- Sammy Baloji born 1978
- 8 wallpaper prints on paper on canvas, 32 photographs, black and white inkjet prints on paper, 38 mortar shells and copper
- Overall display dimensions variable
- Purchased with funds provided by the Africa Acquisitions Committee 2020
This is a unique installation comprising thirty-six inkjet photographs hammered by hand, wallpaper on canvas, war mortar shells dating from the First and Second World Wars (1914--18 and 1939–45), a copper ceiling plate and an audio recording. The installation’s point of departure is photographic. Baloji became interested in photographs of scarification practices while reviewing the archives of the Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium. Scarification was a practice employed across Africa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as a means of identifying a person’s tribe and therefore their identity and community. Baloij has rephotographed several of the photographs that he found, focusing on specific scarification patterns and cropping out surrounding details from the original archival photographs.
Baloji found the ethnographic gaze of the archive photographs problematic, noting that they captured ‘the other in all their foreignness’ (quoted in Blaire Dessent, ‘Sammy Baloji – Stories Found in Copper’, TL Mag, vol.29, 9 September 2018, https://tlmagazine.com/sammy-baloji-stories-found-in-copper/, accessed 18 February 2019). However, by honing in on the patterns of the images, he attempts to refocus attention on scarification practices as a unique system of communicating identity. Equally, by re-engaging with this subject, the artist seeks to highlight the existence of ‘a whole cultural, social, aesthetic and meaningful system in place before [colonialism]’ (quoted in Dessent 2018, accessed 18 February 2019).
Growing up in Katanga in the Congo, a region rich in natural resources, Baloji was sensitised to the colonial history and the postcolonial decline of the once-prosperous mining region. Copper is one of the minerals found in the Congo. Baloji began experimenting with copper bas-reliefs in 2015 and at the 2015 Venice Biennale he exhibited his first copper piece (a precursor to this work) – a dome fashioned from fifty copper panels each with an image of a scarified body. 802. That is where, as you heard, the elephant danced the malinga … features the same transfer of images of scarification to copper.
The copper used for the ceiling piece derives from Morocco, and the copper of the bombshells that are included in the installation comes from Europe. In 2007 the government of Congo banned the export of raw copper in an effort to raise the value of such exports. It was therefore not possible to use purely Congolese copper in this installation. However, Baloji has noted that historically ‘nearly all of the copper from Congo was extracted and exported, then fused with copper from other countries, such as Chile, and finally sold in massive quantities for large-scale industrial use’ (quoted in Dessent 2018, accessed 18 February 2019). It is likely, therefore, that a certain percentage of the copper in this installation originated in the Congo. The piece thus speaks to the history of copper mining and circulation in Congo both past and present. By inscribing the ceiling plate with scarification patterns, Baloji is engaging in an act of symbolic reclamation of the material indigenous to his native country.
The bombshells, which function as planters in this installation, date from WWI and WWII and were engraved by soldiers during the war. After the war, shells such as these were often used as planters by the bourgeoisie. The succulent plants which they contain are indigenous to Congo, though they have now become common as houseplants in Western countries. These are replaced each time the work is installed. By using the shells as planters in his practice, the artist ‘investigates the destructive and life-giving values of the bombshells, respectively, and at the same time points out the impossibility of world wars were it not for the exploitation of human and natural resources from the Congo’ (https://images.holbaek.dk/about-an-age-of-our-own-making/sammy-baloji/, accessed 8 February 2019).
The wallpaper, which is affixed to panels of canvas and hung on the wall, features a repetition of the pattern of scarification shown in one of the photographs included in the installation. The combination of the wallpaper, the copper materials and the pattern is intended to reference early twentieth-century colonial interiors. The audio recording features excerpts from writer André Yav’s 1965 text Le Vocabulaire d’Elisabethville: Une histoire d’Elisabethville de ses origines – a collection of stories (urban myths and actual stories) told by Congolese servants at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century.
The title of the installation combines different fragments from the book Le Vocabulaire d’Elisabethville: Une histoire d’Elisabethville de ses origins. The different references highlight the implication of the Congo in the two world wars. For example, the number 802 references the brand of the locomotive used to invade Nairobi during World War I; this anecdote is mentioned in section 38 of André Yav’s book. The elephants dancing the Malinga are also mentioned in section 10 of this book.
The different elements of the installation can be configured in a number of ways, but the artist has stipulated a set arrangement for the group of photographs. In its entirety, the installation comments on the historical and present-day exploitation and plundering of both human and mineral resources in Congo. In Baloji’s previous work architecture has acted as a trace of social history, a place of memory and a site where power is inscribed – in this installation the human body adopts the same function. The scarification can be seen to symbolise the pain, trauma and suffering of a colonised people and to question how similar traumas are still being inflicted in the present day. The work therefore reflects one of Baloji’s career-long concerns which seeks to reclaim pre-colonial histories and past identities as a means to understand the present.
Bogumil Jewsiewicki, Sammy Baloji, The Beautiful Time: Photography by Sammy Baloji, exhibition catalogue, National Museum for African Art, Washington D.C. 2010.
Filip de Boeck and Sammy Baloji, Suturing the City: Living Together in Congo’s Urban Worlds, London 2016.
Sammy Baloji: An Age of Our Own Making, https://images.holbaek.dk/about-an-age-of-our-own-making/sammy-baloji/, May 2015, accessed 8 February 2019.
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