With the exhibition 'Congo Connecting', a selection of photos from the series Congo (2010) by Carl De Keyzer is on show again. What impact do these photos have today? Do we now look at our colonial past in a different way and are we more aware of the consequences that it had and still has today? Parallel to this exhibition, Astrid Huis tells the personal story of Aunt José, who left the Glorieux monastery for Congo in the 1950s to work as a missionary in 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. Therefor Pennings Foundation organized an Open Call to show other visions of Congo.
One of the curators of Congo Connecting, Stef Van Bellingen, not only approached Judith Elseviers for the Open Call, but also asked her to comment on Carl De Keyzer's photos. The interview is included in its entirety below, because it is a connecting link between Carl De Keyzer's series and the Open Call.
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.
In Belgium she developed the learning trajectory 'Decolonize your municipality'. In libraries, schools, but also in traditions and the public space of cities and municipalities, colonial ideas and references are present that maintain historically developed but discriminatory power relations. Questioning these is an important step towards an inclusive society. In this learning trajectory she presented concrete proposals to break through that blind spot and tackle it from the local reality.
Interview: Judith Elseviers commentary on Carl De Keyzer's Congo series
S (Stef Van Bellingen): “What strikes you most about these photos, Judith?”
J (Judith Elseviers): “General? The lack of context.”
S: “What exactly do you mean by that?”
J: “There are city views and types of architecture that I recognize in several of the photos and are believed to have been taken in Lubumbashi – the center of the Katangese mining industry and Kisangani which has diamond mines nearby. In addition to being a supplier of raw materials, Kisangani has always been an economic engine. This region supplies the food to much of the country and also provides most of the tax revenue.
There are many broken buildings and they are the result of the struggle for resources: diamond, copper, cobalt, uranium and zinc. In 2000, Kisangani was the battleground between Ugandan and Rwandan armies for six bitter days. The ruins in the city seem to be the result of an internal African conflict, but in fact it is a ‘proxy war’, a conflict controlled by other superpowers. That is a context that you have to get to understand the photos better.”
S: “Can you show those invisible forces in a photo?”
J: “Maybe not, but as an outsider there is a risk of developing a horribly scary interpretation of what you see. Look, you should know that Congo is a very photogenic country. Everyone, including me when I take pictures, falls precariously into the trap of that photogenic, of something that produces a striking image. But every time I ask myself the question: 'what does this photo mean and how did those scars arise?'”
S: “Otherwise it will remain purely aesthetic for you?”
J: “Precisely! And of course the aesthetic can be a function of photography or art, but in a postcolonial situation that should not be the only approach.”
S: “What other perspectives do you propose?”
J: “That is complex and even somewhat ambiguous because I would like to see an aesthetic counterpart for some images. Take that photo in a market square. You can still see the remnants of that market, but I lack the liveliness of meeting on such a market and the economic activity. That also applies to another photo of a market event with women next to cool boxes in front of a construction with 'Jaws' on it. The exchange of merchandise and the buzz of happenings are completely absent.”
S: “Suppose Carl De Keyzer took pictures of a market in Belgium or The Netherlands, wouldn't he also portray similar scenes?”
J: “Okay, probably yes, but for people in Belgium or The Netherlands that context is known. Now there is a good chance that the cliché of decay will only be confirmed. Too predominately I see ‘decrepit moonscapes’ - cemeteries almost. That doesn't mean there are no decay or ruins, but the dynamics of the gathering are enormously constitutive for Africa.”
S: “Do you see an important difference with the western world?”
J: “Crucial even. Society is less focused on itself and draws strength from group events. Photographing and displaying something like this is a challenge. For example, you can read a photo with a kind of class meeting in a roofless building as a ruin, so negative, but you can also read that image as life that continues and develops - despite the circumstances.”
S: “Wouldn't viewers interpret this photo positively?”
J: “That's not out of the question, but I'm afraid they won’t. Because of the distance. I have that feeling with the photographer himself. For me he always remains at a distance, he is never really close. The lens is a long way from the people themselves. Symbolically, I apply that to other viewers who, moreover, can only make an interpretation with indirect images of a photographer who, for me anyway, physically observes from a distant position. He doesn't dare come closer.”
S: “What can we do ourselves to bridge that distance?”
J: “Gain knowledge and cultivate awareness. What you usually see is a decor that has been left behind by the colonization, a system. Look at a photo with a fragment of a Leopold equestrian statue with a group in the background. With us, in Belgium anyway, there are still (fortunately contested) images of Leopold. But here we live in the luxury that colonization has brought with it, while over there people live, as well as possible and with enormous resilience, in the misery that it has brought about. That is how I return to those raw materials.”
S: “The more industrial photos in the series?”
J: “Factories with indeed the representation of machines and labor that often takes place under precarious conditions, also here by the way. But above all, again and again, I would like to point out the raw materials that we also, and above all perhaps, need, but from which the local population still benefits little or not. That 'lack' of our complicity can be seen in many photos. That's why that photo fascinates me with the man sitting under a green parasol. At first sight a nice photo, but on closer inspection you notice that the foot to keep the parasol upright is missing. That is the spirit, the underrated inspiration, of Africa that for me should be in more photos: Despite the (material) incompleteness, still survive, live and preferably with an infectious dynamic that involves others.”
S: “Nicely formulated! Do you have a consideration, remark or tip?”
J: “Read Achille Mbembe's ‘Critique of Black Reason’. He analyzes the origin of the concept of the 'black' linked to the system in which it was developed. This in itself explains the reason for the debate about Zwarte Piet. But it also outlines a system of control of the capital production process with its bad consequences, what has its repercussions on the West. Not so much about raw materials, but in a politics about labour, and that is not very far from slave labour. So Mbembe writes about language and insights that often fall short, that are gray and sometimes inadequate, but he also outlines the lines of escape that can free us from it.”
See Blog #43 Open Call for Judith Elseviers' contribution to the Open Call.