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The Head and the Load - Tate Modern

Updated: May 31, 2019

William Kentridge

Turbine Hall, Tate Modern


On rare occasions when one experiences something truly spectacular,  words can be hard to find  ( unless they are of the Keats or Yeats calibre). This is how I felt after viewing The Head and the Load, by William Kentridge at the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern.

I have mentioned my appreciation for South African artist Kentridge before, but this piece puts together all of the elements I love about his work into one 70 minute feast for all of the senses (minus smell).  The Head and the Load takes on colonialism, with all of its complexities, while dealing with the role of Africa in the First World War.  Over two million Africas participated in WW1, mostly as porters and carriers.  On the European fronts, supplies were carried by truck, ship or beast. In Africa, these loads were carried on the backs of men.

The piece is a combination of sculpture, song, dance, theatre and shadowplay.  Actors reel off political manifestoes while others sing, dance or screech off arguments in Dadaism or other nonsense languages.

At the beginning of the piece, three men deliver their manifestoes while maps of Africa are delineated and torn up on the screen behind them.  This is pretty much what happened to the continent after the war;  it was chopped up as spoils of war and handed to the victors. But this was only the beginning and by far not the worst piece of information to discover during this show.

The very end of the show finds Joanna Dudley, in a performance unmatched to anything I have ever seen before, reads off lists of supplies for the European soldiers in Africa. They listed as 26 cricket bats, 2400 pairs of socks, two footballs, 6 football pumps mouth organs, harps and on and on.  As she read, the screens behind listed the names of the dead men, and what they died from.  They died mostly of disease and exhaustion-tired by carrying the load of unnecessary goods meant to boost the morale of the men who have come to fight over and claim their land.

One sentence repeated throughout the piece is “Lest their actions merit recognition, their deeds must not be recorded” In other words, if these men did not die in battle, their deaths are meaningless.  To gather a bit more information about this subject, I looked up the number of deaths in WW1 on Wikipedia. As an official death toll, only South Africa is listed, with 7121 dead.  Though 1 million died in East Africa alone, we can only assume that their deaths, and others, are either included in the total of their coloniser or not at all.  I find this complete lack of recognition for human beings who had suffered to be heartbreaking.

In 1917, US President Woodrow Wilson stated his intentions for the war’s outcome.  He said that the goal of the USA was to ” Keep the white race strong against the yellow (and to ensure) white civilisation and its dominance of the planet”.   This was said 54 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and 47 years after black men had the right to vote in America. What protecting the Whites from the Yellows had to do with fighting the Kaiser, I don’t know, but it pretty much exemplifies the attitude of the European world at that time.

The Head and the Load made me despondent for humanity;  the disgrace of our past and worse that so little has changed.

please read, a fascinating article about Africa during WW1

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