The Head & the Load, William Kentridge’s latest project, in collaboration with Philip Miller, Thuthuka Sibisi and Gregory Maqoma, brings to light the hidden stories of Africa and Africans in World War I. Many of the Africans who died during this war were porters, or ‘carriers’, forced to move cannons, machine guns, officers’ gramophones and even ships across thousands of inhospitable kilometres, from Cape Town to Lake Tanganyika, removing thousands of trees as they made their way through the dense jungle. These men rarely survived the full trip. This barbarity was ‘justified’ by not calling them soldiers, by not even calling them by their names.
With its hand-drawn video projections, The Head & the Load follows on from the acclaimed Kentridge-directed operas like The Magic Flute, The Nose, Lulu and Wozzeck. During 2018 and 2019, The Head & the Load was performed to rave reviews at Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London, at Ruhrtriennale in Duisburg, Germany, The Park Avenue Armory in New York and the Holland Festival in Amsterdam. Now, with support from RMB & FNB, The Head & the Load will show at the Joburg Theatre with ten performances from 6 – 14 August 2020. Creative Feel spoke to William Kentridge about the origins of this acclaimed production.
Creative Feel: The Head & the Load is about Africa and Africans in the First World War – about the contradictions and paradoxes of colonialism that were not well known and are nearly forgotten today. How did this project come about?
William Kentridge: The project had several origins, one was a 500-metre frieze and procession that we had done in Rome on the banks of the Tiber called Triumphs and Laments, which gave us the idea of a large-scale processional work; of large-scale shadows cast by lights on ground level, casting shadows on the wall. They are on the wall in Rome and they are on canvases at the back of our stage in The Head & the Load.
Another starting point was the work I was doing on Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck. In the workshops we did in Johannesburg in preparation for the opera, we did a lot of movement, text and dance work that related to the First World War, which was the period in which I was setting the opera. This combination of South African actors, the dance and the song work for Wozzeck, and the long processional piece in Rome, were starting points for the project.
The third starting point was the invitation from the Park Avenue Armory to work in their enormous drill hall, which already had the military connotations we were looking at in the piece.
Knowing it would be about the First World War, only while in the process of work did we really realise that the heart of our project would be the porters carrying the war through Africa and that the piece would be about the First World War in Africa. In this, it was not only a general ignorance of this period that concerned us, but our own ignorance, my own ignorance, and the ignorance of almost all participants – black, white, young, old – who were part of the workshops and the makings of the piece. And it has a hidden history, hidden partly because it had been deliberately hidden by the colonial powers who didn’t want to acknowledge the contribution that African or black soldiers had played in the First World War, frightened that if they acknowledged it, then they would have to give them different degrees of civil rights to what they were prepared to grant them. And, as the piece progressed, the politics and the history became clearer, but it is a politics and history that was excavated by the project rather than a knowledge we had in advance that was illustrated by the project.
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