“Urban Now: City Life in Congo” is a traveling exhibition of sixty-three large-scale color photographs and two video installations that builds upon Suturing the City: Living Together in Congo's Urban Worlds, a 328-page book with text by Filip De Boeck and photography by Sammy Baloji (De Boeck and Baloji 2016). On their own and as a unit, “Urban Now” and Suturing the City constitute one of the more insightful recent interventions on cityscapes of the global “South.”
At the core of the show and book is a determination to think about cities in ways that actively displace “North”-centric visions of urbanism. Both undertakings cast aside overarching, panoptic views typical of gazes intent on classifying spaces, people, and practices the better to order and rule them. In their stead, approaches are privileged that foreground complexity, overlap, and uncertainty.
In both the book and the exhibition, pride of place is given to tropes developed by city-dwellers to engage with urban conditions characterized by extreme economic, social, and political inequality. Key among these is the concept of libulu (“hole” in Lingala). “In Kinshasa as in Congo's other cities,” writes De Boeck, “the concept of … libulu … has become a local master trope … to express the dismal quality of urban life in the postcolonial city” (De Boeck and Baloji 2016:13). Understood in both literal terms (gaping potholes, deadly artisanal mining shafts, massive fault lines caused by erosion) and in existential ones, the “hole” is more, however, than a mere space of depletion. “Even if living the experience of the hole considerably complicates life and often degrades its quality, the hole also offers an aperture, an opening, a possibility …” (De Boeck and Baloji 2016:16). Illuminating the hole through highlighting readings of the city produced by its everyday dwellers is Baloji and De Boeck's principal goal. As such, their book-cum-exhibition participates in a larger project: a reflection on ways people devise to live together in a post-industrial, late capitalist world run amok for all but its most privileged inhabitants.
The matter of living together is addressed by way of another trope, that of suturing. Inspired by the work of anthropologist Nancy Rose Hunt and psychoanalyst Jacques-Alain Miller, De Boeck proposes that the hole is understood by Kinois as a locus of juncture, or seam-making, in which ever-evolving forms of creativity can be harnessed to “fill the gaps, overcome the hiatus, design realignments and thereby redefine the zero … into a possibility, a something else, a surplus” (De Boeck and Baloji 2016:16).
A key strength of De Boeck's text and of Baloji's photographs lies in the choice to eschew a gaze that plumbs the depths of the city. The purpose is not to get to the bottom of the hole, to lay its secrets bare; rather, the intent is to travel across the surfaces of urban space, delicately inserting words and images at nodal points, much as an acupuncturist seeking out a body's most potent energy fields (De Boeck and Baloji 2016:20, 61, 77–79, 92). The result is a reading of the city that stands at a distinct remove from approaches still too common among commentators seeking to account for urban lives in the “South”: panoptic approaches, as previously referenced, guided by a will to bring “order” to spaces perceived as hopelessly “chaotic.”
The foregoing is evident in the large body of photographs that Baloji contributes to “Urban Now”/Suturing the City. Here, the artist can be seen taking to task the inherent violence of an overarching viewpoint—directive, intent on capturing in order to “make sense”—and replacing this with an approach to (re)presentation that privileges multiple, at once complementary and contradictory agencies. Striking in this regard are vast vistas that he offers, images of city life that draw the eye simultaneously in a range of different directions (Fig. 1). Views of streets, plazas, and courtyards are flattened, giving equal strength to foreground and background, refusing to guide the viewer's eye. No one element of the composition is granted greater weight than another. Spending time with these photographs—in particular as they appear in the exhibition, blown up to a meter and more in size—is demanding. Every detail must be taken into consideration. Hierarchies are cast aside in favor of co-presence(s)—the latter a term that De Boeck introduces in the final pages of the book (De Boeck and Baloji 2016:295). The same is true of photos that focus on a single edifice. A vista showing a building in construction and, in front of it, a billboard advertising this same structure (Fig. 2) is flattened in such a manner that object and image become extensions of one another, leading the viewer to question what matters most—the edifice, its simulacrum, or the artist's depiction of the two. In an analogous move, a series of portraits of land chiefs gives equal heft to the sitters' features as to objects surrounding them—a disused television set, a fan, a calendar (Fig. 3). Here again, to take in the picture is to take it all in. The result is one that destabilizes conventional, largely Eurocentric approaches to depiction, proposing instead what might best be described as a decolonial gaze on the city and its inhabitants.
Two videos included in the exhibition perform similar work. One, which visitors encounter first, centers on a quixotic tower, “part skyscraper, part pyramid, part citadel” (De Boeck and Baloji 2016:216). One approach to presenting the edifice, typical of a Northern-trained architectural gaze, would have involved focusing on its Ubuesque form—on how it might look to an outsider. Here, the stance is quite different: The focus is on an insider's take, proposed by the building's owner, who, melding seriousness and considerable humor, guides the viewer on a floor-by-floor visit. Aesthetically, in the flattened manner in which the moving image is rendered, and narratively, by way of a certain repetitive quality, a very particular emphasis emerges, a stress on the user's encounter with urban space rather than on that of an external “expert.” A second video centers on land chiefs. Much as in the photographs dedicated to this same subject, visual hierarchies are eschewed and, as in the tower video, a litany-like quality makes for a flattened affect. Avoiding spectacle, the camera does not capture so much as it witnesses.
All of this is in radical contrast with two components of the exhibition that act as counter-examples, emphasizing the project's determination to steer clear of hegemonic views. These are a photograph of an architectural model dating from the Mobutu period and a publicity video produced in 2008. Both depict a planned community: a vision of and for Kinshasa whose goal is to bring it in line with modernist ideals of the city—a city from which all disorder, and thereby all possible contestation, have been evacuated. A third and final counter-example included in the show speaks to the intimate links that such visions bear to the violence of colonial rule (Fig. 4). The only work by Baloji that was not produced specifically for the exhibition/book, it is a vast photomontage titled Essai photographique sur la planification urbaine de 1910 à nos jours de la ville de Lubumbashi (2013). This takes the form of a twelve-part grid in which vintage helicopter-like views of sprawling urbanscapes in Lubumbashi alternate with images of insects pinned down by entomologists. Nearby appears a small black-and-white photograph taken in 1929, showing two Congolese men flanking a pile of dead flies; on the back, the following words are scrawled: “Fly control campaign: each worker must bring 50 flies in order to receive his daily ration.” Positioned neither in the beginning nor at the end of the exhibition, where they might function as explanatory brackets, but in the midst of the plethora of images that vie for the viewer's attention, these three pieces act as powerful reminders of the goal underlying Baloji's and de Boeck's project. They embody the top-down approach that the photographer and the anthropologist eschew, speaking thereby to precisely the ways of seeing and doing that both reject.
At the opening of the exhibition in Brussels, the relevance and the potential of this refusal to look from on high and thereby to create hierarchies of form and meaning proved strikingly effective. Audience members clustered at length before individual photographs, commenting to one another on details. The steadfast refusal of the images (and of the laconic labels accompanying them) to spectacularize, and in the process to pathologize, their subject(s) seemed to open up spaces of possibility, allowing viewers to engage at face value with Baloji's work, unburdened by preconceptions and clichés. In a Belgian cultural landscape in the complex throes of negotiating its relation to a violent colonial past, and, more broadly, in a European context facing extremist right-wing movements and mounting racism, this proved no little feat.
After its run in Brussels, the exhibition travels to New York, Toronto, and Lisbon. The book Suturing the City is available from Aperture APB for £30.00.