Tate Modern

Tate Modern Unveils William Kentridge’s Latest Commission

By Greg Morrison
The Head and the Load William Kentridge

William Kentridge, The Head & The Load (2018) Photo © Stella Olivier

Two million Africans served in the First World War as carriers and porters for the British, French and German forces; 300 porters were needed just to haul a single canon. More than 700,000 African civilians died on their home soil. The suffering and injustice from this little-known moment in history is rarely considered. It is this “incomprehension, inaudibility and invisibility” that South African artist William Kentridge says his latest work addresses.

William Kentridge, The Head & The Load (2018) Photo © Stella Olivier

The Head & The Load opens on 11 July at Tate Modern, premiering in the Turbine Hall as part of 14-18 NOW, the UK arts programme marking the centenary of the First World War. Taking its name from the Ghanaian proverb “the head and the load are the troubles of the neck”, the work combines music, dance and broader elements that defy simple classification.

Kerryn Greenberg, a curator of international art at Tate Modern who worked with Kentridge in 2012 on an installation in performance space the Tanks, feels the artist is well-equipped to take on a multi-disciplinary project of this magnitude. “From a technical perspective, whether working in video animation, drawing or printmaking, William Kentridge is a master artist, but his background in theatre means that he is also a brilliant and astute storyteller,” she says.

Kerryn Greenberg, Curator at Tate Modern

Kerryn Greenberg, Curator of International Art at Tate Modern © Tate Photography

Kentridge is no stranger to ambitious collaborations, and is particularly known for his politically-charged art. In 2016 he worked with composer Philip Miller, film editor Catherine Meyburgh and Harvard professor Peter Galison on The Refusal of Time, a multimedia installation that explores humanity’s relationship with time. With similar breadth of vision, The Head & The Load will see 50 dancers, choreographed by Gregory Maqoma, performing in front of 100-ft projections of Kentridge’s signature hand-drawn animations and a procession of hand puppets. Preparations for the 70-minute performance have been so extensive they have needed all three of Kentridge’s studios in Johannesburg to focus their attentions on the production of sculptural, technical and animated elements respectively.

William Kentridge, The Head and the Load

William Kentridge, The Head & The Load (2018) Photo © Stella Olivier

The score is written by Miller, Kentridge’s long-time collaborator and a fellow South African, and Thuthuka Sibisi, former chorus master for the Cape Town Opera. Miller felt the music had to “look at the pain, what was endured”, and his accompaniment combines West-African instruments, such as the kora, with colonial hymns. Other musical elements include a chorus of mechanised gramophones and performances by an international cast of singers including Ann Masina.

William Kentridge, The Head & The Load (2018) Photo © Stella Olivier

Kentridge says that the components of The Head and the Load describe “the contradictions and paradoxes of colonialism”. Performers carry sculptural heads depicting leaders of colonial resistances who hoped that the end of the war would bring about equal rights, while the voices of African prisoners of war mix with ancient African choral singing and mechanical sounds evocative of conflict. “There is a sense of language breaking down into nonsense within the piece, which represents the illogical nature of colonial military intervention,” says Greenberg.

The Head brings a mass of stimuli that Greenberg says “is about presenting fragmented, disjointed narratives”. What sets Kentridge apart, she adds, is “his ability to take complicated histories – both political and artistic – and synthesise them in a way that is accessible but not reductive”.

William Kentridge, The Head & The Load, is part of 14-18 NOW at Tate Modern, London, 11–15 July

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