In Pictures: William Kentridge’s The Head and the Load

4 mins read

William Kentridge’s The Head and the Load brings to light the experiences of 1.5 million African porters during the First World War. Seema Syeda reports.

The past year has seen a whole raft of performance art, poignant memoir, and academic enquiry proliferate across the world stage in commemoration of the centenary of the end of the ‘war to end all wars’.

The UK’s own 14-18NOW art commission has been key to this flourishing – funding a series of works from the world’s most acclaimed artists, playwrights, and film-makers. Of these responses, William Kentridge’s performance The Head and the Load stands out in a league of its own.

Combining voice, music, mechanised sculptures, film projections, and shadowplay, it is a spine-chilling comment on the folly of war. Kentridge’s aim is a political one: to bring into stark relief the hypocrisy, cruelty, and irrationality of the relationship between the colonial powers (Britain, France, and Germany) and the African population.

This he achieves to devastating effect. But it is also more than that; the performance seeks to give a voice to those whose experiences, for so long, history sought to efface. Over two million Africans served in the First World War, over 1.5 million acting as carriers for British, French, and German forces. Hundreds of thousands of these porters died, but as a voice in the performance angrily laments, ‘Where are our medals? Where are our memorials?’

Kentridge is a renowned South African artist who states that his ‘anger at [his] own ignorance was a spur to the project,’ acknowledging that his sense of the First World War came from Wilfred Owen and ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ – poems remarkable in themselves, but swallowing ‘all the air around everything else.’

He seeks to correct what he sees as a ‘constructive amnesia’ in popular representations of the war in Africa. The play is not for the traditionalist. It is edgy, radical, and draws on the Dadaist and surrealist movements for creative inspiration.

With great emotion, expressive body movements, song and speech in numerous languages, and clever props and costumes, Kentridge and his cast weave the chaotic voices of the African theatre of the First World War into a synchronised – yet simultaneously jarring and discordant – whole.

The Head and the Load travels to Park Avenue Armory in New York this December, having premiered on the grand, dystopian stage of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall last July.

  1. William Kentridge, (1955-)

    Artist and director William Kentridge.

South African artist William Kentridge is best known for his prints, sculptures, and animated films. Born in Johannesburg, both his parents were attorneys who represented people marginalised by the apartheid system.

Before studying fine arts, theatre, and mime, Kentridge took a degree in politics and African studies. This and his experience of life in apartheid South Africa heavily informs his art.


2.Greg Maqoma, Porter, The Head and the Load, 2018

Image: Stella Olivier

Actor and dancer Greg Maqoma wears a prop signifying the role and burdens borne by African porters during the First World War. The play’s title, The Head and the Load, is drawn from the Ghanaian proverb, ‘the head and the load are the troubles of the neck.’ As well as individual anguish, it seeks to represent the strain of supplying cheap raw materials and manpower on the colonies as a whole.

Alongside his acting role, Maqoma choreographed the entire performance. The jaunty, contorted, unnatural movements of the dancers reflect the endless dynamic of resistance and obedience that exists between coloniser and colonised.

3. Props and Silhouttes, The Head and the Load

A key component of the performance – part theatre, part musical, part raw art – are the props whose silhouettes are cast large on the gargantuan screen behind. The tricks of shadowplay and clever use of depth on stage give the show, with its life-size human actors, a cinematic quality.

Cut-out faces, ships, planes, and other instruments of war are carried across the stage by performers in an endless series. Later, the ships and planes reappear as burnt-out shells and husks, the expressions on the cut-out faces drooping. It is an indictment of the monumental wastage and destruction of the War.

4. Joanna Dudley, Colonialist, The Head and the Load

Performer and musician Joanna Dudley, one of William Kentridge’s long-time collaborators, here represents (as indicated by the cut-out cardboard eagle on her head) German colonialism. The use of lighting causes her silhouette to fall on the screen behind, making her character seem larger-than-life.

She stands hawkish, elevated above the stage – her movements sharp, her voice shrill, her eyes popping. Here emulating the rat-tat-tat of a machine-gun, there barking orders in guttural Germanic tones, now bursting into a chorus of screeching birdcalls, her performance portrays the coloniser as haughty, pretentious, and hysterical.

5. & 6. Chorus of singers and orchestra collective The Knights, The Head and the Load

At the start of the show, the audience is submerged in darkness, the air pierced by the terrifying scream of a warning siren. As the lights turn on, it becomes clear that the origin of the sound is not an artificial klaxon, but human vocal chords.

The performance would be nothing without the haunting, expressive tones of its chorus of singers, sometimes competing against, sometimes in harmony with the brassy timbres of The Knights orchestra collective. Composers Philip Muller and Thuthuka Sibisi were the joint musical directors of the show. Their soundtrack is a collage of Viennese waltz, hymns based on those distributed by the English Committee for the Welfare of Africans to African battalions during the War, and rhythmic native war chants.

The tension of the strings, the clash of metal and voice, and the earthy persistence of percussion reflects the blurred lines between man and machine in an era of mechanised madness.

The Head and the Load is showing at the Park Avenue Armory, New York, from 4 to 15 December 2018. Tickets can be purchased online at

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