Wednesday 11 July 2018 was the premier of the William Kentridge exhibition The Head and The Load – the telling of the story of the carriers of World War 1. To be honest, I hadn’t been sure whether or not I wanted to see it, but prompted by David McDonald (CWGC) I went and am glad to have done so.
The venue was the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern – a fitting space for the topic, and the idea but I’m not sure it worked as effectively for the audience which extended the length of the stage – this meant that if you sat at the end, you couldn’t see what was happening at the other – and there was a lot going on. I recall thinking at one stage, there’s too much energy on the stage to fully reflect the exhaustion the carriers would have experienced and which we were being told about.
Trying to capture four years of conflict and the role of the carriers from across the African continent on both the African continent and the Western Front in 70 minutes would be a challenge for most. In all, one can only expect the essence to be conveyed and this was aptly done. Although I did wonder to what extent someone with limited knowledge of Africa’s involvement in the war would have been able to make connections.
The value in such a production though is its reflection of current memory and understanding of aspects of the war. The three direct mentions of the two boats – Mimi and Toutou – being dragged across land from Cape Town to Lake Tanganyika, the Chilembwe uprising and allusion to the Western Front, are telling; although the title originates with the Gold Coast bringing in an awareness of West Africa. Significantly absent despite all the media was mention of the SS Mendi and the loss of over 600 lives when that ship went down. Many myths are by nature perpetuated, not least in the short history appearing in the programme booklet.
In contrast, however, to much of what has gone before, The Head and The Load shows how knowledge of the diversity of men and women involvd has filtered through – this was most refreshing. The inclusion of a French West African, Frenchman and German character (a screetching Eagle hovering above the men on the ground – how the actress protects her voice to enable her to make such noises is beyond me) as well as a ‘White Father’ missionary musician being a taster. The diversity of language too, mostly aided by translation on the wall again reflected some of what it must have been like at the time.
A very effective scene was the apparent never-ending carrying of the loads, the use of cut-outs and lighting to create large shadows on the wall behind of the diversity of load transported, as many of the wide-pan photos of carrier lines indicate.
The highlight for me, though, has to be the performances by the two carriers on the march, the one flagging, the other trying to keep his companion going. This followed from a foot-stomping session reminscent of mine dancing I grew up with. The energy and realism of the two was something to behold and rather moving as the flagging man eventually ‘died’ to be drag-carried across half the stage by his companion – his eyes glazed over unblinking for quite some time. This is sure to be an enduring memory of the show.
I’m not sure I understood all or even most of what Kentridge was trying to portray, but it was definitely worth seeing, if for no other reason than to gain insight into perceptions today of African involvement in World War 1.
See what BBC had to say and show.