The Beautiful Time opened on January 7th, in the Focus Gallery of the permanent exhibit, African Voices. It will be on view through 2012.
I first saw the Baloji exhibition, which was organized by the Museum for African Art, when it opened in New York over a year ago. I was immediately struck by the beauty and the visual power of the work and by the stories Baloji’s works tell of history and memory, home and landscape, and work and wealth in the Congo. These are all important themes in Africa today and they are themes of so many of the stories from around the continent that are told in African Voices. I was delighted that we were able to bring the exhibit here to NMNH.
Baloji’s haunting photographs evoke the memory of the generations of Congolese whose labor built the vibrant copper mining industry—now lost—in the Katanga province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century these mines were the second largest producers of copper in the world.
Baloji’s photographic collages juxtapose black and white archival photographs of Congolese mine workers against the background of color photographs of panoramic landscapes of the contemporary ruins of factories and copper mines. Although the early workers—who wear prison garb and in chains in some of these photographs—came to the mines as forced labor for the colonial state, they had within a few decades become highly skilled and valued mine workers. Their labor created Congo’s modern industrial era and in his artwork, Baloji’s celebrates these mine workers’ essential role in Congo’s prosperity. At the same time that they celebrate this history, these photographs convey the dramatic power of tragedy—the loss of the hard earned prosperity that has been squandered over the past decades through mismanagement and corruption.
Baloji is part of a generation of young Congolese who were born nearly two decades after the end of the colonial era in 1960. His work aims to understand and reconnect for contemporary Congolese and for us two strikingly different time periods –the colonial and the post colonial era. His photographs give voice to those forgotten African workers who built Congo’s mining industry in the early part of the 20th century, and they cry out against the recent deindustrialization in the Congo and elsewhere in Africa.
Last year, I had the opportunity to meet Sammy and his colleague Patrick Mudekereza, in Brussels. Patrick is a writer and a long time artistic collaborator with Baloji in the Congo. I asked Patrick to share his thoughts on these photographs and we have included his commentary in the exhibit. Asked about the meaning of the phrase, The Beautiful Time, Patrick explained, “Sammy’s photographs are not nostalgic celebrations of The Beautiful Time, a phrase we often hear the older generation use when referring to the golden age of the colonial mining industry. Rather, Sammy’s pictures speak to today and imply a failure by our leaders to provide our people with a means to create a more beautiful time than before.”
Mary Jo Arnoldi, Curator, African ethnology and arts, Department of Anthropology, NMNH