I was born into a landscape that became unfamiliar as I grew to know it. The mirror of my mind’s eye transposed political play into flickering stage. The impulse to photograph this stage is less an attempt to anchor the scenery than to situate myself.
These photographs are not collapsed histories of post-colonial African states or a meditation on aspects of late modernist era colonial structures, but a walk through avenues of dreams. Patrice Lumumba’s dream, his nationalism, is discernible in the structures, if one reads certain clues, as is the death of his dream, in these de facto monuments. How strange that modernism, which eschewed monument and past for nature and future, should carry such memory so well.
Who can forget Lumumba’s speech at the independence ceremony in Léopoldville in 1960? Excluded from the official programme, he rose to deliver a tirade in the presence of the Belgian king. “We have known sarcasm and insults, endured blows morning, noon and night, because we were ‘niggers’ … We have seen our lands despoiled under the terms of what was supposedly the rule of the land but which only recognized the rule of the strongest.” His reputation as an extremist made on that day led directly to his murder, by Belgian agents, in January 1961. Today, Lumumba’s image as a nationalist visionary necessarily remains unmolested by the accusations of abuse of power that became synonymous with later African heads of state.
Lumumba wrote in 1956 that the essential wish of the Congolese elite, in the Belgian colony, was to be Belgian, to have the same freedoms and the same rights. He rang changes to this desire, posing an obstacle to colonial dreams of exchanging overt dominion with indirect control. The stultifying, directionless conflict that followed ensured that the colonial inheritance rings like an empty shell. As it must in the ears of civil servants who refer to a time, “l’époque”, when their labours, under the Belgian model, would have been justly rewarded and their place in society assured.
In the frailty of this strange and beautiful hybrid landscape struggling to contain the calamities of the past fifty years, there is an indisputably African identity. This is my embrace of it.
All images in this gallery: ©Guy Tillim. Courtesy of STEVENSON, Cape Town and Johannesburg.