It's a sabbatical year for prominent South African artist William Kentridge but he's still causing a stir.

His exhibition "Notes Towards a Model Opera" is now on at Johannesburg's Goodman Gallery, after opening in China last June.

The exhibition tugs at the already tense threads that run through the China-in-Africa narrative. The timing of the show is significant, too, opening a month after the top-level Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (Focac) took place in the artist's native Johannesburg. Focac shored up trade and diplomatic ties and bagged a deal worth US$60 billion in development funding for the continent.

Kentridge clearly still has questions, writing in the exhibition programme: "China certainly hovers over us like a huge zeppelin. The scale of it, the scale of its hunger for resources, the scale of everything … Are we here the tethered goat waiting for the tiger? Easy pickings?"

It therefore came as no surprise when the catalogues for his Beijing exhibition, at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, had to be published in Hong Kong after printers in China declined the job.

The exhibition provides a commentary on the intellectual, political and social history of modern China. At the centre of the show is a "three-channel film" - simultaneous projections of drawings, footage, photos and animation - that reflects Kentridge's take on cultural diffusion and metamorphosis through his re-imagining of the Eight Model Operas of the Cultural Revolution.

Curator of the Johannesburg exhibition Damon Garstang says the film has been designed so that more is revealed with each viewing.

Other works in the exhibition include the juxtaposed images of African revolutionary icons Patrice Lumumba and Frantz Fanon alongside those of Mao Zedong and his wife Jiang Qing.

An image of the Eurasian tree sparrow is another domi-nant feature. Drawn with Indian ink in calligraphic style, it tells of Mao's Four Pests Campaign in the late 1950s, which was aimed at exterminating sparrows alongside flies, mosquitoes and rats. The sparrows were targeted as they ate grain and seeds, "stealing food from people's mouths". The birds, however, also ate locusts and, when they were removed as natural predators, pest populations exploded, causing plagues that destroyed crops and ultimately fuelled China's great famine.

It's an exhibition that asks bold questions with subtle artistic probing. It begs a second look - and that's the point.