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  • Pulled From the ShadowsWilliam Kentridge’s African Dance of Death
  • Ann McCoy (bio)

In what may be his most haunting production to date, The Head & the Load, performed at the Park Avenue Armory in New York, December 4–15, 2018, William Kentridge has created a living panorama commemorating the one million Africans who died on their continent as cogs in the military machinery of the First World War’s battling empires. They died as “counted not named” masses, without rank, without tributes, and without voices—for kings and countries (Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany) that were not their own. Commenting on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, one of the African narrators laments, “Even if I could persuade myself that Franz Josef is dead, I could never persuade myself he was ever alive.” If only they could have fought instead for their own leaders, like the king of the Ashante, imprisoned by the British for decades. This is the darkest side of colonialism, foretold by atrocities like King Leopold II’s ten million mutilated Congolese dead. Regarded as sub-human, and denigrated with monikers like wogs, their lives were spent in hunger, fatigue, and disease, unmarked by anonymity in death, on a vast continent shown in the performance through projections of old maps.

In The Head & the Load, the African soldiers in this panoramic dance of death are given their lost voices, sometimes in African tongues like isiZulu, Swahili, and isiXhosa, and occluded histories are restored. Narrating in multiple African and European roles and languages, the actors Mncedisi Shabangu, Luc De Wit, Nhlanhla Mahlangu and Hamilton Dlamini provide a through-line. This is a moving complex and multilayered performance combining projection, drawing, dance, and music.

When we think of artists reacting to the senseless trauma of the Great War, the Dadaists who escaped to neutral Switzerland and the Café Voltaire come to mind. Dada traveled, and later participants from France and the Berlin anti-war group entered the mix. This production mines the Dada artists’ expressions of nihilism [End Page 19] and disgust at the futility of war. Act 1 begins with three sections: Manifestos, Morsecode/Swahili Phrasebook, and Ursonate. Manifestos includes the sound poetry of Hugo Ball and Ursonate, Kurt Schwitters’s 1932 sound poem (performed by Kentridge as part of last year’s Performa). There were several Dada manifestos written originally: Hugo Ball stated in his that Dada came from the dictionary—in French it meant “hobby horse,” in German “good-bye” or “get off my back.”

The title The Head & the Load comes from a Ghanaian proverb: “The head and the load are the troubles of the neck.” If only the Africans could have gotten the white man’s burdens “off their backs.” Act 1’s three final sections (Orders & Commands, Recruiting, and Procession to War) build on the Dada sound poems. The staccato of Morsecode/Swahili Phrasebook and the barking orders of a French commandant (played by De Wit) lead the charge into chaos toward death. Projections behind the narrators hark back to some of the period’s theatre projections—full-stage height shadow silhouettes—used by Erwin Piscator in the twenties.

Conceived and directed by Kentridge, a South African artist, The Head & the Load is a collaborative ensemble piece. The production began development in a workshop in Johannesburg where the different participants worked on vignettes, musical innovations, and theatrical moments in bits and pieces that were later woven together into a whole. As Kentridge writes in the program:

The test is really to find an approach that is not analytic dissection of a historical moment, but which doesn’t avoid the questions of history. Can one find the truth in the fragmented and incomplete? Can one think about history as collage rather than narrative?

From my point of view, Ballet Mécanique (1923–24), the Dadaist and post-Cubist non-narrative film, provided a template for some of the collaged projections. In the production, isolated images and sequences are combined into a non-linear and non-narrative whole, with projections made by the designer Catherine Meyburgh and a collaborative team. Using Kentridge’s drawings, Meyburgh designed and filmed the live elements, which were...


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