In the land of the blind, the lens is king

The Libreville series by Guy Tillim.

The Libreville series by Guy Tillim.

In terms of genealogy, one could say that Guy Tillim’s new exhibition Libreville has a sibling in Avenue Patrice Lumumba, his work from a few years ago. Both reference the same geographic region, countries watered by the Congo River, states without whose contributions a word like kleptocracy wouldn’t mean much.

For Avenue Patrice Lumumba, Tillim worked on a simple yet fascinating idea: going around photographing streets in six African states that are named after the slain hero. The streets are in Angola, Benin, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Madagascar and Mozambique.
But Tillim said this work owes much to the lessons he learnt while photographing landscapes in the South Pacific and São Paulo.

When I pointed out that both Libreville and Avenue Patrice Lumumba reference the same region, Tillim said he was not concerned about whether one was close to the other.

His current exhibition about the city of Libreville (a few of the capitals in that part of the world were/are “villes”: Leopoldville is Kinshasa’s old name, the “other” Congo’s main city of Brazzaville and, of course, Libreville) is only about Gabon’s main city and isn’t an itinerant concept as in Avenue Patrice Lumumba.

According to the artist’s statement, the new work draws on his ­“ongoing interest in power and ideology in Africa”. When I mentioned to Tillim that his work seems to be concerned with the Africa of pomp, ceremony and power, he demurred, saying that out of a score of photographs only two directly reference politics.

Yet, going through the exhibition, even pictures that are not really about power are actually about power. Take, for instance, the diptych of the Stade Omar Bongo. Two steel and mortar columns arch out high from the flatland to stare at each other as if in a duel. Although that may not be a photograph about power per se, stadiums on the continent are sites of power, its exercise and exhibition.

Theorist and writer Dominique Malaquais in the recently published Afropolis writes about how Stade du 20 Mai in Kinshasa was a “gigantic theatre which Mobutu [Sese Seko] used to stage events around himself — rallies, military parades and the like, in front of captive crowds of tens of thousands”.

Indeed, one of the photographs in Tillim’s series is of a military parade, featuring men — men in the type of clothing whose import isn’t difficult to decipher: the dark suit and the camouflage. It’s at the country’s independence celebrations and it is clear the suited men mean business (“You want an armed rebellion? Try it,” they seem to say, “and see if you can outgun us.”)

Mythical kingdom
Then there is another of a ­uniformed (more like garlanded) rider on a motorcycle who seems to be part of some official motorcade. No matter how many times you see a presidential automobile spectacle, it never ceases to amaze and outrage in its brazen disrespect for other motorists and the basic rules of the road.

The camera isn’t just directed at the land; sometimes its lens faces skywards. There is a fascinating picture of equatorial-type trees (you know them by their long trunks and dense vegetation) and at the top of the picture is a bat taking shelter in one of the trees. I immediately thought of The Blind Kingdom, an allegorical novel about a dictatorship penned by Wits scholar Veronique Tadjo. This blind kingdom’s symbol is a bat, “carved on the throne and the royal sceptre because the bat inhabits the night and masters the sky despite blind eyes”.

It is difficult not to see a connection between this mythical kingdom and the rule of the fabulously wealthy Omar Bongo, who died in 2009 after 42 years in power, after which his son, Ali Bongo Ondimba, took over the throne. “Don’t speak to me about corruption. That is not an African word,” Bongo pére reportedly told a reporter.

There is no other way to see the carefully trimmed, pyramid-shaped shrub inside a steel mesh at the palace of one of his wives except as a symbol of phallocracy, defined in the Oxford dictionary as “a society or system which is dominated by men and in which the male sex is thought superior”.

It seems everything to do with this family is grand — even the official residence belonging to one of Bongo’s former wives. Though the actual residence is far back in the picture, and has Greco-Roman figurines in the foreground, it’s not difficult to see the opulence in which she lived.

Set against Bongo this and Bongo that, the real Libreville inhabited by the average Gabonese appears to be a slum. There is a troubling aerial shot of suburban roofs that reveals the gritty textures of a slumscape. I guess this is where Tillim’s statement that this work was about ­“photographing landscapes in an urban environment” comes in handy: “I was trying to create a window into a world in which viewers would move within a frame.”

He also spoke about the viewer exploring the photograph and not just what the photographer wants the viewer to see.

When landscape ­photography is done on an empty landscape — a desert, a scrubland, or even the sea — the photograph has the feel of endlessness and enormity about it. In an urban environment, it does something else: it privileges objects or subjects that would ordinarily escape our attention. The grand is placed side by side with the not-so-grand, inviting us to question some of these hierarchies. But what can’t be questioned in the diverse images of life in Libreville is the opulent life that the Bongo brood and its hangers-on lead.

Libreville isn’t exactly the stereotypical African city: grimy and sordid, what with all their petroleum wealth. But every half-finished ­edifice, a ­pockmarked tarred surface or a less than gleaming bridge invites talk about urban ruination. Which, in a way, it is: with all that wealth, they should have done more than just erect temples of power.

Guy Tillim’s Libreville runs at the Stevenson Johannesburg, 62 Juta Street, Braamfontein, until April 19

Percy Zvomuya

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