‘The Head & the Load’
“What sounds like a mechanical air-raid siren morphs into a human cry of loss at the start of The Head & the Load, a powerful ninety-minute stage production about the role and remembrance of Africans in the first truly global war,” writes Maya Jaggi. “Conceived and directed by the South African artist William Kentridge, the work was created for the World War I centenary that culminated with Armistice Day on November 11, and will be staged in New York in December. It is part of a wave of work by artists and historians that has challenged World War I’s monochrome image. Kentridge’s piece and other ambitious centennial art works and exhibitions raise profound questions about the selectiveness of remembrance and how those who have been willfully erased can best be restored to memory.
The Head & the Load was co-commissioned for 14–18 NOW, a UK arts program to mark the centenary whose imaginative projects have ranged from a stunning staging at London’s Barbican Theatre of Alice Oswald’s Memorial (2011), an elegiac poem for the hundreds of dead soldiers named in Homer’s Iliad, to a fireboat in the New York Harbor painted by Tauba Auerbach to recall the “dazzle”-camouflaged ships of World War I naval battles. […] The new project represents history through absurdist collage. Along with projections of Kentridge’s drawings of African waterfalls are telegraph text, film clips, and ledgers. The libretto is composed of mutually unintelligible fragments: Dadaist poems translated into isiZulu, lines from Wilfred Owen into French accompanied by dog-barks. There are instructions from Kiswahili for Beginners, and Setswana proverbs from a 1920 collection by the black South African writer Sol Plaatje: “God’s opinion is unknown” and “Hunger makes no man wise.” Fanon, too, is quoted: “When the whites feel they have become too mechanized, they turn to men of color and ask for a little human sustenance.” As is a version of Conrad: “Annihilate all the brutes.” Amid the sonic terror of war rendered by singers (“kaboom,” “ta ta ta”), Tristan Tzara’s mocking words ring out: “This is a fair idea of progress.””
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