Massive and multilayered, William Kentridge’s ‘The Head and the Load’ casts an unflinching eye on Africa’s forgotten war dead

Massive and multilayered, William Kentridge’s ‘The Head and the Load’ casts an unflinching eye on Africa’s forgotten war dead
William Kentridge’s ‘The Head and the Load’ has toured Europe, Britain and America. The play is now being performed in Johannesburg. (Photo: Goodman Gallery / William Kentridge Studio / Stella Olivier)

William Kentridge’s massive performance work ‘The Head and the Load’ offers a compelling theatrical portrait of Africa and its peoples’ betrayal by the European combatants during World War 1.

After we had witnessed William Kentridge’s newest theatre piece, my wife told me I had been sitting through the entire production, leaning forward, peering at it intently, and, paradoxically, smiling throughout. The work is a heady brew. The elements of it confound, even overwhelm its audience in places. After dinner and on into the evening, the two of us wrestled with picking out the meanings and textures of this astonishing work.

I was entirely captured and drawn into this intricately constructed narrative of Europe’s engagement with Africa during World War 1 in which thousands of Africans perished, fighting in Africa and even serving on the European frontlines.

Commissioned for commemorations of World War 1 (1914-18), Kentridge’s work has already been performed in Europe, Britain and the US. However, because of all the complications with public performances, travel and lockdowns due to the Covid pandemic, The Head and the Load has only now arrived in Africa.  

This performance stirs emotions and imaginations even as it challenges the viewer to pin down exactly what kind of theatre it is. One puzzles whether it is a play, a very sombre musical, a concert with dance, projections and spoken words, a video extravaganza, a multimedia exhibition, all of those or something else.

A review in the influential US publication American Theatre about the work’s performance in New York City put it this way:

“They are not men because they have no names
They are not soldiers because they have no numbers
You don’t call them, you count them

— From The Head and the Load, quoting a Portuguese World War 1 soldier about Africans in that war 

“In fact, the number of Africans killed in the so-called Great War cannot even be counted, only estimated, because so few records were kept about them. African civilians who died because their European colonial rulers were adversaries probably number a million. In addition, perhaps 30,000 combatants and 300,000 impressed ‘carriers’, human beasts of burden, lost their lives. European troops literally worked these porters to death, even receiving such guidelines as ‘after 20 days, the carriers are of no use’. 

“Ignored in the history books, these unnamed casualties and their abuse by colonialists are the focus of South African artist/director William Kentridge’s riveting, huge-scale work The Head and the Load at Park Avenue Armory, Dec. 4-16. This 90-minute gesamtkunstwerk — theatre, opera, dance, art installation, and Dadaist event — comes to life on a stage that’s 180 feet long (more than half the length of a football field), 40 feet high, and 32 feet deep, constructed specially at the Armory.  

“Nearly 50 actors, musicians, and dancers create evolving images and soundscapes, with so much simultaneous action on such a long stage that it is impossible to take it all in. But all the elements come together into a blistering — and bizarrely exhilarating — presentation of Europe’s colonial imposition on Africa as not only barbaric and catastrophic but also sense-shatteringly absurd. [Italics added.]” 

A platoon of technicians

To stage this work in Johannesburg, a 50m temporary stage has been constructed, this time backstage in the Joburg Theatre. Just behind the audience’s tiers of temporary raked seating sits a whole platoon of video, lighting and sound technicians, as well as movement coordinators and controllers (along with a vast array of high-end technology) who collectively are responsible for delivering the full range of the essential effects seamlessly. Generators power all of the electrical needs of this production as things could easily go south in the event of a rolling blackout.

The technical teams’ efforts complement and interact with a company of actors and musicians on the stage. In fact, the technical controllers are in constant communication with the performers to ensure their actual, live movements remain precisely coordinated with all of the video, lighting and sound effects. The shadow of an actor half a step ahead of the projections could easily interfere with the larger effect of those projections rather than amplify their impact.  

Amid all this activity, audience members familiar with Kentridge’s previous artworks and theatre pieces will look for (and often find) mental handholds from some of his frequently used images and ways of delivering meaning. There is that familiar, even vaguely reassuring (and foreboding) drawing of a rhinoceros. Then there are the drawings of birds (although this time around they are destroyed by artillery fire). And there are maps manipulated into narrative devices. But there is also that fluid, shape-shifting Brechtian style of live drama: musicians may become dancers who can become actors who can morph into narrators.  

The influence of Kentridge’s time studying movement and mime with Jacques Lecoq in France lingers as well. Simultaneously, across the back of the wide temporary stage, there are complex, always-changing, constantly evolving, overlapping video projections. Drawing on Asian shadow puppet traditions, the actors sometimes carry flats of objects ranging from cut-out silhouettes of historical figures to objects such as machine guns and howitzers — and even a momentary representation of the infamous schematic illustration of the hold of a ship from the slave trade, just for an instant. The shadows from the actors and what they are bearing intersect, overlap, or meld with previously recorded shadows being projected across the back of the stage as well.  

Words and phrases also float or flit across the stage’s backdrop. Maps of Africa, cut up and then stamped with imperial seals, appear and disappear; old film clips of African soldiers on parade from the early 20th century are eventually replaced by other, more contemporary ones of ceremonial African troop formations serving as honour guards for the continent’s new rulers.

Kentridge’s work becomes a vast, even overwhelming layer cake of images and words interacting with exhortations delivered by characters who urge Africans to rally for the German Kaiser, to enlist for the glory of France, or to come to the aid of the British king in the UK’s struggle against the Central Powers in local militaries, as the colonial powers fight across the colonies that those nations have seized across Africa.

Controlled musical chaos

Then there is the music. It was composed by Philip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi. One hears a momentary snippet of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, hints of Madagascar traditional music on a kora, an old-style brass band rounded out with an accordion, and elements of God Save the King.  

The aural textures remind one of how the early 20th-century avant-garde composer Charles Ives used ostensibly discordant harmonies and melodies in finely crafted, controlled musical chaos. Not surprisingly, given the emotional nature of this work, one also senses an influence from Kurt Weill’s music. The often-fluid, often-disturbing, sometimes deeply affecting choreography has been created by choreographer/dancer Gregory Maqoma. Some of its most arresting moments are performed by Maqoma himself, especially in a dance of lamentation.

A whole army of people from South Africa and elsewhere are responsible for the video, sound design, lighting, and related specialisations. These include Catherine Meyburgh as projection designer, costume designer Greta Goiris, set design by Sabine Theunissen, lighting design by Urs Schönebaum, sound design by Mark Grey and Michele Greco, and video editing by Janus Fouché, Žana Marović and Meyburgh. Many of these people have worked with Kentridge for years, like Kim Gunning, who first began working with him in 1998 for his many stage works, installations and operas.

Trying to find a comprehensive way to describe this work continues to plague this reviewer. Does the right metaphor, courtesy of my wife, come from visualising a kind of animated carousel where all the unicorns, horses and ponies (and their riders) are magically freed from their poles and move about during the spinning ride, seemingly at random, but, in reality, in a complex, interwoven tapestry, with a musical accompaniment from the entire carnival’s soundscape? Or, is it one of those fantastically elaborate, ornate orreries from the Baroque with the sun, the planets, moons, and constellations all moving about constantly, even as the whirring gears are clearly visible to the observer?

Whatever the metaphor, all of this movement and deeply layered material harbours a story, and it is one that has been obscured and minimised for more than a century. Even if, in an academic sense, we know that colonial rule was deeply, fundamentally wrong, many of us have been fed a prettified version of German, British, French, Portuguese, Belgian and Italian occupiers and colonisers via novels and cinema. 

Many of us have watched the classic film version of H Rider Haggard’s adventure tale King Solomon’s Mines, with those long lines of African bearers carrying — balanced on their heads — heavy loads of supplies and luxuries for the intrepid white explorers pushing across the veld. And recall, too, that those African men were singing; they were happy; they were joyful in doing this baleful task.

Or we can recall another favourite, The African Queen, with Bogart and Hepburn the unlikely pair who destroy a powerful German gunboat patrolling the waters of the East African Great Lakes. In the film, there is little recognition that the German gunboat had been made elsewhere, disassembled, carried, heavy piece by heavy piece, upon the heads of African bearers, up to the shoreline of the lake so it could be reassembled and thus the Germans could control the inland waters during World War 1. Or, perhaps, too, one’s memories conjure up scenes from Out of Africa where the task of carrying those urgently needed supplies to a British military force intent on conquering German East Africa (Tanganyika) during that war falls upon Meryl Streep’s doughty Baroness Blixen, and her teams of oxen. African bearers are barely to be seen, though. 

The harsh reality in all of this was that the bearers were frequently corvée labour, while the men dragooned into military formations were usually formed into labour corps who moved essential supplies and built roads, bridges, military camps and fortifications, but were provided significantly inferior salaries, rations, medical treatment, equipment and shelter, let alone any mustering-out benefits and payments at the end of the fighting. In fact, there are no precise figures regarding how many such men died in that military service, let alone the number of those who had been brought into such service from the African colonies. There are precious few monuments to that sacrifice. And, if they fought on the losing side — Germany, their former colonial master — that nation no longer held connections with its former African troops. 

A theatrical treatment of the circumstances of African troops in World War 1 has actually been presaged in earlier work by Kentridge, which illuminated the role of Heinrich Göring (father of the World War 2 Nazi leader Hermann Göring) as colonial governor of South West Africa (now Namibia,) in the colonial regime’s genocide directed against the indigenous Herero people in 1905. Even now, Germany wrestles with finding a way to provide recompense for that crime. In fact, in The Head and the Load, there is a particularly affecting Herero-styled dance that forms part of this larger theatrical tapestry of sorrow. 

A long road travelled by Kentridge

During a professional creative career stretching more than four decades, Kentridge has travelled a long road to his most recent staged success. Along the way, he has gained appreciation from critics, academics, collectors and lovers of South Africa’s contemporary cultural landscape — and now has an international reputation second to none among current South African creatives.

As a young man, he studied at the University of the Witwatersrand and at the Johannesburg Art Foundation, and then at the Jacques Lecoq school in France where he studied acting, mime and physical theatre. Thereafter, he began his forays into theatre with the famed Junction Avenue Theatre Company, before moving on to his own individual projects as he shaped his personal theatrical style.

Over the years, these have included experimental films, and hand-drawn animated features that portrayed an existential struggle between opposing characters Soho Eckstein and Felix Teitlebaum (that latter reportedly fashioned by him as a stand-in for the artist), a reworking of the play Ubu Rex into a South Africanised Ubu and the Truth Commission, stagings of a classic opera such as The Magic Flute and more contemporary works like The Nose and Wozzeck, as well as a seemingly inexhaustible stream of work on paper. Those have frequently included those now-familiar images of a rhino and those birds, along with transformed dictionary pages, maps and other reworked printed material.

Looking at Kentridge’s art, parallels with Daumier, Hogarth, Goya and Grosz, with their unflinching eyes on pain and suffering are unmistakable. His works have included solo commissions in major cities and exhibitions around the globe, and collectors worldwide look forward to purchasing his artistic output (assuming they can afford the ever-ascending price tags). 

Throughout his artistic career, his work has been infused with a political sensibility that clearly has drawn inspiration from his own family’s long involvement with the creation of a democratic order in South Africa, but his political stance as expressed artistically often seems to have offered a precariously balanced optimism and hope versus the fear over likely outcomes or even some cynicism about whether things will work out as so deeply hoped for.

Such an ambivalent feeling appears in The Head and the Load as well. In all the years after the colonial experience ended — and especially after the coercion of Africans to die for another’s war (African soldiers have also fought and died in post-World War 2 battles beyond the continent), the subject of this specific work also calls out to the new militaries of the continent’s independent nations. This leaves open the question of whether or not things, at least in that aspect, are much better now. A catalogue of the brutal wars and conflicts on the continent since the early 1960s would not be especially reassuring. Those events could provoke melancholy as well, even if some of those conflicts also stem from a brutal artificiality of the original colonial carve-up.

Performances have been underwritten by a wide range of corporate sponsors. The Head and the Load continues until 6 May at the Joburg Theatre. DM


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