In May 1960, Patrice Lumumba of the Mouvement National Congolais became the first legally elected Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The following month he interrupted carefully choreographed celebrations marking the country’s independence from Belgium, to deliver a passionate and uncompromising denunciation of colonialism and its agents. He was executed early the next year by a firing squad under the command of Belgian officers. Had they not done the job there is ample evidence to suggest that the CIA would.
© Guy Tillim. Apartment building, Avenue Bagamoyo, Beira, Mozambique, 2008
His name lives on: throughout Africa children are christened after him. Mali has a Lumumba Square, Kinshasa a Lumumba Boulevard, and there are streets in his honour as far afield as Budapest, Jakarta and Belgrade. Mozambique too has an Avenue Patrice Lumumba, a road which gives its name to Guy Tillim’s latest body of work.
The eighty photographs that comprise his book picture the architectural remains of the colonial era – he has photographed apartment blocks, university buildings, city halls, administration offices and hotels for example, across Angola, Mozambique, Madagascar and the Congo. Speaking from Portugal where an exhibition of the work is set to open at the Serralves Museum in Porto he explains, ‘Modernist architecture was the hook on which I hung the project, but it is not about that architecture – it’s not a survey. Rather, these were places that I had got to know while working as a photojournalist; I had always been struck by the bizarre stage that they provided.’
‘Many of the cities built in the 60’s and 70’s expired shortly after, or even before, they were completed. In Mozambique and Angola, for example, the colonies were dispensed with in short order. They were given back. And very quickly people came and inhabited these buildings; they were nationalised – there was no private ownership. For me they make a very surreal landscape which I have always been interested in.’
© Guy Tillim. National Museum Grounds, Avenue 24 de Julho, Maputo, Mozambique, 2007
He writes in the introduction that ’Patrice Lumumba’s dream, his nationalism, is discernible in the structures…as is the death of his dream.’ Of the two – the dream and its death – it is perhaps the latter that is the most evident in many of Tillim‘s photographs. In the main, the buildings have fallen into advanced states of disrepair. The Grande Hotel in Beira, Mozambique for instance, is home to a semi-permanent population of displaced refugees; and the vaunting ambition of the building is undermined by the washing left to dry on a roof terrace balcony, or the cooking pots left out on the walkways. The hotel’s cracked and crumbling plaster and concrete – which presumably was once pure, modernist white – is now spectacularly and dramatically discoloured, stained in shades of filthy grey.
Whatever the temptation to read the photograph as some manner of indictment or condemnation, Tillim maintains a studied neutrality.‘I tried not to judge these colonial spaces, and say “This is what happened” or “This is what went wrong here” because I wanted more to try and convey it, or portray it, as something one sees almost as part of peripheral vision. I didn’t want to make a documentary in the sense that I’d come to know it, I wanted to make landscapes – often without people, and without entering into their private spaces. And I wanted to find a way of photographing those landscapes that was more neutral than me bringing my ideas of drama and action into a picture.’
© Guy Tillim. Likasi, DR Congo, 2007
‘Of late I’ve been doubting my ability to judge how people live. I can see it, but I come from somewhere else and there is a danger of projecting myself and my ideas onto the people I’m photographing.’
The mentions of drama and action refer of course to his earlier career as a South African photojournalist, and member of the Afrapix collective, during the most turbulent years of the 80’s and 90’s. Now he sounds ambivalent about such work, worrying that ‘I’m not sure that African history is well served by photographs,’ adding, ‘Often in my practice I missed a lot of things while looking for drama, or what I thought was important. I missed things in the landscape, and I lost the trail of the holy grail – which is context. These new pictures of buildings, landscapes, the banal and the quotidian, are a way back into that search.’
© Guy Tillim. Maputo, Mozambique, 2007
Just as Tillim implies a reckoning with an earlier mode of practice, so there is also a sense in which the new work confronts issues regarding his own identity as an African
‘More than trying to present a collapsed history of colonialism, I was interested in the idea of situating myself …and in what is an African identity. Because it is a vexed issue: people have grown up – in my case under apartheid – under colonialism, or inhabiting the shell of the colonial period, and we form our identity, to an extent, through the buildings and landscapes around us. It is a complicated relationship and I was trying not to judge it, and to see it for its beauty.’
‘Because although these buildings come from a colonial past, they are indisputably African.’
Avenue Patrice Lumumba (Prestel, £35)
Prints from the project are on display at The Photographers’ Gallery, London until April 12.
Avenida Patrice Lumumba is on display at Museu Serralves, Porto, Portugal until May 17.