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The Head & the Load: A performance that presents history as a collage

Apr 06, 2023

“The head and the load are the troubles of the neck.” This play on a Ghanaian proverb is borne out in The Head & the Load by William Kentridge, which was deemed “a fiercely beautiful historical pageant” by The New York Times. The production, on at Joburg Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa, from April 21 to May 6, examines the role of the nearly two million African porters who served and died for European forces in WWI.

The performance combines music, dance, film projections, mechanized sculptures, and shadow play, all marshalled by an international cast of 38 singers, dancers, and performers. Kentridge’s goal is to open a dialogue about the history of colonialism and racism by questioning the ownership of historical portrayals, and he aims to do this by displaying history as a collage, rather than a narrative. Texts from various sources, such as Frantz Fanon’s work translated into siSwati, are interwoven together with music from composers Philip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi, who underline the importance of songs of war and the sonic experiences of African soldiers, which unfortunately were not often recorded.

"The Head & the Load is about Africa and Africans in the First World War,” says Kentridge. “That is to say about all the contradictions and paradoxes of colonialism that were heated and compressed by the circumstances of the war. 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 recognize and record."

The Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) provided support for performances of The Head & the Load in Johannesburg, and has hosted Kentridge for both performance and discussion at its annual SNF Nostos gathering.