William Kentridge: The barbarity of the ‘Great War’ told through an African lens
‘The Head & the Load’ shows that history is written to serve specific interests and that there are always victims of this endeavour
Produced towards the end of the four-year celebrations of the centenary of the Great War of 1914-18, the dramatic art performance of South African-born artist William Kentridge — “The Head & the Load” — explodes the traditional understanding of this conflict as a “World War”.
Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba had famously mocked European pretensions ennobling what he called their tribal conflicts into World War status. Kentridge attacks the idea from a different point of view. His project focuses on the impact this “European War” had on the colonies of the principals. It’s an impact that was ignored at the time and subsequently written out of history.
The British, French and German armies employed hundreds of thousands of African support troops for their war in Africa. The Africans were not allowed to carry arms for fear they might turn against them. Many died from sickness or privation in the course of the war.
As an instance, “The Head & the Load” tells the story of how, when the railway and other forms of regular transport from Cape Town to Lake Tanganika gave out, a ship was dismembered and carried to its destination on the heads of African porters. The original production of “The Head & the Load” was staged in the massive Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern Museum in London in July 2018. It paraded mechanised sculptures and actors. Some bore loads on their head and cast giant shadows before a constantly changing backdrop of animated drawings. An exhibition of a reduced version is on display at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.“Kaboom!”entails an exhibition of drawings that were used in the original production, with drawings from Kentridge’s staging of both Austrian composer Alban Berg’s opera “Wozzeck” and German artist Kurt Schwitters’ sound poem “Ursonate”. The collection signals the artist’s deep opposition to the barbarity of war. It also shows his attachment to the language of Dada...