Quiet, we're (not) crying!
Artistic acts to complete the mourning process. And to celebrate
In 2010, the city of Lubumbashi celebrated its 100 years. Even if some activities had been organized in advance of commemorations, the centennial year didn't witness many events being hosted. The magazine Jeune Afrique selected two occurrences in relation to the centenary: TP Mazembe's victory in the CAF Champions League and the 2nd Rencontres Picha. Lubumbashi Biennale. The former was unexpected; nobody in Lubumbashi established a link between the football team's performance and the need to celebrate the city’s centenary. The latter, despite its official title ‘biennale’––which would appear to refer to an event supported by the public authorities––was, in fact, an alternative and independent project that we organised without any plans for it to be ‘the’ celebration. It is as though a local football team and an emerging art-centre had just occupied the terrain vacated by the institutions, breaking as it were the silence that set in when confronted with the constraints related to organising the commemoration.
It must be noted that the region's history is somewhat complex and the nature of the interplay with its past is not devoid of difficulties. Local museums, in the absence of a clear line of political understanding, are either mute or opt for exhibitions often produced outside the country, and which come about through common channels of cooperation. All the energy, the ability to reflect over and to analyse our historical context are concentrated on cashing in on our highly coveted mineral resources. Any attempt to re-interpret history is overshadowed by political exploitation and by the needs of the economic structures, who settle for gauging the population's capacity to acquiesce and to serve, as well as to prevent any revolt which might emerge. Thus it appears that numerous historical occurrences are gradually being disregarded: the harsh colonial period, which nonetheless persisted during the breakaway by the Katanga province eleven days after the Congo's declaration of independence; the ‘Zairisation’ by Mobutu of firms administered by the Europeans; the grey areas surrounding the execution of Lumumba (1961) and the contentious issue around the massacre of students at the University of Lubumbashi (1990).
These questions, which the institutions prefer to leave unanswered, are nonetheless thought provoking. Coincidentally, 2010 also marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Republic of the Congo’s independence.
Given that Lubumbashi was the capital of the short-lived State of Katanga whose objective was to retain control of the Belgian-owned mines in the region, the joint celebrations were carried out with a sense of foreboding of possible secessionist overtones. In addition, these two specific references to the colonial era and the dictatorship have certainly been difficult to pinpoint for today’s political stakeholders. The dictatorship did its utmost to erase all traces of colonisation (street names and monuments, Christian names, all in the name of the politics of authenticity). Subsequently, the Kabila regime was painstaking, albeit less systematically, to remove any names and references to Mobutu (street names, national holidays and so forth). 2010 was to see Mobutu’s being posthumously rehabilitated in Kinshasa. His effigy sat alongside other former presidents in front of the Palais du Peuple on the Boulevard Triumphal, across from the presidential rostrum. 2010 was also the year in which the King of the Belgians, Albert II, returned as guest of honour at the celebrations. The independence of the Congo at once generates and undoes a series of heroes and anti-heroes, duly creating an accessible narrative with its share of ‘goodies and baddies’. The Lubumbashi centenary commemoration, however, did not allow for such a binary distinction. The local dimensions––a matter of a completely separate complexity––were dissolved in a nationwide celebration of the triumph over colonialism. Between such extreme dynamics, it was challenging to settle upon the tenor of the celebrations: The city of Lubumbashi chose to refrain. The City Hall’s response was merely to organise an ecumenical service.
The Congolese writer André Yoka Lye described this dilemma in what he refers to as an approximated process of grieving in political terms. In referring to the non-grieving for Lumumba as the paradigm of the Congolese crisis, he thus denounces a literature founded upon a patrology à la congolaise, more so than a critical look at past events and their contemporary repeat performances.
From a political and historical perspective, following years of war and an acute crisis, we can observe amongst the intellectual and ruling elite either a paradoxical rhetoric of nostalgia magnifying excessively memory for memory’s sake so as to eradicate from the collective memory the betrayals and human weaknesses, or, a procedure involving manipulation and misinformation, which disembodies the history of its founding heroism.
André Yoka Lye
In organising the second Rencontres Picha in 2010, we attempted to broach history through the prism of its traces in urban spaces, by questioning the city’s structure established on the basis of racial segregation during the colonial period, and nowadays by social segregation. Supervised by Simon Njami, who selected artworks by nineteen mostly but not uniquely African artists, the event featured photos being presented on billboards and videos projected in front of Lubumbashi‘s iconic buildings. These interventions followed three distinct itineraries throughout the city, organised around three specific themes: Power, Memory and the Neutral Zone. The Power itinerary connected buildings and sites that bespoke of religious, economic or political authority. The Memory or cultural axis interlinked those cultural venues that were over time abandoned, diverted from their original function or re-modelled in an organic fashion (former cinema, theatre turned into churches, bootleg markets and so on). As for the Neutral Zone itinerary, it followed the physical demarcation between the “white” city and the ‘“black” city on the map during the colonial period and whose vestiges remain, despite a torrent of haphazard construction. This former line of demarcation now includes green belts, wetlands, a canal and the city’s leading ore processing plant. We put a great deal of effort into transforming the Neutral Zone into a space where residents could meet. In recognising its potential as a future habitat––by making it into a space for popular festive encounters––we were able to re-interpret the history of that divisive demarcation line in a fresh and reconciliatory manner.
An identical approach was used once again the following year in 2011 with the introduction of “close openings”, or so-called “fleeting openings”. Once a month an artist was invited to present their work in his or her neighbourhood, with a set design that extended into a public space adjacent to their studio or place of residence.
In order to put together these inter-urban itineraries and artistic interventions, we availed of data gathered by scholars specialising in urbanism, mainly that collected over a decade by Johan Lagae, professor at the University of Ghent in Belgium. The endeavour in which we subsequently engaged was to re-draw the city map with the assistance of local residents and to create more subjective and individually oriented itineraries. Artists, street vendors or locals were interviewed and followed during their daily meanderings across the city. We drew up some interesting routes, such as the itinerary featuring the haunted houses of Lubumbashi as described by the writer of science fiction and mystery novels Albert Kapepa, or Jean Katambayi's mapped routes that trace his various personal, professional and administrative trails throughout the city. Above all, these itineraries offered the opportunity to literally get off the beaten track, by following the shortcuts taken by the street vendors, or by locating access to the outdoor cafés and other such drinking establishments. It’s what we refer to in Lubumbashi as the katricher. These inner-city journeys also enabled us to illustrate the ambivalent relationship of some of the city’s population towards the river Lubumbashi, a hidden element in the initial representations of the city but nonetheless very present in the imagination. These works were presented in October 2013 at an exhibition during the 3rd Biennale under the theme of “enthusiasm” as defined by the curator Elvira Dyangani Ose, and borrowed from Jean-François Lyotard to describe the inherent power in the hands of residents to knock their city down and to rebuild it from the bottom up.
To integrate the concept of an itinerary with the idea of social dynamics enabled us to address issues of mobility, space and their links to history, or, more exactly, with other histories, of stories by the residents seen from another angle, following their sense of nostalgia and their will to project themselves into their environment or their wish to rework it.
This approach constitutes part of the Revolution Room project [“Chumba cha mapunduzi” in Swahili]. Focusing on work by artists in public space and within their communities, this project questions the function of the museum as an institution as well as that of collaborative practices. It pans out in the form of mirror projects in South Africa, through the intermediary of our partner in South Africa, Visual Art Network, and in the Congo, with the Rencontres Picha.
In the Congo, the project is spread over three sites: the Moba Territory in the Katanga province, where it focuses on issues relating to the land and to cultural heritage in the tracks of Agathon Kakusa Mapemba, a contemporary sculptor who became chief; at Fungurume, where it documents the changes in village-life after it was relocated by the American mining company Tenke Fungurume Mining; in Lubumbashi, in the Cité Gécamines housing estate, a former workers camp belonging to the leading public copper company operating in the region, which is currently bankrupt.
The section devoted to Lubumbashi was the result of works undertaken on the city of Lubumbashi by the Rencontres Picha. The decision to focus the work on the Cité Gécamines enabled us to identify the sway of nostalgia against the paternalism that the company inherited from colonisation, and moreover to highlight the new dynamics in the throes of development. The Cité is also a battle zone, an area of tensions and sometimes violence. An indicator to this state of affairs is the Place des Martyrs (a square developed for a monument that never was erected) where workers demanding fair wages were shot in 1941.
The contemporary witnesses are those Gécamines workers who were dismissed in great numbers and in an abusive fashion, in what were commonly called “the voluntary redundancies”. This term refers to the reduction of the workforce by means of a “voluntary redundancy” package introduced between 2000 and 2003 by Gécamines and the Congolese government––the owner of the firm––based on recommendations and funding by the World Bank. This package offered the personnel, who had not been paid for more than two years, a few thousand dollars to quit their jobs and to relinquish their final payslip.
The steeped history of this Cité was played out in the performances of Mufwankolo, in song and dance by JEKOKE (“young comedians from Katanga based in Elisabethville”), by the performances of the group of acrobats Bana Mampala [“Children of the Slagheap” in Swahili] as well as in popular painting, which depicts violent scenes using the same stage set featuring the chimneystack and slagheap that tower over the neighbourhood. Contemporary artists, Sammy Baloji (Democratic Republic of the Congo) in Memory, Ângela Ferreira (Portugal) in Enter The Mine and Bodil Furu (Norway) in Mining Code also addressed this theme.
In August 2014, the Picha Art Center moved to Cité Gécamines and organised a series of actions with local residents. The project’s initial idea entailed taking an empty house that was for rent and to gradually fill it with objects, with ideas, memories, and everybody’s projected desires. This performative action reactivated a project dating back to the early 2000s by the association Mémoire à Lubumbashi, who gathered more than a thousand objects in the Cité. We were thus able to bring to fruition a participatory exhibition waza CHUMBA wazi [“Imagine an Empty Room”] with a working group from the Cité, and to collectively define everything from the choice of objects, their names, their labels, to their scenography and display.
We succeeded in assembling a series of elements, notably a line of subjective time, related to all the participant’s life stories, to certain objects, historic events or private lives.
A creative project based on the real-life experiences of this community and the resonances of its history is being currently developed. In connection with the neighbourhood's industrial history, Jean Katambayi, an artist from the region, is exploring the nostalgia and the local residents’ living dreams. His mother figured among the victims of the mass lay-offs at Gécamines. In a project called Sol Sous-Sol [“Ground Underground”], he elaborates on the idea of showmanship and behind the scenes realities inherent in the negotiations and all acts of society. He analyses the tension between that which emerges and that which remains hidden, either because it has yet to be discovered, or because of the intention to conceal them. He alludes to the relationship between nostalgia and dreams, as well as to timeless flow between them. Through this project, Jean Katambayi reveals to us a very different path in which time, space or words set no limits.
At Fungurume, Patrick Ken Kalala proposes to produce a docu-drama film based on the life stories of the villagers relocated in the name of flexibility; he reveals their complex relationship to the land around them and the tension between two notions of well-being: that of the mining company which built the new camp, and that of the villagers, some of whom regret having left their huts and their fields.
In Moba, 800 km from Lubumbashi, we were received by an artist who has been chief for more than five years. Agathon Kakusa Mapemba, known as Agxon, is a contemporary artist who has widely exhibited, particularly in Belgium and Germany. As chief of Fungurume, he is currently confronted with a reality that includes the group’s relationship with the land and with property, the junction between traditional and administrative authorities but also the junction between an ancestral art and artefacts of power and worship, as well as those he creates himself. In our encounter with him we ventured towards that history with a series of ideas to explore: what remains of Taabwa art at the juncture in which the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art will feature an exhibition on art from the region, notably Taabwa artworks? What remains of the memory of Lusinga, leader of the Taabwa, who had been decapitated at the beginning of colonial period and whose skull is still housed in the collection of the Natural History Museum in Brussels? What traces in the Taabwa’s collective memory did the Arab and Swahili sultanates leave behind; what traces of the attempts to build a Christian kingdom by the White Fathers missionaries, and of the Belgian colonisation, in addition to architectural masterpieces and piles of written records? The project’s fundamental question, however, is how to embrace the particular way in which those living in the chiefdom construct and transmit oral history as a backdrop upon which to project their subjectivity, their dreams and their willingness to speak to the world.
We want to address all these experiences as a reality that is at once local and universal. They will be offered along with the insights of Toma Luntumbue, our artistic director for the 4th Rencontres Picha. Lubumbashi Biennale in October 2015. The concept he has chosen is based on two mutually complementary ideas: “meteoric realities” (borrowed from Édouard Glissant) and “dislocated narratives”.
GLISSAND, Édouard: Une nouvelle région du monde - Esthétique I. Paris 2006.
KAPEPA, Albert In: Chroniques du Congo. Paris 2012.
LYOTARD, Jean-François: L’enthousiasme. La Critique Kantienne de L’histoire. Paris 1986. Enthusiasm: The Kantian Critique of History. Trans. George Van Den Abbeele. Stanford 2009.
Rencontres Picha. 2. Biennale de Lumumbashi, Octobre 2010 (catalogue).
Rencontres Picha. 3. Biennale de Lumumbashi, 2012/2013, voir http://www.rencontrespicha.org
YOKA LYE, André: Combats pour la culture. Brazzaville 2013.