A selection of photos from the Congo series (2010) by Magnum photographer Carl De Keyzer forms the core of the exhibition Congo Connecting. Carl De Keyzer traveled several times through the Congo between 2003 and 2009 in search of traces that recall the period of Belgian colonization. In addition, Astrid Huis tells the story of her great-aunt, Tante José, who left the Glorieux monastery in Eindhoven in the 1950s for Congo to work as a missionary for health care. Besides the perspective of the colonial past and the perspective of mission work, Pennings Foundation was very curious about what contemporary photographers think of Congo.
Pennings Foundation organized an Open Call to show other visions of Congo. Two photos of each participant are selected for the walls; other photos or movies are shown on a screen. The Open Call is a 'growing' exhibition. Registration is possible until the end of this exhibition (April 16, 2022). See Open Call (penningsfoundation.com) A growing exhibit means new entries are regularly added to this blog.
We are pleasantly surprised that many young people from Congo have responded to this call. Most of them studied photography at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Kinshasa. And a number of them attended the Masterclass of South African teacher and curator John Fleetwood and showed his or her work in the group exhibition that was organized at the end of the masterclass. What is striking is that these young photographers have a positive outlook on life and above all want to show people's resilience. Through their images the Congolese photographers visualize social issues. The accompanying texts are also interesting, which provide the photos with context.
Dutch and Belgian entries also make a nice contribution to the Open Call. Participants visited Congo during a holiday or for a project. Some of them have their roots in Congo, such as Judith Elseviers. One of the curators of Congo Connecting, Stef Van Bellingen, not only approached her for the Open Call, but also asked her to comment on Carl De Keyzer's photos. Her commentary forms a connecting link between Carl De Keyzer's series and the Open Call. For the interview see blog #44 Interview Judith Elseviers
Judith Elseviers (1965, Brussels) studied law and obtained her Master's degree in cultural management and human ecology at the University of Antwerp and is now working as a teacher of law and management at Hogeschool Gent (B). She lives in Antwerp and is active in the cultural world, both in Belgium and Congo, where her roots lie. Her family lives all over the world, in Congo (Kinshasa, Kisangani, Boma, Goma), USA, Canada, Belgium and France.
“The photos were taken on the occasion of my second family visit in Congo, in Kinshasha and further crossing to Kisangani. The pool was at a resort where we stayed. My photos show that there are also wealthy people living in Congo, including my family.
Congo is a beautiful and photogenic country. This gives even war photos a tinge of beauty. I make photogenic images there.”
Jamil Lusala (1990, Kinshasa, DR Congo) studied visual communication and photography at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Kinshasa (Master), after studying agricultural mechanization. Lives and works in Kinshasa. He uses documentary photography to capture the social situation in his country. His examples: Kiripi Katembo, Leonard Mpongo and Dareck Tuba.
Le penible fardeau de n’avoir rien a faire (The painful burden of having nothing to do, 2018)
“I find subjects on the street: lack of work, informal trade, feeling of abandonment. The low standard of living is a direct consequence of the deteriorating political situation. Young people try to earn an income by walking around with merchandise. However, jobs need to be created for the youth.”
Other themes he is concerned with: the emancipation of women and the consumer society.
Gloire Ndoko Swana (Kinshasa, DR Congo) studied visual communication and photography at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Kinshasa. He uses photography to raise questions about the environmental and the social situation, in a positive way, hoping to bring about a change of mentality. His examples: John Fleetwood, Katrin Peters-Klaphake, Monica Miranda, Leonard Pongo, Michelle Joukidis and Robert Carrubba. In addition to being a photographer, he is also a painter and sculptor.
Portrait générationnel d’une vieille congolaise (Generation portrait of an elderly Congolese woman)
“Is old age a curse or a blessing? Old age associated with wisdom and respect is an idealized representation and will always be up for debate. In my community, it's common for old people to be looked down upon and seen as wizards. I choose to look optimistically at the elderly once more, to take an interest in their role in society and in their struggle against old age. With the aim of encouraging young people to look at the elderly in a different way because they are an inspiration for respect, attention, joy, patience, hope, peace, gentleness, tranquility, safety, charity, generosity, justice, truth and prosperity in the future."
“This series depict an elderly woman with her children, her grandchildren and even the fourth generation. The photos were taken in a natural setting and evoke the typical image of generational portraits, with the emphasis on the woman. The scene takes place on the old family plot that has already been sold. It embodies the history and memory of the family and concludes them with symbols of love.”
Antalya Mbafumoya-Tchomba (2000, Kinshasa, DR Congo) is studying photography at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Kinshasa. In 2020 she graduated with a baccalaureate in mathematics and physics. However, she opted for an education in the arts.
She photographs landscapes and people in an aesthetic and poetic way. Doing so she wants to symbolically represent her country as a paradise on earth. In contrast to the widespread image of the country that emphasizes the hardships and difficult living conditions in many areas.
“I am confident in the great human and environmental potential of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the crucial role that new generations can play in solving the problems. Through my images I emphasize the beauty, uniqueness, joie de vivre and optimism that the people and landscapes of Congo radiate.”
Godelive Kasangati Kabena (1996, Goma, DR Congo) studied painting and photography at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Kinshasa (2020). With her photographic work she questions aspects such as personal and cultural identity, memory and place. She currently lives and works in Accra (Ghana).
Zetu (Swahili for ‘Our’, 2020-2021)
“This work is part of a series of photos and videos focusing on the postcolonial positioning of the Congolese and African languages. I ask myself questions about the re-appropriation, disappearance and evolution of Congolese and African languages under the influence of neo-colonial languages.”
Baudouin Bikoko lives and works in Kinshasa. In Kinshasa, he set up the Art de Vivre exhibition space, especially to promote the work of Congolese photographers from the 1950s to the 1970s. To this end, he collected photo archives and studied the work of photographers such as Jean Depara, Ambroise Ngaimoko, Santos, Vondopho, Emmanuel Pedro, Diogo, Less. He became acquainted with the work of these photographers through the magazine La Revue Noire. Every year he organizes the exhibition 'Voir et Vivre la Photo' in Kinshasa.
He also takes pictures himself, thanks to photographer Simon Tshiamala who encouraged him to do so. He started shooting from car mirrors, giving the images two or even three dimensions. 'Reflects' also refers to his approach: through the mirrors he reflects on the society of Kinshasa. In other series he captures unusual situations and the people who live lonely on the margins of society..
Arsène Mpiana Monkwe (1992, Kinshasa, DR Congo) is a photojournalist, artist, teacher and head of the photography department of the Académie des Beaux-arts in Kinshasa. He writes for Der Spiegel, Jeune Afrique, Agence France-Presse, the New York Times and liberation.fr.
Déconnexion perpétuelle (Perpetual disconnection)
“This art project is an investigation into personal identity. Through beliefs, facts and connections, customs and habits of traditional African societies are reflected. Abstract connections that, like a filigree (fine-meshed) network, connect concrete facts with possible spiritual causes. Events that are difficult to explain and that I have noticed in my family from childhood to today.
It is an art project but also a way of interacting with my family and exploring the contrast between the norms and values of traditional African society and those of modern society.
Photography as a medium already has a history. In my work I investigate the history and myths of my family, prompted by a lack of connection with my origin. I try not only to write my story, but also to relive moments from before my time. For this I use archive photos, with the notes on dates, places, memories and legends on the back.
In 2015 my story started to take shape. One day, while playing in my father's canoe, I backslashed into the N'djili River in Kinshasa. I used to do that before, but this time I dived so deep into the water that I panicked. I felt like my end was near until a hand suddenly grabbed me and pulled me up. When I got home, my father told me that our family had a special bond with water and crocodiles. The crocodile is the totem pole of our family.”
Sephora Mianda (1999, Kinshasa, DR Congo) studies photography at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Kinshasa since 2021. After her final exams in 2016, she joined the artist collective Bokutani through visual artist Géraldine Tobe.
Lele (clothing, 2021)
With the series 'Lele' she questions the interaction with other cultures that have strongly influenced Africa and the African. She does this, for example, by showing clothing that refers in shape to European fashion, but is made of a fabric printed with the Mandombe script. This script was developed in 1978 by Wabeladio Payi with the intention of writing indigenous languages of Congo.
Samuel Ngange Mwani (Kinshasa, DR Congo) is a visual artist living and working in Kinshasa.
He immerses himself in everyday life where invisible barriers have been erected over time that now have to be removed.
Unspeakable sound coming from afar...
Monotonous, persistent and deep.
Far away and present at the same time.
An invisible and screaming sound.
Like boundaries that exist between people.
Between people. Between peoples and countries.
Between cultures and traditions. Like barriers.
Barriers of heart, mind or language. The dialogue.
Ethnic, cultural and social barriers are a daily reality. This is the result of the loss of certain rights and freedoms. As a photographer, Samuel Ngange Mwani tries to reconnect the previously existing ties between the community.
Serges Kalongoshi (Kinshasa, DR Congo) studied painting and photography at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Kinshasa. He specialized in portraits. “My work is about identity”.
He is currently working on a series of portraits of employees of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Kinshasa, because "they introduced us to the artistic life in many ways and 'gave birth' to us".
Rachel Corner graduated in photography from the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam in 1997. She has worked as a documentary photographer ever since and focuses on social issues. Her photos have been published in De Groene Amsterdammer, NRC and Vrij Nederland, among others.
Bright Brass (2010)
Together with Laurens Nijzink and Espace Masolo she made the photo film 'Bright Brass' in 2010, in which she combined photos with sound. Bright Brass is a story about a brass band formed by former street children in Kinshasa, Congo DRC. “I was impressed by the positive impact music had on these children.”
“In 2010, at the time this photo film was made, there were between 25,000 and 40,000 children living on the streets in Kinshasa. Orphans or children rejected by their families, often accused of witchcraft and therefore held responsible for disaster within the family. These children have experienced a lot of violence and aggression.
Espace Masolo is a cultural center created by three Congolese artists. The children learn French and cultural activities are offered, the most important of which is playing in the brass band. Places like this are an exception in a city where life is a daily struggle for many residents.
Three of the youngsters from the marching band are central in this photo film. They tell their story about how they lost their family and what playing in the brass band means to them. They tell painful stories, but despite the burden they carry, the photo film also shows the joy they found at Espace Masolo.
We were able to experience up close what playing in the brass band means for these children. Before they were chased away, now people stop to listen to them. They have regained their voice and become more confident. It is impressive to witness the power of music and the positive impact this has on the lives of many of these young people.”
Lars Magnin (1946, Rotterdam) lives in Eindhoven. In 2013, he and his wife visited one of his daughters (Nienke Grootendorst) who had lived in Kinshasa for three years because of her husband's work. “Since this visit was at the invitation of the employer, strict security restrictions applied to us and we were only allowed into the city in the presence of the driver assigned to us and photography was not allowed or very carefully from 'our' blinded car. For that reason, the quality of most photos is not optimal, but they do give a good impression of life in Kinshasa. To me, the image with the street sweeper is symbolic of working in Kinshasa, where for a minimal fee, hundreds of these men sweep dust off the road 24 hours a day, leave it a few feet away and then move back in the opposite direction moments later to repeat."
Nienke Grootendorst kept a blog during her stay in Kinshasa (2013-2015), some of which were published in Linda and Telegraaf. The texts of a number of blogs (in Dutch) are at your disposal on the lecture table. The text below was published in Linda in October 2013.
Life is an air gun
Rapapapapapapapapapapapapapapa, the boy rattles. He bends a little as he fires a line of air bullets at our car with the air rifle in his arms.
Rapapapapapapapapapa, another row of air bullets, as he aims at the window from behind which I look at him bored.
The traffic light is broken and I have been standing still near our house for half an hour. The boy with his air rifle has been trying to get money from me all this time. He knocked, screamed, banged on the window, begged and cursed until he understood I wouldn't give him anything. Now he has given up hope and what do you do in such a case, in all your frustration? Then you grab your air rifle and blast that pesky white person in her air-conditioned, large, chauffeur-driven car. At least in Congo.
I do understand it. Good example is good to follow. He also can't help that he was born in this war-torn country and now has to save himself as a beggar. That his hands are not used for playing, but for begging for money, for knocking on doors, beating on windows, and begging. That even his only toy is a fantasy.
And when I see him stretch out his arm again, the hand of his other arm supposedly pull the trigger and hear him shout 'rapapapapapapapapa' again, looking at me with a savage look, I quickly pretend to be touched by his playing, by the air bullets from his air rifle. And as I slowly - as if I were seriously injured - slump back into my spacious, cool car seat, I see through my eyelashes his surprised look, his smile and a victory fist in the air. A small, black fist in the bright, stinging sun. I give him the pleasure. At least it's something.
Then suddenly a concerned frown, as if to say; "It's not real, my air rifle. It's not real, it's fake.” As any child might say, if they think an adult doesn't understand their game.
When Marcel finally finds a gap in the traffic that is starting to move again and I see the boy shooting around in the rear-view mirror, while the cars almost hit him and the soles of his slippers come loose on the warm asphalt, I realize that I wish I could say the same thing to the boy. "It's not real, your damn life, it's not real, your hopeless existence. It's not real, sweet little man with your air rifle, it's not real, but fake.”
Sterre Otten (1995, Eindhoven) studied photography at Koning Willem I College in Den Bosch and Hogeschool voor de Kunsten in Utrecht, followed by a study in art history at the Radboud University of Nijmegen. This year she hopes to complete her Master's degree.
“As a documentary photographer I am always looking for special and unique stories. In my work I am attracted to people with special professions or striking personalities. About ten years ago, during my photography training, I got to know Oholiab A-Muteb (stage name Eauxby). He studied video and made rap music himself. We became friends and I've been shooting both him and his album covers ever since. This work is different from my usual practice, but it brings out a new way of photographing in me. After all these years it has actually become a documentary project. The main project has been for his album Joy (2020). In this album he returns to his roots: Congo. It is a tribute to his homeland and to his family, especially his grandfather.”
Oholiab A-Muteb (1994, Lelystad) lives and works in Weert. He started studying film at SintLucas in Eindhoven and switched to the AV course at ROC Midden Nederland Creative Collage.
“Last summer I went to Congo for the first time and for the first time I met family who do not live in Europe. The photos I took during this trip are very dear to me because I unsuspectingly spend the last moments with my grandmother. She was the granddaughter of an emperor.
In 2004 my grandparents came from Congo to the Netherlands. As a 10-year-old I was not aware of it at the time, but my mother had already started the process of applying for asylum for them. About 5 years later and a lot of AZCs further on, my grandfather and grandmother finally got their residence permit and not long after that an apartment that was within walking distance of where we lived. They lived there happily for 11 years, but they missed their homeland greatly.
My grandfather always told me stories about our family and our ancestors. “N'oublie pas, Oholiab, tu es un prince! Le grand-père de ta grand-mère était un empereur, Mwant Yav.” I will never forget these words. In 2020 my grandfather passed away and my grandmother was left alone.
In July 2021 I received a text from my mother with a photo of a passport. My grandmother finally got her Dutch identity after 17 years. Without wasting time, she then started planning a trip to Congo, because with the residence permit she had until recently, she was not allowed to travel outside the Schengen area.
Since my grandmother was old, she couldn't make that long journey alone, so I offered to go with her. For me it would be the first time to see my homeland. So we planned the trip. Grandma and I traveled to our family in Lubumbashi in August 2021 and spent two weeks there together. We went to Kolwezi to meet even more family and visited the cemetery of my ancestors.
Grandma had decided that she wanted to stay for three months because her visa only expired then, so I traveled back to the Netherlands alone on September 10. Just before I left she said to me: “I've seen everyone I wanted to see, now I'm happy”.
Five days after my arrival in the Netherlands I received a call from my mother and she told me that grandma had suddenly passed away. I was very shocked by it, but besides the feeling of pain and sadness I also felt a lot of gratitude. Grateful that I was able to contribute to making my grandmother's last wish come true and that I was able to capture it. The photos are a tribute to my grandmother, grandfather and my family.”
Benoît Van Maele (1976, Aalst, België) studied at the universities of Ghent and Brussels and has been working regularly in the DR Congo since 2008 for various NGOs in the field of health care, natural resources and protection. But he is also very interested in the art and culture of DR Congo. And he takes photographs.
‘Different answers to the same question' is a small selection from a series of photos of individuals and groups in Congo seeking or finding answers to everyday questions about injustice, difficulties and never ending problems.
Boxers, catchers (wrestlers), sapeurs (walkers), singers and many other minor professions offer a way out of the problems, preventing the individual from wasting away in the crowd. The individual can transcend himself and his daily harsh reality thanks to narratives where happiness, glory and sometimes a parallel world are within reach just around the corner.
The selected photos are of boxers (women and youth) and catchers (wrestlers). Two separate worlds, both introduced in Congo by the Belgian colonizer. Where boxing followed the well-known route, with training hard and being rewarded, the catch developed its own Congolese version. First by moving from Greco-Roman wrestling to American spectacle wrestling and a step further by integrating its own myths (for example about mermaids, called 'syrènes' or 'mami wata'), and especially fetish or voodoo practices in the ‘entertainment'.
Both show a facet of Congolese society and how people face the daily struggle in one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world.
“Kinshasa is a place where magical realism occurs in its natural form, it springs from a surreal poverty, an impossible population density and often hellish living conditions. There is no need to add another layer, it is an assault on all your senses.”
Brigitte Boffin was born in a Belgian-Congolese family, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a few years after independence (1960). She lived in Belgium for a large part of her life, and for a few years in Congo. After training in photography, she took the initiative for her own projects. Themes are diversity of nationalities and gender diversity. She lives in Antwerp.
“Mijn vader was een Belg en mijn moeder was Congolese. Een paar maanden na mijn geboorte heeft mijn vader mij naar zijn zuster gebracht. Daar ben ik opgegroeid en gebleven tot ik een jaar of dertien was. Daarna hebben mijn ouders besloten om mijn broers, mijn zus en mij terug te halen. Ik zag er tegenop om terug naar Congo te keren want ik had er een erg negatieve voorstelling van, een beeld dat gevormd werd door de ‘blanke Europeanen’. Alsof de mensen daar ‘wilden’ waren die nog in hutten leefden... Heel wat ongegronde negatieve vooroordelen. Ik heb er een paar jaar gewoond en ik vond het een erg mooi land, waar de mensen vaak vriendelijke, sympathiek en respectvol waren ondanks hun problemen. En niet zo materialistisch.”
“My father was Belgian and my mother was Congolese. A few months after I was born, my father took me to his sister. I grew up there and stayed until I was about thirteen years old. After that, my parents decided to take my brothers, my sister and me back. I dreaded going back to Congo because I had a very negative view of it, an image formed by the 'white Europeans'. As if the people there were 'savages' who still lived in huts... Lots of unfounded negative prejudices. I lived there for a few years and I thought it was a very beautiful country, where the people were often friendly, sympathetic and respectful despite their problems. And not so materialistic.”
‘Habari Goma’ (2018)
“With a series of photos of the city of Goma, located at Lake Kivi, I want to show the dynamism and energy of this city.” The city was hit by a volcanic eruption in 2002. Buildings and infrastructure were destroyed by the lava. But thanks to the volcano, the area around the city is very fertile and agriculture flourishes. Just about everything is for sale on the Goma market: fresh fruits and vegetables, beef, goat meat, chickens, fish. The soil of the Kivu area is rich in rare minerals such as coltan. However, it is also an area of conflict, rape, murder and war crimes... In this unstable environment, people try to survive with courage and boundless optimism.
Marenko van Doormalen (1968, Eindhoven) is a visual artist, living in Eindhoven. He studied Law in Tilburg with a focus on protecting cultural heritage. He also attended the propaedeutic year evening course at AKV St. Joost in Breda.
Out of Place (2021)
The series 'Out of Place' is about an image of the Songye tribe, one of the 250 ethnic groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This statue, from a Belgian collection, was a power figure that had a function in a shrine in the hut. These kinds of statues were placed on a pedestal on a cabinet or shelf by Western collectors as a new kind of shrine, but then dedicated to the experience of art.
The image is completely detached now that the vast majority of the Congolese population has left animism far behind, with the old context of use having disappeared and the new context being a Western concept.
In this series I have continued this detachment. The statue has left the western shrine and has been placed against the background of demolished or dilapidated buildings and western graffiti, in an attempt to experience a new connection to Congolese heritage.
Daaf Borren (1989, Eindhoven) studied International Relations at the University of Groningen and has been working as a journalist in sub-Saharan Africa since 2017. He is also the founder of the platform The Bright Continent, where he collaborates with African photographers and writers who show a different side of Africa. In line with that vision, he is currently writing a book about African youth and grassroots movements that are breaking down Western stereotypes about the continent. Because he travels criss-cross through twelve African countries, he currently does not have a permanent home address.
Badilika ("Change" in Swahili), 2022:
“In eastern Congo, where Swahili and French are intertwined into an unintelligible dialect, badilika is the key word. Located opposite each other on the far shores of Lake Kivu, Goma and Bukavu have been experiencing the disruptive effects of illegal mining and sexual violence for years. In the midst of that darkness, however tragic, the most hopeful initiatives arise, heroes prove their strength and aim for sustainable change.
Nobel Peace Prize winner, Dr. Denis Mukwege, is one of these heroes. At the risk of his own life, he has publicly opposed the unimaginable violence against women as a result of illegal resource robbery in the region for decades. It prompted him to establish Panzi Hospital, where victims of sexual violence – survivors – receive holistic care. In addition to medical support, they have access to psychological care, legal aid and socio-economic development. It provides women with tools to return to society independently of others.
Meanwhile, a team of Congolese researchers is working on behalf of Panzi on how to stop the epidemic of sexual violence. The research program is titled Badilika: 'change'. With various programs they set out to educate men about positive masculinity, in other words, how they can use their physical and emotional strength for a healthy society.
Inspired by Panzi and Badilika, similar initiatives are emerging that focus on changing the mentality of (young) Congolese and the masculine structure in which they grow up. Mamy Kattambu, herself a survivor, has set up Mouvement Des Survivantes together with fellow sufferers. The movement now has more than 5000 survivors and, led from eastern Congo, travels across the country to speak in schools and squares about sexual violence and improved women's rights. Un Jour Nouveau, located in Goma, is another Congolese initiative. They provide primary and secondary education and supplement this with training on ethical leadership and social entrepreneurship. In this way they prepare a next generation that takes responsibility and guarantees equal rights.
The question now arises as to when the Western world will follow the Congolese example and adjust its actions in the region. Congo has been plundered for decades by neighboring countries and mining giants who have so far refused to limit illegal practices and excessive (sexual) violence. It is therefore high time that we as the western world speak out for Badilika, for change. Perhaps this is the moment, because without Congo's cobalt, among other things, the European Green Deal, the transition to sustainable energy, is not possible. Like the Congolese, let us show leadership and ensure that the Western hunger for Congo's raw materials benefits local society.”