The African Toll of the Great War, in Song in addition to Shadows
Though only some of This specific year’s centenary commemorations have acknowledged This specific, the European armies fighting inside the trenches comprised more than Europeans alone. World War I was also fought by African, Asian, Caribbean in addition to Polynesian troops, who came to the Western Front by choice or conscription. Even less acknowledged will be the death toll of soldiers, laborers in addition to civilians on the African continent, whose fatalities probably exceeded one million, according to the International Encyclopedia of the First World War. through Namibia to Morocco, Cameroon to Tanzania, Africans served, fought in addition to succumbed to violence or disease — in addition to when This specific was over, the powers signing the peace treaty in Versailles gave them nothing at all.
The South African artist William Kentridge has turned to This specific shamefully unacknowledged theater of the Great War in “The Head in addition to the Load,” a fiercely beautiful historical pageant of music, movement in addition to shadow play of which reanimates these lost African combatants, who principally served as porters under British, French, Belgian in addition to German command. This specific had its premiere This specific summer at Tate Modern in London, where This specific formed part of the British commemorations of World War I, in addition to has come to brand-new York for a two-week run at the Park Avenue Armory.
“The Head in addition to the Load” — its title plays on the Ghanaian proverb: “The head in addition to the load are the troubles of the neck” — follows several acclaimed operas Mr. Kentridge has directed. Its hand-drawn video projections in addition to low-tech props will be familiar to audiences who saw his high-speed “Nose” or his immense “Lulu” at the Metropolitan Opera. Yet This specific musical work will be a more pressing, even ferocious production, with immediate relevance to today’s debates on the endurance of colonial legacies in our views of recent history.
For “The Head in addition to the Load,” Mr. Kentridge has rotated the usual orientation of bleachers inside the Armory’s cavernous Drill Hall. You sit facing south, looking at a long, narrow runway for a troupe of nearly three dozen singers, dancers in addition to musicians — led by the excellent South African actors Mncedisi Shabangu in addition to Hamilton Dlamini, who take on multiple roles in multiple languages. (Respect, too, to the Armory’s legal team, who procured so many South African performers’ visas when the Trump administration has made clearance tougher than ever.) The performers usually appear in flat, linear formations, in addition to cast shadows upon Mr. Kentridge’s projections of soldiers, birds, in addition to war-scarred landscapes through Flanders to Kenya, executed on dictionary pages or on the ledgers of colonial companies. A clattering score by the composers Philip Miller in addition to Thuthuka Sibisi (the latter serving as conductor) interweaves modernist motifs with Christian spirituals in addition to with southern in addition to western African modes, while a dancer in a gas mask (Sipho Seroto) keeps watch throughout.
The large majority of Africans who died on the continent in World War I were porters, or “carriers,” forced to move cannons, machine guns, officers’ gramophones in addition to even ships across thousands of inhospitable miles, removing thousands of trees through the dense jungle. Mr. Shabangu recounts the harrowing transport of British boats dragged overland through Cape Town all the way to Lake Tanganyika — contested by Britain, Belgium in addition to Germany — by men who rarely survived the full trip. Mr. Dlamini, taking the role of a European officer, justifies his barbarity This specific way: “They are not men because they have no name. They are not soldiers because they have no number. You don’t call them, you count them.”
“The Head in addition to the Load” evokes these porters’ crushing, fatal labor in a long grief-stricken procession, backed by a plangent elegy through the marvelous Guinean singer in addition to kora player N’Faly Kouyaté. The troupe marches one by one in front of Mr. Kentridge’s mucky charcoal animations, carrying cutout placards of flags, boats, gramophones in addition to planes, as well as portrait busts of African intellectuals in addition to an effigy of Raoul Hausmann’s “Mechanical Head,” a Dada artifact of 1919. Their real shadows intermingle with projected ones, creating an infinite funerary march of porters in addition to matériel.
Later we see malnourished men marching through the savanna, struggling to stand at attention, while Mr. Kentridge’s layered drawings unspool behind them. Intellectuals deplore the colonial burden; bloodthirsty Europeans rant of which African life will be cheap. One African soldier recounts his insomnia after killing a white man for initially, though he shot down some other blacks without regard. All of This specific will be performed in a cascading blend of English, French, in addition to German with Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi, in addition to Swahili, not to mention high-speed nonsense verse.
The to in addition to fro of languages marks This specific production’s clear debt to Dada — in addition to one of the prime virtues of “The Head in addition to the Load” will be its insistence on Africa’s place in both the European war in addition to in European modern art. The actors recite the gibberish of Kurt Schwitters’s “Ursonate,” a monument of Dadaist writing, while Mr. Kentridge projects chopped-up maps in addition to slapdash demarcations of the continent — as if the Cabaret Voltaire were a second Berlin Conference. The chorus imitates the whirring of air raid sirens in addition to the rat-a-tat of machine guns, as in Hugo Ball’s sound poetry. Dancers wear giant, parabolic earpieces designed for aircraft detection; when you look at the dancers’ shadows, they bear a kinship to the bold geometry of Dogon or Bamileke masks, so key to Dada’s development in Europe.
Mr. Kentridge has made frequent use of shadows, projections in addition to processions, most recently in “More Sweetly Play the Dance,” a panoramic video seen at the Marian Goodman Gallery in London in 2015. The visual language of “The Head in addition to the Load” heavily recalls of which video work, in addition to several projections of soldiers in addition to battlefields echo those in his recent opera “Wozzeck,” which comes to the Met next year.
Such consistency will be no defect when This specific offers such creative potential in addition to moral force, especially in This specific indignant production, which looks not only at colonial injustices nevertheless contemporary postcolonial inequalities. Increasingly, admirably, Mr. Kentridge will be using his international profile as a platform for collaborations having a host of South African colleagues, who are billed as This specific show’s co-creators. They include the actors Mr. Dlamini in addition to Mr. Shabangu; the choreographer Gregory Maqoma, who oversees the twitchy movements of the soldiers in addition to porters; in addition to the magnificent soprano Ann Masina, who transmutes Satie’s “Je Te Veux” through a love ballad into a cry for independence.
Midway through “The Head in addition to the Load,” Mr. Dlamini quotes through the great South African writer Solomon Plaatje, who wrote acidly of the African war effort: “Lest their behavior merit recognition, their deeds must not be recorded.”
Yet at the conclusion of This specific bold exorcism, Mr. Kentridge projects a series of ledgers of which intervene to fill of which unrecorded history. They look bureaucratic at first, nevertheless soon you find gnomic phrases like “Freedom — We Missed of which Boat Again,” alongside the names of men killed in action or struck down by pneumonia in addition to yellow fever. They are not the Martins in addition to Müllers engraved on thousands of memorials across Europe. These casualties of the Great War, at last recorded, are individuals named Khanyile, Diop, Mbata, Ibrahim.
The Head in addition to the Load
Through Dec. 15 at the Park Avenue Armory, Manhattan; 212-616-3930, armoryonpark.org.