This large-scale colour photograph is from Sammy Baloji’s series Mémoire 2006, which comprises twenty-nine images in total (see also Untitled 6, Tate P82566, and Untitled 17, Tate P82568). Each work in the series is a digital photomontage in which archival images of Congolese labourers from the colonial period have been superimposed onto photographs taken by Baloji of the mineral mines located around Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which are now in a state of decline and ruin. The area, in present-day Haut-Katanga province, has some of the richest ore deposits in the world and has been defined and physically shaped by mining for centuries. Growing up in Lubumbashi, Baloji was sensitised to the colonial history and the post-colonial decline of the once-prosperous mining region. In Untitled 12 an archival image showing seven prisoners wearing uniforms and carrying wood on their heads and shoulders is set against a desolate and empty landscape. Ruins of mining infrastructure and a truncated railway line appear behind the figures and in the foreground. Prisoners were often used as mine workers and here they are shown with chains and shackles around their necks, joining them together. The photograph exists in an edition of ten plus one artist’s proof; Tate’s copy is number six in the edition.
Each of the images in the Mémoire series brings together two views of the same landscape which are joined in the centre of the work. The visible seam, underlined here by the deliberate mismatch of the colour of the sky and the break in the direction of the railway tracks in the foreground, acts as a fissure that runs through the heart of the image. It can be read as a visual metaphor for a landscape and people broken by the colonial period, suggesting that the present day mirrors the scars of the past and that, ultimately, the country is still broken.
Baloji’s practice is deeply research driven. For this project the artist reviewed the photographic archives of several mining companies and collated images taken of Congolese labourers by the colonial regime. These labourers built the mine’s once-imposing industrial sites. The early mining period in Katanga was perceived by many as a golden era because of the prosperity that it brought, though this declined dramatically in the post-colonial period. The mining company Gécamines, founded in 1906 by Belgian colonisers and taken over by Mobutu Sese Seko’s government in 1966, was once a mainstay of the region’s economy and the principal source of the DRC’s export income. However, the company has gradually been driven to the brink of bankruptcy. Its history is therefore inextricably connected to that of the country and the wellbeing of its people. Baloji has commented that although the Congolese ‘know Gécamines will never be the same “goose that lays golden eggs”, it has fed, clothed and educated not only themselves but also their parents, their grandparents and even great great grandparents’ (quoted on the exhibition page for Project Space: Contested Terrains at Tate Modern, 29 July – 16 October 2011, https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibitionseries/project-space/project-space-contested-terrains/contested-2, accessed 11 March 2019).
Baloji’s use of photomontage brings these two realities into confrontation making visible the rupture between past and present. His images reinforce a sense of servitude experienced by the mine workers – they appear weary in their tattered clothes and are deeply dehumanised by the shackles that bind them. Baloji’s works thus question the perceived prosperity of colonial times, pointing rather to the exploitation of both human and natural resources.
The Mémoire series is representative of Baloji’s overall practice, which is rooted in examining the past as a means of also scrutinising the present. He has commented, ‘I think reality has a kind of complex, a relationship with, past, present, now, yesterday or today.’ (In the video by Matthias Ussing Seeberg 2015, at the 6 minutes 50 seconds mark.) For example, the imposing hillside pictured in Untitled 6 is in fact the slagheap of the Mine de l’Etoile in the Katanga region, ‘the most prominent symbol of Lubumbashi’s never-fulfilled modernity’ (Yasmine Van Pee, Mining Katanga: Sammy Baloji’s Mémoires, Berkeley, California 2006, p.10, https://www.academia.edu/9476861/Mining_Katanga_Sammy_Baloji_s_M%C3%A9moires_2006, accessed 8 March 2019). The mine closed in 2003 and in 2006 the Malta Forrest Group began officially extracting copper and cobalt from the discarded ore. It has been said, however that Forrest also unofficially extracts uranium from the site (Van Pee 2006, p.10, accessed 8 March 2019). Baloji’s series equally questions other present-day realities of mining in the Katanga region; for example, in recent decades, mining has taken place for coltan – an ore used globally in the manufacture of expensive electronics such as cell phones and computers – yet local working conditions and trade benefits are poorly regulated.
In a leaflet accompanying the display of work from the Mémoire series at Tate Modern, London in 2011, Baloji commented:
What do you want, it’s not just ‘Mayibwe’ which are the remains of Gécamines!
I saw the still warm entrails of brownfields, the famous Congolese economic powerhouse.
I saw the memory of an epic illustrated, the heyday of these settlers dapper
I’ve seen looks black and white
I saw women and children
I saw the power
I saw the big elephant collapse (on four legs) on the eve of its hundred years.
It was enough to read the past in the light of this
(Text from leaflet for the exhibition Contested Terrains, Tate Modern, London 2011.)
Through its layering of past and present, Mémoire acts as a reminder of Congo’s changing economic fortunes, the results of the insatiable exploitation of its resources and the inhumanity of the colonial period. Yet, in referencing histories of Western imperialism and post-colonial disillusionment, Baloji also highlights the ongoing effects of predatory global capitalism.
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.
Matthias Ussing Seeberg, Sammy Baloji: The Past in Front of Us, video, Louisiana Channel, The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark 2015.
Sarah Allen and Kerryn Greenberg
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