Erin Haney, Research Associate, National Museum of African Art/ Lecturer, George Washington University
At NMNH, don’t miss Sammy Baloji’s exhibition The Beautiful Time, on view until January 7, 2013. The Beautiful Time splices together two visual tracks, and sets off a powerful and haunting study in reverberation—cutting through space and across time.
Baloji’s photomontages illuminate monumental stories in an old mining center in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo). Amid slices of present-day landscape, spectral people interfere: migrant mine workers, Belgian families, Congolese officials. Within the panorama of photographic past and presences, Baloji summons the multiple relationships between workers and colonists, and and the conditions of work in the colonial era. He literally dredges up images, lost and found, in Katanga.
The Beautiful Time is a set of projects to mark the gaping holes between moments in time. Photomontage offers the vivid mixing—of events and people freely, perhaps in tune with our own human senses memory and recall. President Mobutu Sese Seko, ruler of what was then known as Zaire, appears to take a tour of the ruins. Surveyors chart the lost future of the mining works, and military officials allude to the ties between lucrative enterprise and state security.
Baloji appropriated archival images, lifted from old photographs and glass plates that once circulated in Katanga. Placed according to creative demands and logics, the artist crafted an entirely new set of heart-grabbing fictional moments. While his camera pans across old warehouses and smelters, registering the sun’s path, the VIPs are ghosts that we can see as clear as day.
Baloji’s magic links a generation of criticism leveled at the older generation, with sidelong observation of the institutions and governments which have failed and jeopardized their citizens. Mining wealth enriched Europeans and Congolese unequally. Working for the company that itself was a prime generator of capital was, to be sure, an ambivalent situation, well-paid and tightly controlled. So, in the face of that well-remembered golden age and its aftermath, ‘Beautiful Time’ meditates on those ambivalent absences.
The reverb effect, captured by Baloji and other young activists and artists working in Africa, drives out those missing things. Using lost archives and troves of photographs cinematically, they tackle how the past and present collide. The stories matter, critically. Those old pictures belong neither wholly to the Congo nor to Belgium, to individuals or a single community. Lubumbashi-born Baloji plays them back into view, to electrifying, magnifying playback effect.