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Ode to the men who were not to be counted

Collaboration has been one of the most important aspects of Vuyani Dance Theatre during its 20-year history, whether it has been local or international, with other choreographers or with a range of differently talented arts practitioners. One recent successful international production was the beautifully produced performance piece The Head & The Load.

Vuyani Dance Theatre Gregory Maqoma William Kentridge The Head and The Load
PHOTO Stella Olivier

The Head & The Load premiered in 2018 against the dramatic backdrop of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London, as part of the 14-18 Now: WW1 Centenary Art Commissions, an exhibition reflecting on the centenary of World War I, before it moved both to Park Avenue Armory, Ruhrtriennale and MASS MoCA, and, in 2019, to the Holland Festival.
     William Kentridge, easily South Africa’s best-known visual artist, worked with his long-time collaborators, the South African composer Philip Miller and the dancer-choreographer Gregory Maqoma, to conjure up an evocative extravaganza that he described as ‘an interrupted musical procession’ that drew on all the strands of his wide-ranging practice – including music, dance, projections, mechanised sculpture and shadow play – to pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands of largely forgotten African porters and carriers who served the French and German forces during World War I.
     The Head & The Load – a title that plays on the Ghanaian proverb: ‘The head and the load are the troubles of the neck’ – is a multi-aspected work that chronicles – through dance, projected images, speech, song, pantomime, shadow play and music – the history and the experiences of those who worked as porters, hauling cannons, munitions, provisions, and even ships across the continent, during what was known as The Great War. 

Vuyani Dance Theatre Gregory Maqoma William Kentridge The Head and The Load
PHOTO Stella Olivier

Reviewers have deemed the work ‘dumbfounding, eviscerating and beautiful’. It is like a fusillade of arrows hitting not one but many bull’s-eyes. In the piece, South African soprano Grace Magubane leads a spine-chilling choral rendition of ‘God Save the King’, African voices expressing a patriotism that splinters into silence. Musicians emerge from boxes, joining processions or vanishing into darkness. In Maqoma’s vivid choreography, dancers cast pointed shadows over conflict maps. Sipho Seroto haunts the performance, a gas-masked figure.
     The African porters carried munitions, supplies, officers’ kits and cannons through Africa. In the production, an actor playing the part of a military officer says, ‘They are not men, because they have no name. They are not soldiers, because they have no number. You don’t call them, you count them.’ In The Head & The Load, the shadows loom larger than the actors themselves, the darkness of history made visible, as if the shadows had a life of their own. 
     In this work, all the contradictions and paradoxes of colonialism that were heated and compressed by the circumstances of the war are highlighted. It is about historical incomprehension (and inaudibility and invisibility). The colonial logic towards the black participants could be summed up: ‘Lest their actions merit recognition, their deeds must not be recorded.’ The Head & The Load aims to recognise and record.

Vuyani Dance Theatre Gregory Maqoma William Kentridge The Head and The Load
PHOTO Stella Olivier

Kentridge, in a recent interview with Cynthia Zarin in The New Yorker further elaborated: ‘We learned nothing, absolutely nothing, about the participation of the porters in the war. This piece, The Head & The Load, was a way to answer ignorance in myself. We did learn that in 1917, the SS Mendi had sunk, with great loss of life, with many Africans aboard. But there was no discussion about what they were doing there, in the English Channel.’ 
     More than a hundred years ago, the SS Mendi sank near the Isle of Wight, after colliding with another vessel. The ship was carrying 823 men from the South African Native Labour Corps, who were mainly black Africans, on their way to serve in the French Army. Six hundred and forty-six men drowned. 
     ‘A lot of the people who joined up hoped for civil rights – the idea was that they would fight, and when it was over, their status would change. But, instead, when they returned they were given a coat and a bicycle. A generation later, some of the children of those men remembered that bicycle and coat, which they were not allowed to touch, because they were special objects.’

PHOTO Stella Olivier

We see malnourished men marching through the savannah, struggling to stand at attention, while Kentridge’s layered drawings unspool behind them. Intellectuals deplore the colonial burden; bloodthirsty Europeans rant that African life is cheap. One African soldier recounts his insomnia after killing a white man for the first time, though he shot down other blacks without regard. All of it is performed in a cascading blend of English, French and German with isiZulu, isiXhosa, siSwati, and Swahili, not to mention high-speed nonsense verse.
     The large majority of Africans who died on the continent in World War I were forced to move not only war equipment, but also officers’ gramophones and even ships across thousands of inhospitable miles, removing thousands of trees through the dense jungle. British boats were dragged on the backs of men overland from Cape Town all the way to Lake Tanganyika – contested by Britain, Belgium and Germany. The porters rarely survived the full trip. 
     Perhaps we still can only count them, but The Head & The Load has given these African soldiers a proper place during the Great War and it is a powerful memorial to World War I, which was deemed the ‘war to end all wars’.
     Editor’s note: Excitingly, it looks like The Head & The Load will be coming to Johannesburg in April/May 2020. Watch this space for more info!

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