Lab Project


Sammy Baloji, Filip De Boeck, Dominique Malaquais

DM: I would like to address the question of levels. You are both interested in looking at the city as a form of polycest and as a layering of utilization, time, and practice. This is not possible from a vertical point of view. And you place the focus on the surface. In Sammy’s photographs, there is a strong focus on the surface of the image and on what it might say about the depth of the image.

SB: While working in Kinshasa, we decided to showcase the city, amongst other things, through a portrait of traditional chiefs, highlighting how the city had seized the chiefs´ traditional power by focusing on the insignificance of their personal space, which is representative of their identity. In my photographic approach, I focused less on the face of the person and more on the foreground and the background as two elements that define the city. As a result, I gave preference to the depth of field. For these traditional rulers, all that remains as signs of their power - at least visibly- are their costumes and emblems. Modernization has overtaken the setting surrounding these symbols. With regard to these cities, this is metaphorical, as they have developed on lands previously owned by these rulers. The lands have dwindled, and the chiefs have had to deal with a more diverse population that mainly answers to the State. Symbols are the only things that remain of their power.

FDB: Regarding the layeredness of the horizontal and the vertical, in a previous project on Kinshasa with Marie-Françoise Plissart, I made an effort to plunge into the depths of the city as a mental space, as a kind of imaginary and used photography that acts like a mirror to the unconscious of the city. In my current collaboration with Sammy, we stayed much more on the surface, as you said, and looked at how the city invents itself within its very landscape, topography, buildings, and infrastructure, as well as how the city emerges and connects between one space and the next. Yet there is always a vertical dimension, too. As soon as you cross that landscape horizontally, you are immediately faced with the matter of time, the past, present, and future – with all its utopian imagery – and how these levels of time connect with each other. So every time we select a specific building, field, cemetery, or pothole in the road, and try to approach them ethnographically and photographically, we have tried to create a narration around that spot in order to show how it brings or does not bring people together and how these spaces connect with each other. Once you stick your analytical needle into such a place, it becomes a kind of testing tool that penetrates all these different layers and historical moments that have created that surface. All these histories continue to have a say in terms of the actual surface of the city today, which was of interest to us. It was not just a nostalgic look at history or tradition. A lot of what tradition is in Congo is a very recent invention anyway, an amalgamation of many different times, actors, and logics that come together, there’s nothing traditional about it. It’s a very modern thing, tradition, in that sense. That’s what we wanted to do with that horizontality and with our method of ‘urban acupuncture’.


DM: Could you talk about this notion of urban acupuncture and analytical needles?


FDB: I derived the notion of urban acupuncture from a number of sources. First of all, the texts of the architect Baerbel Mueller were a source of inspiration, as was the work of Ariel Osterweis Scott, who has written about the dance practices of Faustin Linyekula as a form of acupuncture, a kind of geo-choreography or acupuncture through his body. Through his dancing, Scott says, Faustin reopens space, he generates alternative ways of creating publics, a public space. Mueller and Scott refer to this as a kind of acupunctural movement. Through his body, Faustin also reowns space and time. And of course, the other influence on this notion of urban acupuncture comes from the ‘weak architecture’ movement, with people like Sola Morales, Jaime Lerner, and Bruno Casagrande, who through very neat, small kinds of architectural interventions in urban landscapes try to ‘heal’ and to make urban life better. We’ve used that notion to talk about what we have done by choosing specific spots in the city and sticking our needle into these places, in our case, not in order to heal or to intervene or to therapeutically reassemble the city, but as a very delicate way of interacting with the city without too much intervening, without weighing on it too much. It allows us to rethink the city in an alternative way, to reassemble it differently. How can you live, what does living together in a city mean, and how does it come about?


SB: One of the things Filip’s writing highlights is the term or concept of libulu, which means “trou” in Lingala, “hole”, and this also relates to my own work on archives as part of a history that I did not learn anything about at school or at university. The colonial past was hidden and that was intentional. I grew up under Mobutu’s dictatorial regime, which totally denied the Belgians’ heritage in Congo. Instead, we went through the ideology of « Retour à l'authenticité ». I didn't know anything except that Belgians were bad people, as were Westerners in general. Then the ‘90s arrived: crisis, the fall of Mobutu, and the beginning of the so-called “democracy”.  Suddenly, everything fell down. When I was young, I knew the importance of the Gécamines, one of the main mining companies in the Congo. But I never got the opportunity to go inside their mining sites. The Gécamines was in the heart of the country and we were so proud of it. In 2003 or 2004, working as a documentary photographer, I discovered some mining sites. While working there, I found archives from the colonial period: I discovered a story that had never been told to me, and it came as a shock.


That’s how I started these photo montages, mixing colonial archives with today’s landscape of abandoned sites. Combining the present of this mining area with the archives, I have tried to suture, to stitch together, to link the holes. It was also interesting to use this in order to talk about how the city is growing, about our own way of thinking the city and thinking about us us, the Congolese, in[bm1]  the city in our country.


DM: Let’s talk about this concept of the hole and the notion of suturing, both of which are so central to the process of your joint work. Knowledge, information, histories, biographies, and people seem to disappear into this black hole, which is, as you have explained, a critical signifier for ways in which people in Kinshasa apprehend the city. Can you tell us more?


FDB: You could say that the postcolonial reality has become that of the hole, the trou, libulu. In Lingala, this concept refers to the physical holes that you find everywhere in the landscape in Kinshasa and throughout Congo: it may refer to the potholes that you find on the streets, or the unmarked holes of anonymous graves that are scattered throughout the city and beyond, all over Congo. Many people have died displaced and we don’t even know where their graves are. Libulu may also refer to the holes of artisanal mining sites, which are so common in Katanga and other places in Congo. The hole is almost a generic infrastructure of postcolonial reality. But in local speak, in the local mind, it has also become a kind of meta-concept for thinking about the quality of life itself in that urban setting or in that country at large. Libulu can refer to feelings of being imprisoned by darkness, of informality, of things that don’t work. A nightclub in downtown Kinshasa that is very popular these days is called “le grand Libulu”, “the big hole”. It is so popular that a second one has been opened and in their wake there have been all kinds of bars that have taken on the name “hole”, there’s even a nightclub in Bobigny, Paris named after a famous hole in one of the main streets of Kinshasa, the Libulu Manzengele. The hole captures the idea of what postcolonial life in the urban setting is. The nightclub offers a specifically Congolese response to the hole: if we have to live in a hole, we may as well dance in it. You could say it’s funny. But at the same time, that local concept of the hole should be taken very seriously, and I’ve therefore linked it to the notion of ‘suture'. Of course, suture, stitching together, refers to closing wounds and healing. It’s also a psychoanalytical Lacanian concept, though it was not invented by Lacan but by one of his co-fellows, Jacques-Alain Miller, who used that notion of suture to denote a lack. The suture is a zero but a zero that can be redefined as a one. It is an impossibility that can be rethought and reformulated as a possibility.


DM: You show the symbiotic relationship between the countryside and the city, which is of course something that itself gets radically evaluated through the overwhelming fascination with it by anthropologists, art historians, and filmmakers today through this notion of the African city.


FDB: The countryside itself formats the urban. Long before starting to work in the urban field, I spent a number of years in a rural area, a small village community along the border with Angola. A lot of these rural people were involved in a trans-border diamond trade and smuggling operations between Angola and Congo. Over time, they slowly worked their way up to secondary towns and major cities such as Kikwit and Kinshasa. I started to follow them. It wasn’t a conscious kind of research choice. I’ve always thought of this as a lucky coincidence that allowed me to discover, see, read, understand, and feel the city in the way that many Congolese do, namely, coming from the village and going to the city. From that perspective and with that kind of rural background and rural network, you can access and read a city in a very different way. It's a totally different story from when you take an airplane from the Brussels airport and arrive in Kinshasa.

Accessing a city such as Kinshasa from the other side, you start to notice how much the rural actually constructs and builds the city. We tend to think of the city as a kind of a modernist project that is there, a solid thing, perhaps unfinished at its fringes, where the rural penetrates the urban. But in fact, it’s not like that at all. It’s quite the opposite, it’s the rural that formats, gives form to, enables the urban to take place. And indeed, anthropologists used to be so good at talking about rural worlds and small-scale communities on the village level. Today, we’re all working in Kinshasa, Lagos, Nairobi, not too far away from our fridges, our cold beers, our bars, it’s easy, it’s trendy, it’s hip. And in a country like the DRC, everyone is in Kinshasa or Lubumbashi, no one really knows what’s going on in the countryside anymore, but that’s where the country and the city are being made, in a way. I think it is necessary to take that into account in order to understand the urban world we live in.

SB: Yes, and I think that the city and the country, Congo, are the result of an invention, of something that has been imposed, and of colonial exploitation. My work "Essay on urban planning" portrays the practices of segregation and racial discrimination that are responsible for the planning of cities in Congo. The ‘cordon sanitaire,’ a physical and geographical space of 500 meters that separates the whites from the natives, is still present in most cities like Lubumbashi. This racial violence and system of exploitation of natural and human resources, which has ultimately resulted in a totally inequitable distribution of resources, persists today under a postcolonial socio-political system that has accommodated the gangrene inherited from colonization.

With reference to the current socio-political and cultural system, I'm seeking, through my artistic work, to tap into pre-colonial knowledge and perception, not for the sake of restoring "tradition as a fundamental value of our societies", but rather to link the past with the present while making a critical analysis of the colonial era.