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Restoring history with the Tate's biggest show this summer

UNDERSTANDING: William Kentridge’s The Head & The Load places an emphasis on the impact of war across the world – but also how it brings people together Photo credit: © Stella Olivier

IT IS arguably William Kentridge’s most poignant piece of work, but more important than being a feather in the cap of any artist, The Head & The Load is one of the most important untold stories of the 20th century.

The Head & The Load is about Africa and Africans in the First World War. 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),” said Kentridge.

In producing this theatrical-music piece which tells the neglected story of the millions of African porters and carriers who served British, French and German forces during the First World War, Kentridge fused a combination of music, dance, film, projection, mechanised sculptures together to create a multi-layered performance featuring an international cast of singers, dancers and performers, many of whom come from South Africa.

Talking to The Voice, curator Kerryn Greenberg, who has worked at the Tate for over a decade, said those lucky enough to have secured tickets would be subjected to a 70-minute visual extraordinaire.

“It is an extraordinarily ambitious project,” Greenberg enthused about the performance, which is part of 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War Centenary. “The stage is the equivalent of three opera stages. It is very long, there is a huge amount of action, and it is very carefully orchestrated. The relationship between the video projection, the shadow play, the dancers, the musical score, the cast, the spoken word, the written word, it’s extraordinary, I’d say.”

William Kentridge Head & The Load Photo © Stella Olivier

She added: “It does draw from all the different aspects of William’s practice but it also complicates those through the collaborations.”

Not many are aware of the fact that the First World War was felt in Africa before the Western Front had formed and before the British Expeditionary Force in France had fired a shot.


Greenberg, born and raised in South Africa, said having worked on the project for nearly two years, Kentridge and the rest of his team were diligent in bringing light to an area of the past which had been left in the dark – until now.

“I suppose my involvement goes back right to my birth, in some ways, in that I was born in South Africa, I was raised there, my grandfather and my great grandfathers fought in the First and Second world wars.

“They were white, which meant that they fought on the front line, where as black South Africans were held back by the British Empire because of the complicated terms that empire was built upon.

“So my history is both with the piece itself and the content in trying to understand my own past. But I have worked with William Kentridge before – he’s deeply committed to his work in terms of his practice, but I think more importantly than that in acknowledging the role of the British Empire, in the formation of the colonies, in the destruction of Africa and the responsibility of acknowledging that past.

“It’s never going to be made right, but I think that in simply recognising that history and making sure that people have access to that, it’s really an important part of healing and moving forward.”

Philip Miller, one of South Africa’s leading composers, describes The Head & The Load as “an interrupted musical procession”.

Talking about the two working together, Greenberg said: “One of the interesting things about this piece is bringing in collaborators from all over the world who each bring a little bit of their own knowledge.

William Kentridge Head & The Load Photo © Stella Olivier

“So somebody like Phillip Miller, for example, is an extraordinary composer and one of the leading composers in South Africa, with whom William has collaborated for a very long time.

“He has done his own research is sound archives and the sound archives in Germany bring about a really interesting kind of context that might not be available in literature or other mediums that William has been sort of delving into.”

Miller commented: “The sounds of war are violent and unpredictable. This was the sonic reality of every soldier, porter and civilian caught up in the war, in Europe and Africa. Using collage as a tool, we move from a cabaret song by Schoenberg, intercut with pecussive slaps on hymn books, to a Viennese waltz by Fritz Kreisler.

“Amongst this tension and instability, Africa talks back to Europe through rhythmic war songs and chants, deliberately resisting the raucous musical soundscapes of the European avant-garde.”

In keeping with the Tate’s desire to make these performances open to as diverse an audience as possible, those who were not lucky enough to grab a ticket for The Head & The Load will be available to view in full at between July 21 and August 20.

Greenberg said: “When I joined Tate 11 years ago, you knew it was an institution that was focused on North America and the Western-European arts end of stories and artists. It’s been very rewarding to see how the organisation has changed over the last decade and become much more inclusive much more interested in different audiences in different kinds of projects.

“In artists that don’t give you what you expect but what you can stomach.” She added: “This is hard – there are moments when it’s incredibly tender, where dancers are holding another dancer who is collapsing, raising him up again. This idea that when you are at war and you are shot, you cannot scream out because that essentially betrays all of your comrades – they are vulnerable because the enemy know where you are.

“That kind of emotion, that sense of absolute fear, the idea that you could be putting your own life in danger for a cause that is not one’s own is incredibly poignant and moving, and I think, given the tension in society today and given the immense challenges that we face in overcoming those, this is a really important piece.”

She continued: “To reflect on our history, to understand that actually the First World War was the first moment that people came together from all walks of life, from all parts of the world and stood in camaraderie to try and further a common cause, even if they came with very different intentions and objectives. To kind of go back to that and think about how those relationships played out is good.

“The war devastated the entire world, not just Europe, France and Germany. The impact was huge, and it wasn’t just about those people who fought and those people who died – but it was actually about those people whose entire livelihoods were transformed.

“People who, essentially, were ripped from their homes, taken to foreign lands, exposed to extraordinary disease and suffering. I think it’s a warning that, actually, we need to think very carefully about the words that we say.

"In an era where we’re talking about denuclearisation in North Korea, we are also facing nationalism, we are facing the rise in militancy, and I think actually thinking about life and the importance of life and that actually all lives are equal and matter as much as the next person,” she concluded.

“It’s crucial, you know, so hopefully this piece it’s not just about history it’s about reflection.”

The Head & The Load by William Kentridge is on at the Tate Modern from July 11 to 15. Visit for more.

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