game in which people were caught between looking at the camera and watching the shuttlecock. Looking at the films now, it is a relief when one can find any shots that hold their focus for more than two seconds.

We are now in the opposite situation – every phone is also a camera, and every movie camera can record hours rather than seconds. The subject matter has not changed much, but the subtext is now over-abundance and lassitude. Who will ever watch these hours? I now travel both with a sketchbook, largely unused, and a pocket-sized video camera, also largely unused.

But I have found that back in the studio that the sketchbooks, now really notebooks, are used daily; and the video camera becomes a sketchbook itself – both for reference (chasing an Egyptian ibis round the garden, to film it as it lumbers into flight, to use for later animation); and inside the studio for recording works coming into being, and testing ideas before they are made – performing in front of the camera, checking the timing of a performance on film. The testing of variations of an idea is given in different takes. The instant replaying and re-filming, the turning of a page in a sketchbook.


Drawing in Books (Almost Connect)

The World on its Hind Legs is drawn on a copy of L’Exploration du Sahara. (L’Exploration du Sahara: Etude  Historique et Geographique, P. Vuillot, Paris, 1895)

The wire construction and Rorschach test is in a register of intoxicating liquor sales. (Intoxicating Liquor Cash Sales Book (Liquor Act No. 30 of 1928))

The jug/cat is in a Greek/Latin Dictionary. (Graecum Lexicon Manuale primum a Benjamine Hederico, London, 1825)

The exploding soprano is in a Russian agricultural encyclopaedia of 1937. (The Village Household Encyclopedia, 1953)

The double scribe is on the pages of a 1906 ledger of the East Rand Proprietary Mines. (East Rand Proprietary Mines Central Administration, 1898 to 1910)

For some years, there has been a contest at our supper table between on the one hand, my wife Anne and myself, and on the other, our children. A word or a phrase comes up, and Anne and I go from dining table to the library to find an answer in some reference work or other, while our children look for the same information on their phones and computers. Some years ago, when internet connectivity was slow, and mobile phone capacities limited, we could hold our own. But now our hanging onto the physical books is either derided or at best, humoured. But it is as much for the heft and smell of a book as for its content that Anne and I make the journey from dining room to library.

I am not sure whether drawing in books prolongs their life, or destroys them. I suppose it does both. The natural expiration of books – the 1950s encyclopedia superseded by the 1980s encyclopaedia – is a prelude to the physical disappearance of reference books. The sense of one’s library as a self-portrait in the third person starts to disappear. The cutting up and drawing on books both acknowledges this, and holds onto the strong physicality of paper, typeface, binding and ink.

The books drawn on are chosen in two ways. First, for their particular qualities of paper and density of ink. Some papers have a smoothness, which charcoal will sit on the surface of, and is easily erased with the wipe of a cloth. Others, particularly pre-19th century papers, have a tooth, which holds the charcoal dust and makes for a soft, rich image. Some papers absorb Indian ink like blotting paper; some pages allow brush strokes to pool and gradually evaporate, leaving a mark like a wash on a lithographic stone.

Secondarily, the books are chosen for their history and subject.  They need to be neither utterly removed from the drawings on them, nor too close to them – with the magnetic pull between the drawings and text almost strong enough to connect them.


Drawing Lessons

About eighteen months ago, I started on an open-ended series of short videos. The series involved multiple selves, simply made – in the editing, the screen is cut into two or three slices, to enable two or three selves to perform on the screen together. The first films explored the fact of this multiplicity. But the hope was that once the films reached a certain momentum, the two or three characters would start a real interrogation of each other.  At the moment they function more as laboratory assistants, performing small tasks and texts.  For the project at the Louvre, they were pressed into service making a series of short films, all of which are about jumping on the king’s bed. This ongoing series of film fragments is called Drawing Lessons. I do not expect there to be any films that demonstrate how to make a drawing on paper with charcoal (though it is not precluded). Rather the films are designed to show (for the audience), and find (for me), the process and energy of the rising of an image or work. They follow an impulse, allow it a brief flowering, then return to work for the next construction. In this sense the short films also function cumulatively as a sketchbook of ideas – most of which will be abandoned, but some of which will be followed up.



Half buried in the sand, an antique fragment is found.  The archaeologist carefully removes it, cleans it, returns it as close to its original state as possible. In the films Excavate, Catalogue and Acquire, this process is reversed. First there are the pristine shards of such an object. In the museum, one comes across a cleaned, restored object, and one has to re-imagine it in its tomb or under the sands of the desert to restore it to its fragmentary state. The films start with the drawing of the object, the clean shard. This is then buried. It is buried by covering the image of the object with charcoal dust, paint, other pages. It is then re-excavated. This excavation is done by filming the covering of the shards, and then running the film in reverse. The covering then becomes uncovering. The skill of the archaeology here is in finding the grammar of the movement of the brush that covers the initial image – the covering that becomes uncovering. In the end, in the studio, one is left not with an excavated drawing, but simply a sheet of paper covered with black paint. The uncovering excavation can also be done through erasure – in which case one starts (starts as seen in the film) with a mark on a grubby piece of paper, or map of the excavation sight, and through conscientious rubbing and wiping gradually pulls the image from under the surface up onto the page.


Drawing Lesson 49

A table. On it, the funerary mask of King Amen Hetep II and the statue of Queen Hatshepsut.
WK2 seated at the table. Both study the sculptures.


WK2     They should be returned.

WK1   They should stay where they are.

WK2     Send them home.

WK1   Willing buyer, willing seller

WK1 + WK2
We are not that naïve.
I agree, we are not that naïve.

WK1   Every Madonna back in Italy? Every mummy in Egypt?

WK2     Everything in its correct context.

WK1   Thank god for things out of context, for productive  misunderstandings, for mistranslations, for imaginative leaps between an object and a set of guesses, assumptions, half-understood facts…

WK2   You are on very thin ice I would suggest

WK1   I go quickly, just skimming the surface

WK2     Return them to their owners

WK1   Unfindable! A government? A political party? A national party? A national identity being invented?

WK1 + WK2 over each other
I want the object returned.

I want the objects to stay.

I want their objects here.

I want our objects there.


WK3 enters, waving a flag, playing a trumpet.
Exits, followed by WK1 and WK2.
Sculptures remain on the table.

Published in Kentridge, William and Marie-Laure Bernadac, William Kentridge: Carnets d’Egypte, Éditions Dilecta / Éditions du Musée du Louvre: Paris.