William Kentridge, The Head & The Load, 2018. Photo: Stephanie Berger

William Kentridge

New York

Park Avenue Armory

Can art be political and emotionally and visually engaging at the same time? For William Kentridge, the answer is clearly yes and then some. His long-standing preoccupation with history, particularly with the aftermath of apartheid in his native South Africa, is well known, expressed in two-dimensional works and animations that use the process of drawing, erasing, and re-drawing as a means of recovering and reconstructing repressed or covered-over memories and narratives. The Head & The Load, an installation and collaborative performance piece involving almost three dozen musicians, dancers, vocalists, and spoken word performers, along with processions and projections of Kentridge’s drawings and sculptures, is set during World War I. Like all of Kentridge’s work, however, it resonates with contemporary meaning.

The title comes from the Ghanaian proverb “the head and the load are troubles of the neck,” a fitting allusion to the neck-aching, back-breaking toil of porters and carriers from the African colonies, who were used by the British, French, and German armies to move armaments and supplies. The Head & The Load acknowledges their labors and pays homage to the almost two million Africans who died in this “great” war, a story now almost completely lost. Commissioned as part of the centennial celebration of the war’s end and first performed at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, this large-scale work was reconfigured at the end of last year for a 10-day run at the Park Avenue Armory’s Wade Thompson Drill Hall. A long, narrow stage stretching for nearly half a football field ran the length of the lofty, vaulted space. Ramps and passageways, towers and platforms, and a backdrop of tall screens for projections and shadow play provided multiple sets for a multimedia performance that immersed viewers in violence, disorder, and visceral poignancy.

Kentridge, who has designed sets for a number of operas, is a master of stagecraft. While this production was incredibly complex—with lots of moving props, unfolding sets, and performers pushed across the stage in carts—the collective approach complemented his concept of viewing history as collage rather than single narrative. The score, composed by Kentridge’s longtime collaborator Philip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi, mixed traditional African songs with European compositions by Maurice Ravel, Eric Satie, Paul Hindemith, and Arnold Schoenberg; an international ensemble of musicians (many of whom managed to get visas despite the Trump travel ban) joined the Knights, a Brooklyn-based chamber orchestra, for the run of the performance. Combined with Gregory Maqoma’s provocative choreography, this eclectic soundscape, with its amalgam of avant-garde music, popular song, tribal chants, sirens, and even Morse code, simulated the fragmentation and aural confusion of the war as experienced by African soldiers, porters, and carriers.

Inspired by the absurdist poetry and performances produced by Dada artists reacting to World War I, the libretto/narrative of The Head & The Load jumbled a disparate selection of source materials—from historical transcripts (like the Berlin conference that apportioned pieces of Africa to European “conquerors”), hymnals, and a military drill handbook to texts by Frantz Fanon (translated into siSwati) and Tristan Tzara (in isiZulu), Setswana proverbs, and parts of Kurt Schwitters’s Ursonate. Some of these texts were projected and simultaneously spoken, sung, or screeched by vocalists from different places on the stage; together, they formed a multi-lingual heteroglossia of broken-down communication that intimated the incomprehensible gulf between colonizer and colonized. Large-scale projections, likewise an amalgam of visual referents, including texts, films of soldiers and African leaders, ledgers, and dictionaries, along with Kentridge’s drawings and animations of maps, landscapes, native animals and birds, and in one section, deadly insects like mosquitos and tsetse flies, offered a counter-discourse to the libretto and score.

In one particularly effective passage, performers carrying cut-out heads and figures cast shadows against the backdrop of Kentridge’s ever-morphing drawings, forming a seemingly endless procession that suggested both migration and perseverance. Immersed in the nonsensical breakdown of language and truth while engaged in an ongoing restorative project of remembrance and reconstruction, The Head & The Load was ever-mindful of the raucous potential of avant-garde provocation. Kentridge’s moving performance piece proved once again the power of art to reveal, critique, and resist.