Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Avenue Patrice Lumumba by Guy Tillim

The clash of ideas and cultures can be found in many areas of the modern landscape but few are so jarring as can be found in the architecture of former colonial states in Africa. Traces of French and Portuguese sensibilities and colonial idealism are still found on display in the civil buildings that have now shifted their use with contemporary African culture after independence in the early 1960's. The South African photographer Guy Tillim's new book from Prestel, Avenue Patrice Lumumba explores how these modernist structures have become an integral part of the culture and absorbed into its identity.

Patrice Lumumba was an outspoken leader who challenged the Belgian status quo which favored, not rule of the land but recognized only the rule of the powerful. After winning the 1962 Congolese election and assassinated by Belgian agents that same year, he became deified as a liberator of independent Africa. Today in many African cities, streets and squares bear his name in honor.

As Tillim describes this work, "These photographs are not collapsed histories of post-colonial African states or a meditation on aspects of late-modernist colonial structures, but a walk though avenues of dreams. Patrice Lumumba's dream, his nationalism, is discernible in the structures, if one reads certain clues, as is the death of his dream, in these de facto monuments. How strange that modernism, which eschewed monument and past for nature and future, should carry such memory so well."

Tillim offers those "clues" with sparsely populated interiors and exteriors that reflect more abandonment than use. When we do get a look into an office where people are working, the new use seems improvised and rarely inviting. The infrastructure has become an odd hybrid of decay and idealism that Tillim's camera searches out with an eye for beauty.

His palette of muted colors and grays leaves everything feeling like it is coated with a light layer of dusty residue. When he does describe scenes with people he often renders them as slivers of human form that are now integrated into the structures. A man sits on a window sill leaning in a way that we can only see his waist and leg. Another stands at a window with his back to us, looking out at the landscape - seeing his own culture through colonial glass. Even when he photographs workers in what feel like more direct portraits they come across as not portraits of person but place.

Tillim's stance is consistent, rarely does he emphasize a subject by distance but rather allows the small details to be discovered within the larger spectrum. The looping straps of a woman's purse somehow draw our attention among a clutter of bookcases and furniture. A man sits at his desk but it is the small plant sitting in a container marked chloride whose vines extend upwards due to a rigging of string to a dilapidated bookcase that we fixate on.

Outside, the courtyards and gardens hold the decayed corpses of monuments both celebrating independence and others holding tight to colonial ideology. These sit as almost defunct reminders while the buildings replace their significance.

Avenue Patrice Lumumba is a larger format book than Tillim is usually known, his Congo Democratic being the exception. Avenue is beautifully printed and although the images pass through the gutter in every spread, I am happy that the designers took advantage of the size to do so. Each plate becomes a 16 x 20 print and allows us to be consumed into the landscapes and interiors. That said, there are a couple of heavily center-weighted images that suffer under this choice.

The edit and sequencing is well-done if classic in its 'leading into' and 'out of' the subject. It includes a brief introduction by Robert Gardner and a statement by Guy Tillim. The work in Avenue Patrice Lumumba was funded in part by the Robert Gardner Fellowship in Photography granted by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard.