How many of your works will be displayed in galleries and institutions this year?
I cannot be precise. For a long time I’ve worked on series of photos that make up a corpus of work. For the past three years, I’ve been combining series of photos and installations. It can happen that the same series is presented in different places but with a different selection [of photos]. This year there are, in some cases, single works displayed as an installation and sometimes a series of works. Some of these works are from past years and some new. But I still receive requests as well.
Who is buying your work?
My work is being bought by institutions and by private individuals, European and American, as well as African.
Your photomontages of Congo’s colonial past and present are some of your most striking works. Will you continue with this theme in the future?
My practice as an artist combines many disciplines and it is an ongoing reflection on the notion of “state” – how Congo was invented and what this geopolitical space means today on a community and an individual level. I try to question Congo’s past social legacy in regard to the present. Everything depends on the subject I am interested in and on the archives I find. It depends on the research I do in institutions and in the archives of individual citizens. And, yes, colonization remains a recurring theme in my work, at least for the present.
To what do you attribute the rapidity of your rise in the international art world in recent years?
I would argue that there are many factors. Over the past 25 years, the art world has become more and more open and interested in contemporary African art. Art historians such as Okui Enwezor, Olu Oguibe, Simon Njami, Salah Hassan, Bisi Silva, N’goné Fall and many others have played an important role highlighting postcolonial art creations. Many artists from Africa and its diaspora are frequently involved in international exhibitions, art fairs, biennials; this situation can be seen as an advantage for artists from my generation.
Secondly, Congo and Lubumbashi [where Baloji was born in 1978], have gained international interest for popular paintings that go beyond academia. For my generation, many references have been shifted due to the failure of our politicians. This results in social crises, injustice and wars. Other artists, in Lubumbashi/Congo, are asking similar questions and are in search of new narratives, and, together, we have created “picha asbl”, a platform where we share our artistic interests and practice. We created an international biennale in 2008, in Lubumbashi, in order to exchange our preoccupations with the world. Those actions have led, in a way, to this international recognition.
Did the Rolex mentorship and your mentor, Olafur Eliasson, help you to build your international profile?
Yes, they did. I’m very grateful to the Rolex Arts Initiative and to Olafur for the wonderful opportunity. Learning from the enormous experience that Olafur has acquired throughout his artistic career has been important for my career – to be at his side, to observe him create, to participate and to exchange questions with him about art. It’s also clear that being selected for a programme as cutting-edge as the Rolex Arts Initiative, and by an artist as remarkable as Olafur, has helped me enhance my profile.
Sammy Baloji, 2014-2015 Visual Arts protégé to Olafur Eliasson
What is the most essential lesson you learned from him and are you still in contact?
The most essential lesson I learned was to think/conceive of art not only in its final concrete form, but during the process of its execution – including the questioning, reversals, doubts that are part of creating a work of art. We have invited Olafur to come to Congo for the Lubumbashi Biennale, open from 7 October to 12 November 2017. We have plans to collaborate in the near future.
Apart from the guidance of Olafur Eliasson, was the Rolex mentorship particularly beneficial to you in any other way?
For sure! At a Rolex event in Mexico I met the head curator of [Moscow’s] Garage Museum, Kate Fowle, who was a member of the Rolex panel in visual arts [that selected potential protégés]. This was one of the most exciting encounters I made in Mexico. Since then, I have been collaborating with Kate and the Garage Museum, and we have planned a couple of projects together in Lubumbashi and Moscow. One of our collaborations is the touring exhibition Congo Art Works, that I co-curated with the anthropologist Bambi Ceuppens and the Tervuren museum [Belgium], which will open at the Garage Museum on 20 May, 2017. Very exciting!
In which country do you now spend most of your time?
I spend at least four months each year in Congo and eight in Europe/Brussels. My family and I live in Brussels.
What do you hope to gain from being part of documenta 14 this year?
Sharing experiences and knowledge. Artists, curators and professionals are coming from everywhere and it is really exciting that it is art which brings us together to learn and share our crises, and fears and gain hope from Athens [where documenta 14 is being launched for the first time], as the title of this year’s exhibition is “Learning from Athens”.
In 2017, Sammy Baloji’s work appears in numerous exhibitions, including: AFRIQUES CAPITALES, 100% AFRIQUES Festival in Paris (till 28 May 2017); in the Urban Now: City Life in Congo exhibition, New York (till 14 July); and in Senses of Time: Video and Film-Based Works of Africa at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington D.C. (till 24 September, 2017); and, perhaps, most notably, as part of documenta 14, in Athens (April to July) and in Kassel (June to September).