William Kentridge is sharing the untold stories of Africans who served in World War I

CNN  — 

On a stage stretching 50 meters wide, an ensemble of actors, dancers, and musicians come together to explore the forgotten history of Africans in the First World War.

Acclaimed South African artist William Kentridge is the creator of “The Head & The Load,” an immersive theatrical experience that brings to life the complex history of early 20th-century Africa. The son of anti-apartheid lawyers, Kentridge is known for his distinctive artistic style that combines illustration, animation, and film to confront social justice issues. In this show, Kentridge once again takes a multidisciplinary approach to engage audiences.

The show originally premiered at the Tate Modern, in London, in 2018 to mark the 100-year anniversary of the end of World War I. It was set to play in Johannesburg next but was forced to take an almost three-year hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In December 2022, at Art Basel Miami, the show returned to the stage for the first time since premiering in London. Now, with its opening at the Joburg Theatre, “The Head & The Load” is making its long-awaited debut on the continent it pays tribute to.

Untold histories

The title is taken from a Ghanaian proverb, “The head and the load are the troubles of the neck.” It references the burden Africans have had to carry, both during World War I and in the decades since. Kentridge considers the larger impact of the conflict on Africa, such as its effects on colonialism and the ways in which it reshaped culture and identity across the continent.

South African artist William Kentridge, pictured here in September 2022.

According to estimates, more than 2 million Africans were involved in the war effort for the countries that colonized them. But Kentridge told CNN during an interview at Art Basel Miami that the sacrifice made by Africans in WWI is often ignored in media portrayals of the conflict.

“The Head & The Load” delves into the social and political context of the time, shedding light on the many African communities that played a role in the conflict, from porters and nurses to soldiers and spies.

A theatrical collage

A co-production with the Centre d'Art Battat, Montreal, the Johannesburg production of  "The Head & The Load" runs through May 6.

The production features musicians and dancers whose shadows dance behind them on a 10-yard-high screen, onto which Kentridge’s drawings and animations are projected throughout the show. His images include birds superimposed onto lists of soldiers killed in action, maps outlining the path of conflict, and archival footage of African leaders.

Kentridge also incorporates some of his former works into the show, such as “The Bullet Has Left the Barrel.” Its title refers to the idea that “your history is continuing whether you’re ready for it or not,” he explained.

frame from Africa Avant Garde
African art showcased in Miami
22:43 - Source: CNN

The original score by composer Philip Miller and musical director Thuthuka Sibisi is haunting but beautiful, blending African rhythms and classical tones that add emotional depth to the show, with trumpeters, violinists, singers, and other musicians scattered across the stage.

Kentridge said that he wants the show to act as a sort of collage, in which audience members have to choose where to focus their attention. “History is something that we actively make by taking different fragments and understanding them, rather than something we passively receive,” he added.

“Africa, as far as I can think back, is filled with such interesting paradoxes, contradictions, ongoing problems, moments of revelation. It’s a very interesting place for artists to be.”

William Kentridge’s “The Head & The Load” is playing at the Joburg Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa, and will run until May 6, 2023.