Avenue Patrice Lumuba
Civic planning, the physical manifestation of colonial government, has left its mark over much of Africa. In Avenue Patrice Lumumba, South African photographer Guy Tillim’s large colour tableaux record the crumbling architecture and once grand tree-lined streets constructed by European powers in the Congo, Mozambique and Angola. Co-published by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and Prestel, and featuring short texts from Robert Gardner and Tillim himself, this mainly pictorial book examines the hybrid landscape produced by the intermingling of these surviving structures with local culture.
Referring to principal streets often lined with trees, the French avenue perhaps most strongly evokes the grand town-planning of the 18th and 19th centuries. As European states engaged in huge building projects sweeping away the ramshackle medieval streets, Africa in the 20th century provided the space for colonial governments to implement grand architectural schemes without restraint. So the civic spaces in Tillim’s pictures are familiar, even though the ornamental planting schemes are now overgrown by creepers, the statuary mainly prostrate, and the playgrounds empty and rusting in the sun.
Central to colonial town planning were the municipal buildings: office blocks, centres of education and huge hotels. Their clean lines and curving concrete once defined by the bright African sun are depicted here stained and worn. Improvised washing lines hang everywhere: over a dried-up swimming pool, between chimneys, flapping from balconies, the grandeur of the architecture usurped by practical domesticity. As well as the architectural forms, Tillim photographs their half empty interiors. His pictures seem mostly about absence: strong light shines through uncovered windows onto basic furnishings, the spaces – a grand stairwell or an empty office, appear remnants of a time past. At times, people are pictured moving through these buildings: students in a schoolyard, office workers at their desks. However, they rarely engage the camera. These remain portraits of the structures.
Unlike in Europe, Africa provided the space permitting members of colonial society to live in the manner of the upper classes in their native countries. Along with colonial building programmes had come institutionalised segregation of the native populace. However, in the wake of independence, grand streets and squares all over the continent took on new identities. In an assertion of the rights of the native African, many were renamed after Patrice Lumumba, first Prime Minister of the Congo Republic. On independence, Lumumba had famously articulated his people’s anger against colonial power in 1960 in a speech to King Baudouin of Belgium: “All the time our lands were being despoiled in the name of texts claiming to be legal, which, only, however, recognised the right of the strongest… in the towns there were magnificent houses for the whites and ramshackle straw huts for the blacks.” Lumumba’s government was only to survive for 10 weeks – and the deposed Lumumba was arrested and killed a few months later – but his words remain hugely significant within the history of this era.
Avenue Patrice Lumumba illustrates how the colonial endeavour is gradually becoming the past, its figureheads felled, its intervention in the African landscape, crumbling and reclaimed by the local populace. That these buildings, though mostly empty, still remain, is for Tillim a reminder of Africa’s continued struggle to shrug off its still recent history. However, by concentrating on their absorption and reuse, he creates a simple yet effective commentary on the reassertion of African identity in a continent in flux.