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Africans in World War 1: artist William Kentridge’s epic theatre production restores forgotten histories

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SOUTH African artist William Kentridge became world famous for his charcoal drawings and hand-drawn animated films, but his work continued to grow in scope and he began staging performances. Today he also creates operas and collaborative stage productions combining numerous art forms.

A portrait of a man with greying hair surrounded by statues, artworks and gramophone-like machines.
William Kentridge. Stella Olivier

One of his largest productions to date, The Head & The Load, tells the forgotten stories of Africans in World War 1, who served mostly as porters for European armies on the continent.

The production was first performed in London in 2018; its South African premiere was delayed by three years because of the COVID pandemic. It features music by Philip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi, choreography by Gregory Maqoma and an array of stand-out vocalists and musicians. Senior lecturer in theatre Fiona Ramsay asked Kentridge about creating the work.

How was the idea for the production hatched?

The production came from seeing a huge space in New York, the Park Avenue Armory, which I was invited to do a performance in. It’s an old military structure 85 metres long – so the idea came for a processional piece using that length, connected to the military. And that brought us back to the idea of the First World War. I’d worked on the war on the opera Wozzeck and had worked with actors and dancers in Johannesburg thinking about this other production.

So we came to the idea of the relationship of Europe to Africa with war, and the most interesting for me was the First World War. It was a war between France and Britain against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but it was also – and this was much less appreciated – a war between those European countries as to who would get to own which countries in Africa.

A wide angle photograph of a stage with figures and musicians, shadows cast onto a textured wall behind them.
The enormous production features various creative disciplines. Stella Olivier/The Head & The Load

In 1884 at the Berlin Conference the European countries had divided up all of Africa between themselves and one can see the First World War as a battle to rearrange who got which colonies.

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What did you find out about Africans in WW1?

Only 40 years after the war did the nationalist movements in the different African colonies come to a confidence and a strength to challenge Europe and gain their independence in the 1960s. So the idea was to look at this hidden history of Africa in the First World War.

In this war there are estimated now to have been over 150,000 African casualties and over a million African participants, some of them soldiers, some labourers carrying war material and some the civilians caught up in this disruption of their lives. And our piece is very much about the people who physically carried the guns, the cannons, even the dismantled ships from the Cape coast up to the lakes of central east Africa where the main battles were fought for the entire length of the First World War.

Stella Olivier/The Head & The Load

And it’s a history that was hidden because the colonial powers did not want to acknowledge the validity and worth of their colonial subjects. So an example from South Africa: African soldiers were never allowed to bear rifles, African soldiers did not get medals, African soldiers were not included in the victory parades at the end of the war.

South African writer and intellectual Sol Plaatje wrote:

Lest their behaviour should merit recognition; their heroic deeds and acts should not be recorded.

And the Head & the Load is an attempt to note their actions and give recognition and record them. So at the end we have a list of names of the people that died, the names that were never written on any war memorial. They were not inscribed in stone in the way that so many European names are, both in Europe and in the former colonies.

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How do you achieve the combination of so many art forms?

So, this was the raw material we worked with in order to make the piece. We had written histories like the censored letter of Malawian pastor and revolutionary John Chilembwe to the local newspaper opposing the recruitment of Africans into a war which was not their war. We used that letter as part of our text. And there are dances done in the north of South Africa in skirts, based on the kilts of Scottish soldiers. This mixture of African dance and military drilling is still performed today, a remnant of the war. So that comes into it and is performed in one moment.

Stella Olivier/The Head & The Load

There was a lot of material to do with languages not being understood, so we used the avant-garde European Dada art movement from the time of the First World War, to play with impossible languages – of Europe not hearing Africa, of Africa not understanding what Europe was saying, of an incomprehensibility of different worlds meeting.

So some things are done with dance, some things are done with voice – with the voice for example we take a familiar song like the British national anthem God Save the King. It starts being sung as a straightforward anthem but bit by bit it is disintegrated and taken apart until the singers are saying, “Who is this king?”, “What is this king over the seas?”, “We have our own kings!” even as you hear remnants of God Save the King.

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So we used all these mediums to try to make a collage of experience for a viewer watching the play. The performance was constructed out of fragments and the final story gets constructed by the viewer in the same way history is made up of fragments … this piece of information – not that piece of information … this person’s story – not that person’s story …

Stella Olivier/The Head & The Load
FIONA RAMSAY, Head of Department of Theatre and Performance and PhD candidate, University of the Witwatersrand

History is always a simplification, always an obscuring of the complexities and hidden histories that are in all retelling of events in the past.

Where did the title come from?

“The head and the load are the troubles of the neck” is a proverb from Ghana. It implies that there is both the physical load on the shoulders and a historical load of history which is borne by people going through the world. And there is a psychic load – the sense of being ignored, of being silenced, of being invisible. All of these are pressures on people both at the time of the war and, in many cases, still continuing today. It is these weights and loads the production addresses.

The Head & The Load is on stage in Johannesburg from 21 April to 6 May.