The Tate made a recording of The Head & the Load available on its website after the original performance but who knows if it’ll ever get to South Africa. What we do get, however, is a chance to see some of the material that went into its making in the exhibition KABOOM! now on at the Goodman Gallery in Joburg.
They’re exhibiting some of the original charcoal drawings that went into the production of the projections for The Head & the Load. (They’re supplemented with others he did for an earlier opera last year Wozzeck, which spawned many of the ideas that came to fruition in The Head & the Load, as well as for a performance of a Kurt Schwitters poem that took place in New York, which was also a huge influence in The Head & the Load.) Then, to pull it all together, there’s the new three-channel film projection that unites parts of the material used in the projection for The Head & the Load.
So, what do you need to know to make sense of it before you go? Here’s a quick primer…
Essentially, The Head & the Load is about a forgotten part of history, or rather, one that was deliberately erased - the participation of almost two million black porters or “carriers” in World War 1, 300,000 of who died, mostly through disease. (That’s 10 times more than the number of soldiers who died in Africa. And there were another 700,000 civilians on top of that.) As it was, there were about four porters for every soldier. They carried all sorts of provisions when mechanised transport failed or reached its limits and when all the horses and oxen had been killed by tsetse fly.