Culture | Mois de la Photo: Congolese history, at street level

Sammy Baloji’s Vues de Likasi

Imagine, if you will, that you are in a place far beyond the periphery of the McGill gates, in a country whose culture has been devastated by Western colonization and gutted by the aftermath of war, a country that is so politically oppressed and unstable that a photographer is forbidden to document his or her surroundings, unable to show the world what has become of their homeland.

The place I speak of is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), home to photographer Sammy Baloji. For his new solo exhibition, Vues de Likasi (2006), Baloji photographed the everyday life of the Congolese people in order to capture the aftermath of continuous war that the country faces. The exhibition shows how citizens of the DRC manage to live side by side with the all too-harrowing traces of their recent past. Baloji illustrates this reality through a series of panoramic photomontages of the urban landscape of Likasi, a city in the southeastern part of the country. The artist focuses on architecture in his images, portraying how it reveals the different periods of the country’s history. The late nineteenth century Belgian architecture that is prevalent in Vues de Likasi is a stark reminder of the nation’s history of colonialism. It calls attention to the way in which the presence of this architecture necessitates that the Congolese people confront their nation’s past in every aspect of their day-to-day life.

Like a puzzle, Baloji tries to understand the past by piecing together the present. He does this by creating complex photomontages of streets in Likasi. The subject of each photograph is displayed in four panels, each panel focusing on a different part of a street. Each piece totals 190 metres in length. The combinations of images that comprise the photomontages were taken of different parts of each street over various days; the assortment of photos were then stitched together into one complete image of the street. This results in various modulations of lighting throughout each panoramic view, and jolting breaks in the flow of activity. The photos are fused together on the panels in a staggered way, like patchwork – all different lengths and sizes, yet merging together to create the image of the street.

The panels are hung in the middle of the exhibition space. This gives the impression, as I wander through the room, that I am in fact wandering the streets of Likasi, slowly making my way around a city block. I feel as if I am experiencing moments in time flickering past as I follow the photographs through the space. These flashes reveal the mundane activities practiced by the Congolese people, such as women selling fruit on the street, men playing chess, a woman braiding a girl’s hair, or people loitering around a cigarette booth. The way these images are overlayed juxtaposes the past and present. Seeing the Congolese citizens go about their daily lives amongst the architecture from Belgian colonialism demonstrates in a subtle way the impetus to overcome the past and move on. It is as if everything that is still not in order yet is trying to be.

Due to laws of media control in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it is forbidden to take photos of public buildings. By rebelling against this law and documenting the streets of Likasi, Baloji allows us the rare privilege of peeking into his world. I see it as his idea of subtle activism against this oppression, striving toward the larger goal of African independence from a colonial past.

The exhibition is being held at Montreal, arts interculturels (MAI). The intense and moving images set a poignant tone for the centre’s upcoming season, demonstrating the power of art to state a political message.

Vues de Likasi runs through October 10 at MAI (3680 Jeanne Mance).

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