FNB Art Joburg
Sandton Convention
Centre, Johannesburg,
South Africa

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A collaborative commitment to decentralising the Western victor’s tale

with The Head & the Load


Following its recent opening at the Joburg Theatre, this week’s Re:View considers what long-term collaboration meant for The Head & The Load  in addition to their approach being a means of presenting histories as non-linear pluralities.

A project that had its genesis in a commission marking the centenary of the First World War, The Head & the Load  began with the will to confront colonial compression while contemplating and contextualising Africa during this period. A type of speculative fiction and operatic epic The Head & the Load  recognises and records the layered presence of Africans during the war who as carriers and porters cargoed war material across the continent. Millions met their demise. Yet theirs is a story that has gone without record and recognition.

While they are often marked by singular, life-altering events, the histories that we have inherited are the result of multiple streams of decision making taking place simultaneously. Platforming this idea of history being the consequence of everything, everywhere all at once, The Head & the Load  abandons the concept of singular moments, choosing instead to present moments in plurality.

A multidisciplinary, intergenerational feat of monstrous proportions, The Head & the Load  brings disciplines of visual art, projection, sound, performance, movement, light work, composing, cinema and orchestration together to make for an all-consuming 80-minute-long installation.

To watch The Head & the Load, audiences make their way into Joburg Theatre’s Nelson Mandela theatre, passed the conventional seating, behind the curtain and onto where we would normally find the stage. With a stage set on what we would usually refer to as backstage, here The Head & the Load  welcomes audiences in to a world custom built by the William Kentridge studio. Seated in the central seats, it’s almost impossible to perceive the entire stage in one take. Seated on the stage, The Head & the Load  positions its audience as complicit participants to the narrative. Affirming this sentiment, William Kentridge introduces the show with an awareness of the production’s endless engagement points. “The key thing is not to be panic struck about what you should be seeing. Let your eyes and your ears construct the performance for you,” he says assuring us.

When director Jerzy Grotowski conceptualised what is still known as poor theatre, it was to reject the idea that theatre should attempt to match the spectacle and effects of film and television. A declaration that the primary element of theatre is the relationship between actor and spectator, in The Head & the Load, poor theatre takes on a contemporary form. Using the most minimal amount of fixed elements on stage for a maximalist output, all objects in the presentation are multipurpose. For example, while the primary function of the large scale cargo crates on stage is to transport moments in scenes from stage left to right — if they’re not housing (and at times hiding) the ensemble scoring the production — the object serves as a symbol of the load African carriers had to bear during the First World War.

Speculative, the lack of a mainstream archive on African carriers was more an opportunity to practice process based research than it was a hurdle. Discussed in Showing the Making, Kentridge recalls a time in process where Gregory Maqoma developed an integral movement piece, an impulse informed the absence of knowledge. A series of spasms in the body, this solo movement materialises the point where, because a person is at a crossroads where fear and resistance intersect, control is lost.

Even with the presence of breathtaking, attention grabbing moments the subtleties in The Head & the Load abound. Then for the opening credits projected on the stage’s background, in a corner just below the title The Head & the Load, a handwritten “94” is scratched out. Whether deliberate or not, its inclusion in the presentation’s production hints at relooking a recent historical moment that we use to mark South Africa’s democracy.

True to reality, where the capacity to critically consume and engage with everything is limited and impossible, The Head & the Load  moves with an awareness of propaganda and erasure’s roles in making history the victor’s tale. A necessary sensory overload worth watching multiple times, The Head & the Load, unlike history can be revisited, studied, and approached from varying angles. Although unable to offer resolve for the nameless carriers; it’s a substantial exercise in building nuanced criticality.



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Ruth Ige. Don't hide your glory, 2022.
Acrylic on canvas. 122 x 122cm. (© Copyright 2022, STEVENSON. All rights reserved)

Friday, 8th September

Collection tour of Anglo American

144 Oxford Rd, Rosebank

8 September 2023

Event details

The Anglo American art and object collection is a combination of art collected over several decades through four different companies: Anglo American, de Beers Group, Anglo American Platinum and Kumba Iron Ore.

The collection comprises of 3600 works, with around 1000 pieces in the collection on display at the newly commissioned Rosebank offices. Although vast, the collection experienced an acquisition hiatus from the early 2000s until 2021 creating a significant gap in the collection’s representation of contemporary art. The collection now has a dedicated curator, Megan Scott, tasked with its cataloguing and digitisation, opening an exciting new chapter which will see the gradual procurement of significant works that reflect our contemporary South African and African art world.

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