AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

The London gallery Autograph ABP is currently exhibiting Alice Seeley Harris’ well-known 1904 Congo Reform Association photographs, together, or in some form of juxtaposition, with new commissioned photographic and video work by contemporary young Congolese artist Sammy Baloji. This choice is either bold or inexplicable.

English missionary Alice Seeley Harris’ famously shocking and sensational images of the atrocities committed by European officers and their African sentries in fin-de-siècle Congo Free State (1885-1908) are being exhibited to the public for the first time since 1904. Harris was among the most active members of The Congo Reform Association, which, as Sharon Sliwinski writes, was both the largest human rights movement of its time and the first to use photography as a means of mobilizing public outcry against the Leopoldian regime’s atrocities in Central Africa. Believing that there was a “right way” and a “wrong way” to colonize Africa, Anglo-American protestant missionaries were also taking their anti-Leopoldian crusade to a religious, moral, cultural, and political terrain where contestation of the idea of “right” in opposition to power and tyranny, became a multi-layered affair marshaling public relations machines in Belgium, Britain, and the United States.

When Congo’s “red rubber” scandal broke in Europe and North America in the early twentieth century, it was largely due to the efforts of the Congo Reform Association (CRA) led by the shipping clerk and finance journalist Edmund Morel, in association with then British Consul to the Congo Free State (CFS) Roger Casement. Key to revealing and circulating what the CRA presented as incontrovertible visual evidence of ongoing atrocities in the Congo were a series of photographs taken by the British missionary, Alice Seeley Harris, who, together with her husband John Harris some years earlier, had traveled to the Leopoldian State in search of “heathens” to convert and civilize. The Congo Free State was an internationally recognized sovereign state under the authority of King Leopold II of Belgium, who became the Reform Association’s main target. The “Congo State” was run with great brutality by the field officers of concessionary companies with financial ties to the Crown and to Belgian political and financial circles.

The foundational moment of her activism, as Harris recalls it, was the appearance of a man named Nsala on her doorstep. Nsala arrived at the mission one day carrying a small bundle of leaves in which were wrapped the hands and feet of his daughter, who, together with her mother, had been mutilated and killed by ABIR (Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company) sentries in retaliation for Nsala’s failure to meet his rubber quota. One can only imagine the horror of such a moment, yet Harris kept her head and asked Nsala to pose for a photograph with the child’s severed hand and foot. (Image below) She went on to further document the abuses and produced a well-known series of photographs that were circulated as lantern slides in illustration of lectures and presentations given in Churches across Protestant Britain and North America.

Nsala

The portrait of Nsala with his daughter’s remains is perhaps the most arresting image of the collection. How can one even begin to talk about such an image? Sliwinski remarks on its “calmness,” which I think is another way of saying that it defies language and signals “the horror,” for which there can be no words clearer than the rantings of a madman.

Sammy Baloji is a Congolese artist from Katanga, Congo’s “copper” province, whose work explores postcoloniality and themes of memory, decay, colonial violence and its legacies, as well as history and silencing. While many of Harris’ photographs are filled with the energy of rage and sorrow of their “now,” much of Baloji’s work is silent and mournful, somewhat like the photograph of Nsala above, except that Baloji’s work does not employ the same classic formality in composition.

Baloji has often worked through juxtaposition, imprinting colonial images upon contemporary settings, and sometimes placing ruined colonial landscapes as backdrops for an interrogation of a ruined postcolonial present. His falsely anodyne panoramas bear traces of their past in greater or lesser degrees of visibility. At other moments his backdrops are more clearly defined by the presence of accumulated “imperial debris,” which has piled up and become sediment over the last 50 years. His are landscapes, figurative snapshots of colonial and postcolonial modernity, which appear as both sites and matrixes of what Ann Stoler calls “ruination.” For Baloji, juxtaposing a colonial-era image of barefoot Force Publique soldiers holding up for the camera a large bird, which some European officer just shot, collaged on a photograph of a contemporary refugee camp (see top image), provides a direct route to the entanglements of colonial oppression, environmental degradation, and postcolonial violence.

In the current exhibition, Harris’ images have been placed on the ground floor – and are to be viewed first – while Baloji’s photographs are located on the floor above. The genealogy of “first Harris’ images, then Baloji’s work,” implied by the exhibition’s promotional materials and through this placement is an interesting choice.

Baloji’s work has often sought hybridity in photographic representation as he confronts how he sees contemporary Congo to the ways colonial photography saw the Belgian Congo. According to the APB press release, “Like Harris, Baloji uses photography as a medium to interrogate current political concerns with reference to the past.” While this is undeniably the case for Baloji, the description does not quite fit Harris’ work or her purpose in 1904. Creating conceptual relationships between Harris and Baloji seems curious, as Baloji’s work is not very directly or very obviously in dialogue with Harris’ strongly and disturbingly militant images. On the other hand, images of men, women, and children with severed hands and feet – whether actually seen, or known about and imagined – have been imprinted on the unconscious of generations of Congolese. As Nancy Hunt suggests, these images’ iconicity has become deeply internalized.

A strong trace and a manifestation of deep postcolonial sorrow, the influence of Harris’ images is perhaps to be sensed in Baloji’s work.

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The exhibition’s website offers a downloadable 12-page PDF pamphlet featuring Sharon Sliwinski’s article “The Kodak on the Congo. The Childhood of Human Rights,” which was originally published in 2006 in the Journal of Visual Culture. Some installation views here.

When Harmony went to Hell. Congo Dialogues: Alice Seeley Harris and Sammy Baloji runs at the London gallery ABP Autograph until 7 March 2014. The Harris photographs can also be seen at Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum until 7 September, 2014.

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My current research considers aesthetics and perception with regard to political, collective and individual subject formation in late colonial and early postcolonial Africa.

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