Fall 2011 | ArteZine

On Street Names and ‘De Facto Monuments’: Guy Tillim’s Avenue Patrice Lumumba


Colonial-era governor of Quelimane, Avenue Patrice Lumumba, Quelimane, Mozambique, 2008
©Guy Tillim. Courtesy of STEVENSON, Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Once a street photographer who sought to capture the violence of the moment in African cities like Johannesburg, Guy Tillim now seeks the richer, more muted tensions of the lull between: the suspended pause of the before and the yawning silence of trauma’s aftermath. Like other South African Resistance-era photographers such as Paul Weinberg and Gideon Mendel, Tillim spent much of the 1980s wielding the camera as a weapon in the struggle against apartheid. But in the years since, he has turned from documenting the physical dramas of southern streets to tracking the legacy of those street actions – exploring how the memory of revolutionary struggle remains imprinted on the face of the postcolonial city. Avenue Patrice Lumumba finds Tillim chasing the chimera of the Congolese leader across central and southern Africa, tracking his legacy through the numerous streets that bear his name.

Looking at Tillim’s photographs, it seems that for every dream of revolutionary struggle, there is an avenue Patrice Lumumba. One traverses Maputo, and another Quelimane, but Tillim’s quest leads him also through Angola, Ghana, Madagascar and of course the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lumumba’s home, where his fiery brand of African nationalism was formed, and where he was murdered for it in 1961. As Tillim finds and refinds Lumumba’s ghost in the thoroughfares named for him, his photographic essay draws together these dispersed avenues into a spectral cartography of liberation, uniting a network of scattered locales through their identification with this iconic figure. Such an imaginary cartography – a route linked by a name – highlights how naming, as Paul Carter has eloquently argued, is bound up with the writing of the landscape into history. Spatial history thus begins in a cultural notion of place, which is to say, a network of fantasies: “not in a particular year; nor in a particular place, but in the act of naming. For by the act of place-naming, space is transformed symbolically into a place, that is, a space with a history.” While Carter’s concern is with the denominative impulses of imperial history, the centrality he accords to the act of naming as the origin point of colonial history assumes even more poignancy in the postcolonial era, whereupon every naming is a renaming; every re-inscription both an erasure of the past and a gesture freighted with utopian aspirations for the future. (1)

Statues of Kwame Nkrumah, reinstated at the National Museum in Accra, Ghana, after having being torn down during a military coup in 1977, 2007
©Guy Tillim. Courtesy of STEVENSON, Cape Town and Johannesburg.

In this way, the Avenues Patrice Lumumba are “avenues of dreams,” as Tillim puts it, threading the labyrinth of the city with a tag of memory that recalls the struggles for independence.(2) Yet this erstwhile geography of hope is shadowed by an underside of loss. For if Lumumba is an utopian figure, it is partly on account of his vision of a postcolonial state wrested free from both Belgian rule and from those locals who would continue the colonial mandate in a sycophantic sham of independence. It is equally because he never became corrupt nor failed his people. Lumumba, the first legally elected prime minister of the post-independence DRC, was deposed from power just ten weeks into his term. A few months later, in January 1961, he was assassinated by a firing squad of Katangan and Belgian forces. Thus interrupted, Lumumba remains an untarnished figure, a martyr prone to embellishments and romanticization whose name resounds with the lament of unfulfilled futures. Like Nelson Mandela, whose capture the following year, 1962, was the result of a CIA tip to the apartheid government, Lumumba was a victim of cold-war politics. His ghost thus remains haunted not only by Belgium’s bloody colonial rule over the Congo, but also by the neocolonial entanglements of the CIA in Africa. In this way, Lumumba stands as a contradictory figure of aspiration and demise, signaling the unstable register in which Tillim’s eponymous series operates: oscillating between hope and loss, navigating a course between the dissembling aesthetics of tourism, and the hazards of Afro-pessimism.

What results is complex photographs of bleached beauty and dampened light woven through with tight juxtapositions of grace and decrepitude. Eschewing postcard blue skies for smoggy grays, the luminescence and sun-drenched color associated with the African landscape gives way to tapestries of brown, soot and ash, while the lush verdure of the subtropical countryside is largely jettisoned in favor of views of gritty African metropoli. Through these urban scenes, Tillim probes the structures and systems of the postcolonial African city: its libraries and schools, its universities and post offices, its legal offices and administrative systems. Drained of color, these photographs assume a waxen caste that intimates a siphoning of energy and aspiration: the workers in Tillim’s administrative offices, for example, appear as torpid tenants of earlier infrastructures, caught between the weight of their colonial past and the burden of their postcolonial futures. And in Typists, Likasi, DR Congo (2007), a group of “typists” stare out from empty desks, one with a large hole punched in it, in a room leaden with ennui. Their office is indeed garnished with a lone antiquated typewriter, insinuating these workers as kindred relics of previous technological regimes.

Typists, Likasi, DR Congo (2007)
©Guy Tillim. Courtesy of STEVENSON, Cape Town and Johannesburg.

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