The present in the past
Sammy Baloji is a photographer and film-maker from Lubumbashi, the biggest city in the mining province of Katanga in the south-east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Currently based in Brussels, he is best known for a series of photomontages which juxtapose photographs of Katanga from the period when Congo was a Belgian colony with contemporary images of industrial decay. He is being mentored by the Danish-Icelandic conceptual artist Olafur Eliasson.
What led you to make the photomontages?
I went to the city's university to study communication because I wanted to make films, which I saw as a natural extension of my boyhood passion for making comic books. But the film department never opened because the university didn't have enough money. I ended up studying public relations, but I never wanted to be a PR man. I was always more interested in how images were used and how to deconstruct them, and I started taking photographs.
The French Cultural Centre, which had been closed during the political crisis of the 1990s, reopened in 2002, and the director was keen to document Katanga's mining heritage. The Centre gave me access to industrial archive material. That's how my photomontages started.
I felt the story of the colonial period hadn't been told. It was never taught in our schools. Even now you can find people in Katanga who will say the colonial period was better than the present. When I saw the archive pictures, with workers in chains, they shocked me. Also, looking at the city in 2004, the country had been almost destroyed, and I was asking myself why. We were independent, we were rich in minerals, what had happened? We could say it was the fault of Belgium, but they hadn't been there since 1960. What had we been doing since then? I was trying to show the two systems side by side. Under the Belgians there were masters and slaves, but maybe it was still the same. There are politicians and the population, and the population are slaves. Nothing has changed. You have corruption and foreign corporations that make their own rules.
How did you make your way as an artist?
I started getting recognition for my work in 2006, a period when I started to exhibit works in international art shows such as Traces at the Biennale d‘Architecture de la Cambre in Brussels, Photoquai in Paris and the Bamako Biennale in 2007 where I won a prize. In 2010 I had a solo show at the African Art Museum in New York, and in 2012 an exhibition at the Smithsonian in Washington, so I was beginning to be known.
When did you go to Brussels?
I went in 2010. I was invited to a residency at the Tervuren Museum, where I did an exhibition. I had intended to go to Amsterdam for two years to work on my artistic technique but when that fell through I ended up staying on with the goal of finding another opportunity for studying. I am still involved in many things in Congo. I and some friends have opened an arts centre in Lubumbashi, where we have a programme with local artists. We are also running a biennale of photography and video.
Do you feel a sense of mission as an African artist?
It's not a mission, but at the same time it's what I am. Even if I'm working on a mining topic or on exploitation or on the colonial past, I'm not just talking about that – I'm also talking about myself.
Where is your work taking you now?
I am interested in the tangible and intangible vestiges of Congolese and pre-colonial African societies, and what you still see of it in the postcolonial era. Socio-political elements of identity such as scarifications or patterns, even the way of life and the way ancient societies used common space, serve as material to analyse urbanism as it is experienced by indigenous people. This process leads me to go beyond the photographic and videographic media that I had always used until now. It is the opening phase of a new dimension in my artistic expression.
I have produced installations for both the Central Pavilion and the Belgian Pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale [which runs until 22 November 2015]. The Belgian Pavilion combines a work I've shown before called Essay on Urban Planning that traces the development of Lubumbashi back to the Belgian colonizers' obsession with flies – they used to make each of the miners collect 50 flies every day and insisted on a cordon sanitaire between the white and black cities because of their fear of fly-borne diseases. I will show this work alongside eight copper plates on which I have superimposed the images of scarified bodies. Scarification [the etching of patterns on to the body] was very common in Africa in the first half of the 20th century, and was bound up with an individual's culture and sense of identity. I also see links between the shapes on the body and the way Africans map and navigate cities.
I made copper panels with scarified images for the Central Pavilion. These have been welded together to form a dome based on a church in Liège that was built in the 1920s as a memorial to the First World War and constructed with 13,000 kilos of copper brought from Katanga.
Will your dome be an act of reclamation – almost a reverse colonisation?
In a way, yes. The Africans killed in the First World War had no memorial built to them. Mine will be a memorial constructed out of Africans' identities. There are seven memorials to the Western war dead in Liège. This will be an eighth memorial – to the African war dead.
Your work is strongly research-based.
I have been working with a Belgian anthropologist to try to understand how Congolese cities are growing. My work falls between documentary and fiction, and for me the most interesting part is when I am trying to link things together and make a new narrative without words.
How do you and Olafur Eliasson relate to each other?
The first day that I met with him he said that I shouldn't treat him as the one who knew everything. He also wanted to learn from me. There was no plan. He said it would bring what it would bring. If I started to expect something, then I would be lost.
What does he feel about the way you use research?
He tells me I have to be both artist and archivist, but the research mustn't overwhelm the art. I have to be careful not to make it too boring. It's art, not a history lesson.
What have you absorbed of his way of working?
He said there was no rule: you have to experiment. He's not concentrated in just one field. He can make artworks with photography or video; he can make installations; he can make art with water; sometimes he makes paintings. I am trying to understand how he chooses one medium over another, and how he knows that the object reflects his thinking.
How has your work changed as a result of the relationship?
Olafur has freed me up. I've learned that he really knows who he is. He can work with mathematicians, engineers, architects, but he always knows what he is doing as an artist. He is pushing me to be an artist rather than a documentarist, to explore and to work without self-imposed restrictions. Maybe the time I am spending with Olafur is my art school.