William Kentridge’s provocative and disruptive ‘The Head and the Load’ finally comes to the city of his birth
I had been waiting for what seemed forever for ‘The Head and the Load’, by William Kentridge, Philip Miller, Thuthuka Sibisi and Gregory Maqoma to come to Johannesburg. It first showed abroad in 2018.
Since the start of the Weekly Mail, where I worked as a trainee in the 1980s, and to which William Kentridge gifted the artistic illustrations to its film and book festivals, he has defined how I understand the dualities of Johannesburg and South Africa — wildly creative, captive of history and sometimes chillingly menacing.
Fire Walker, Kentridge’s public art sculpture (with Gerhard Marx) near the Nelson Mandela Bridge, is a symbol of the city, along with the Ponte building and the two towers, Hillbrow and Brixton.
When the Zeitz Mocca featured a retrospective of Kentridge’s work, my husband and I went to see it and our plan for a walkthrough of a couple of hours turned into a full day of gazing in amazement. Layer upon layer of meaning and his many forms (drawing, opera, video, performance) held themselves up for inspection and contemplation. And, yes, for wonder and admiration.
Of course, Kentridge’s canvas is now the world, the city where he still (occasionally) lives and works is but one of the many places through which he makes meaning.
The Head and the Load is a world story — the epic record of African soldiers in World War 1.
“The colonial logic towards the black participants could be summed up: ‘Lest their actions merit recognition, their deeds must not be recorded,’” Kentridge writes in the programme.
Kentridge et al record their stories in a multimedia form that drills the story into the history books from which they have been expunged for so long.
From the time you enter to walk all the way through the red seats of the usual theatre, up some stairs and into what feels like backstage to sit on a long, long stage, this is a disruptive work.
I would be pretentious to suggest I understood it well; it has left me wondering for days. But in a good and curious way.
Arts publicist Bronwyn Coppola has seen it three times and is still distilling its meaning. My friend cried thrice, he says, when he went at the weekend and he wants to go back.
The performance is neither linear nor meant to be understandable. It is provocative and unsettling. Like war and like colonialism.
What it achieves is to tell the story of the porters, carriers and the estimated one million Africans put to service by the colonial powers which had divided the continent at the Berlin Conference a few years earlier.
The scene of that crime uses maps, videos and a Dadaist opera within the play to reveal the macabre theft. A French general eats an African map.
At the Constitution Hill Human Rights Festival in March, at an exhibition about the mining industry’s deadly conditions, composer Philip Miller’s jangling soundtrack of mine sounds told the story even without seeing the powerful images that accompany them. In The Head and the Load, Miller and co-composer Thuthuka Sibisi create another anti-colonial sonic journey by cutting up and cutting in.
“Carrying through the idea of history as collage, the libretto of The Head and the Load is largely constructed from texts and phrases from a range of writers and sources, cut-up, interleaved and expanded. Frantz Fanon translated into siSwati, Tristan Tzara in isiZulu; Wilfred Owen in French and dog-barking…,” writes Kentridge in the programme. The result is a subversive cacophony beautifully performed by an orchestra and 11 musicians.
The theatrical collage of video, procession and sculpture plays out on three parts of the stage, adding to the feeling of immersion and confusion. Gregory Maqoma, South Africa’s dancer laureate, is both choreographer and lead dancer. His performance of military drills, processions and marches are art as resistance.
The title is from the Ghanaian proverb that the head and the load are the problem of the neck. The impeccable archival work is represented as the journals of the names of the porters and carriers of the load. These are projected on to the long walls behind the stage.
Kentridge’s online studio site places this work in his oeuvre and the themes of the megaphone, the prints on old book pages, the cartography and the mechanised sculptures are clear. DM/ML
The run of the African premiere of this story told by our finest talents ends on 6 May.