Commemorating the 100th anniversary of WWI, The Head & The Load at Tate Modern makes incomprehension the work’s guiding theme
The first shot of World War One was fired by an African soldier serving in the British West African Frontier Force invading Togo (then Togoland). The last German assault of the conflict took place in Zambia on 13 November 1918, two days after the signing of the Armistice. With 90 percent of Africa ruled by European powers in 1914, hundreds of thousands of Africans fought for the Germans, British and French during the conflict, and an incalculable number more were conscripted as porters. No comprehensive records were kept, no death toll can be accurately determined.
These facts come in an essay by historian David Olusoga accompanying The Head & The Load, a large-scale performance conceived by William Kentridge, which premiered at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall last week. Programmed within the framework of 14–18 NOW, a UK commissioning body marking the centenary of the Great War, the work commemorates the overlooked contribution of Africans to their colonizers’ campaigns during the conflict. Instead of narrative drama, Kentridge and his company have concocted a fragmentary and evocative multimedia work, in which the colonizers’ languages are imposed, the continent carved up, mass conscription enforced, famines fomented, and crushing loads carried into the theatre of war by hundreds of thousands of African porters.
A large creative team headed up by composers Philip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi lead 37 performers wielding a formidable variety of skills in this all-singing, dancing and noise-making affair. The action happens amid sculpture-like mobile staging units: a lookout tower and a number of wooden crates that open to reveal military bureaux and music halls. All is illuminated by line-drawn animations, which mingle, often poignantly, with silhouettes of the performers, giant on the back wall.
14–18 NOW commissions have tended to be big. The fireboat painted by Tauba Auerbach, launched earlier this month in New York harbour, is only the most recent of five ships decorated by various artists with contemporary takes on ‘dazzle pattern’ camouflage. For Jeremy Deller’s We’re here because we’re here, 1,400 historically-uniformed volunteers appeared unexpectedly among the British public on 1 July 2016, the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. In 2015, Paul Cummins filled the moat of the Tower of London with a wave of 888,246 ceramic poppies.
Works on such a scale are not only ultra visible, they also suggest the weight of subject and, in a very direct way, recall the number of war dead. A similar strategy is employed in Banu Cennetoğlu’s The List, naming all 34,000 migrants and refugees that have died attempting to enter or cross ‘Fortress Europe’ since 1993. That work is currently installed on a set of posters hundreds of metres long on Liverpool’s Great George Street as part of the city’s current 10th biennial. Its vastness is horrifying.
The Head & The Load is similarly epic. The stage for this complex work stretches the depth of the Turbine Hall’s far end – about 75 metres – with audience seated along its length. But the scale here is doing something less literal: rather than embodying heft, weight, import, loss of life, it knowingly generates incomprehension.
However attentively you try you cannot see all of The Head & The Load: the action is dispersed across too great a surface. It’s a tactical decision: as in conflict, no one has the full picture. The work’s text is collaged from heterogeneous sources – everything from Wilfred Owen’s poetry to dispatch ledgers and a phrasebook used for military drills – translated into languages both directly communicative of meaning (isiZulu, siSwati, French) and less so (the primordial sounds of Kurt Schwitters’s Ursonate, dog-barking).
This is not Kentridge and company’s first foray into dadaist territory. Their production of Alban Berg’s Lulu – first staged at the Met in New York in 1915 – made overt reference to performances at the Cabaret Voltaire in its design. Where the lush visual spectacle of Lulu was at times a distraction, overwhelming the music and performers, here such bounty is used as a tool, and dada less as a point of reference than as a straight-up methodology (appropriately so, for a work likewise responding to the horrors of The Great War).
Incomprehension becomes the work’s guiding theme: the polyphony of languages that is broken through with violence; Europe’s failure (or refusal) to understand the continent it was carving up; the ignorance passed down through history. What remains are the poems, songs, bureaucratic records, well meaning letters and treaties from which The Head & The Load is composed.
I admire the choice to present fragments rather than force a wholeness from them. I admire, too, the refusal of narrative, cheap empathy, rousing music and the manipulated deliverance of a hard (but ultimately cathartic) emotional wallop that might have allowed the audience to leave feeling good about feeling bad. The liberal art world – as everyone from Slavoj Žižek to the ‘Panic!’ report have pointed out – excels at acts of superficial self-flagellation. Sometimes confusion and lurking doubt are important. For all the audio-visual riches of The Head & The Load, it reminds us of the importance of acknowledging what we don’t know.
In remembering the thousands – perhaps millions – of African deaths erased from received accounts of WWI, The Head & The Load seems a riposte to the gross exploitation implicit in ‘lone genius’ readings of history, in which the value of human life is deemed greater for white European men, than for the women and colonized peoples whose labour supported them.
In that spirit, I would like to ask, why it is to Kentridge alone that authorship is attributed for The Head & The Load – so manifestly a collective enterprise?
The Head & the Load ran at Tate Modern, London, from 11–15 July as part of 14–18 NOW: WWI Centenary Commissions. It was co-commissioned by 14–18 NOW: WWI Centenary Commissions, Park Avenue Armory, Ruhrtriennale and MASS MoCA with additional support from Holland Festival.