Vogue – Trois auteurs d’Histoire: Nelson Makengo, Georges Senga, Pamela Tulizo
By Sala Patterson
In Milan three contemporary Congolese photographers are on show at ArtNoble Gallery October 28, 2021
In 1960, Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of the independent Democratic Republic of Congo, wrote a letter to his wife Pauline from Thysville Prison. In it, he predicted that one day “Africa will write its own history and both north and south of the Sahara it will be a history full of glory and dignity.”
Trois auteurs d’Histoire: Nelson Makengo, Georges Senga, Pamela Tulizo, the new group show at ArtNoble Gallery in Milan, celebrates three contemporary Congolese photographers who are fulfilling their founding father’s dreams. Each interrogates an aspect of the sociopolitical landscape of the Congo through a creative representation of life in their hometowns of Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, and Goma. The exhibition was conceived as a visual dialogue between the three artists that, when taken as a whole, would propose a new cultural narrative for the Congo.
To grasp that metanarrative, you will need to put in some leg work, bouncing between individual works and sections of the gallery in search of the exhibition’s big truths. Pamela Tulizo, a journalist turned photographer, takes charge of the conversation with Enfer Paradisiaque (2021) a previously unpublished series of elaborately produced, high-definition homages to the women of her native Kivu region. Using her best friend as muse, Tulizo creates portraits that convey the resilience of women in Kivu where staggering rates of conflict-fueled rape make them the most vulnerable population in the nation.
“I want to talk about the strength and power of the Congolese woman, I want to portray her even more beautiful than in my memory,” she has said.
The model’s heavily made-up face and supermodel poses recall fashion magazines, suggesting that Congolese women are Tulizo’s icons of beauty and self-expression. The model’s unrelenting gaze and dignified stance are a nod to their formidability. Her billowy ballgowns ornamented with corn, coal, or beans are an acknowledgment of the humble commodities these women transform into livelihoods. From so little, they do so much.
Nelson Makengo’s 2019 award-winning documentary, Up at Night, comes at the beauty and tragedy of the struggle through the element of light: What happens when nighttime falls on the banlieues of Kinshasa, and there is no power in the grid to illuminate them? The answer is articulated in a 20-minute triptych of miniature videos framed by blackness: a threat to carefree leisure time for children; a desperate, unending quest for light sources; a soundscape held hostage by the drone of generators. But the blackouts also give birth to what Makengo has referred to as “self-enlightenment… at any cost”: inventiveness born of necessity, communing around well-lit spaces, heated political discussions in the shelter of the shadows.
Unlike Tulizo who conjures the fragility and tension of daily life through a fantastical superheroine, Makengo does so by contrasting the most every day of realities – footage of men hunting for viable batteries among a heap gets its soundtrack from a broadcast of state propaganda about the extraordinary potential of Congo’s infrastructure. By night electricity shortages force people to live in the dark, and by day politicians keep them there.
Darkness lives off camera in photographer and archivist Georges Senga’s, Le vide (2019), coming instead from the Congo’s rich mineral mines, miles beneath the earth’s surface. In another triptych, Senga gives us three grids of color photographs documenting in fragments the working lives of miners in Kipushi, Likasi and Kolwezi. There are work-worn hands in one collage, battered tools in another, and in another the debris from days spent in the hot, dark underground (cigarette butts, worn shoe soles, and again, expired batteries). Each object is shot against richly hued and textured earth which contrasts with their cast-off appearance. What has more value? The men who risk their lives to extract the country’s natural wealth, or the earth that gives birth to it? Senga has replied in photographs to the answer supplied by the numbers: in 2017 the extractive industry generated USD 1,68 billion in revenue for the Congo yet 73% of the Congolese population live in poverty.
And with this we are racing back across the gallery to look deep into the eyes of Tulizo’s protagonist and then to Nelson’s short at the 15:53 mark where a mother vows to have light in her home by the upcoming holiday season. This is how we are reminded of the life force that prevails, which seems to be the narrative that these three “authors of history” are writing through image. One that says that the threats are alive and persistent, but so are the Congolese people.
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