He looks very happy with himself, this little white gentleman posing in Bermuda shorts and colonial helmet, proud of his find, a huge African mask, and surrounded by black natives. The image, taken from the photographic collection of the German ethnologist Hans Himmelheber constituted in 1939 during a trip to the Congo (then colonized by Belgium), is inserted in the capture of a filmed performance. Shortly thereafter follows another snapshot of an “explorer” – perhaps the same and no less satisfied – offering a few coins, palm open for the camera, against obtaining a tissue.
In the next room, the scathing commentary on what we see here is offered by an extract from the film by Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and Ghislain Cloquet, The statues also die (1953) : “Negro art, we look at it as if it found its raison d’être in the pleasure it gives us.”
The artist Sammy Baloji, born in 1978 in Lubumbashi, has been working on memory for the Democratic Republic of Congo for fifteen years. After being interested in the plundering of the country’s mineral resources, he seizes on what art historian Bénédicte Savoy calls “translocations”, these movements of artefacts leaving countries subject to power asymmetries, such as war or colonization, which filled European museums and emptied certain regions of sub-Saharan Africa of their cultural heritage.
In his exhibition “Kasala: the Slaughterhouse of Dreams or the First Human, Bende’s Error”, at the Galerie Imane Farès, in Paris, Baloji works by associations and juxtapositions of images. On mirrors, he affixed photos of Himmelheber and X-ray scanner renderings of objects from his collection, a technique frequently used by museums to visualize their structure and possible hidden content. The process gives them the appearance of being stones all the more precious as they pulsate with a pink interior light, reminiscent of these other coveted minerals from the mines of southern Congo.
But what binds the whole thing is this performance which fills all the space, a sung poem declining the painful and more or less recent history of the DRC. This kasala resonates with the necessary “history of the vanquished” dear to Walter Benjamin, and offers a voice to objects and practices rendered silent by their plunder and museumization.
Sammy Baloji Kasala : The Slaughterhouse of Dreams or the First Human, Bende’s Error Galerie Imane Farès (75006), until March 6.