Sammy Baloji: Kasala, the Slaughterhouse of Dreams or the First Human, Bende’s Error
In conjunction with the powerful anti-racist movement of the summer of 2020 which debunked the statues of settlers and slavers all over the world, Sammy Baloji perseveringly draws on the colonial archive to undermine its authority and draw out stories rendered inaudible so far. Kasala: The Slaughterhouse of Dreams or the First Human, Bende’s Error is a body of work that brings together museum collections and archives with Luba transmission practices. The juxtaposition of colonial images with the experiences of the inhabitants of regions devastated by mining in southern Congo in reverse has been one of Sammy Baloji’s favourite methods for many years. He now articulates them through multiple mediums: digital collages printed on mirrors, film, scarified hunting horn or even an interactive touch screen application.
The exhibition takes as its starting point the critical questioning that Sammy Baloji undertakes of the photographic collection of the German ethnologist Hans Himmelheber (1908-2003), a collection created in 1939 during his trip to the Congo, then colonized by Belgium. These photographs, preserved today in Zurich, are considered as innovative among ethnographic approaches, in particular, because Himmelheber was interested in the Congolese as individuals and as creators. In a series of mirror collages discreetly referring to the mirrors inlaid in the n’kisi divinatory figures that put the viewer in front of his own reflection, Sammy Baloji associates some of these photographs with images generated by an X-ray scanner; objects from the ethnologist’s collection. By replicating the use of this visual technology, he opposes the translocation of artefacts which separates them from their uses and their cultural meanings with a counter-narration: at the invitation of Sammy Baloji, the writer Fiston Mwanza Mujila wrote a Kasala, a Luba poem associating the recitation of genealogical elements of a celebrated being, mythological, cosmogonic and historical fragments. Accompanied by two musicians, Patrick Dunst and Grilli Pollheimer, the writer voiced his text during the opening of the exhibition Fiction Congo – The worlds of art between the past and the present which was held at the Rietberg Museum in Zurich in 2019. Surrounded by the so-called ethnographic exhibition route, in particular masks presented in windows, the performance shakes up the tranquillity of the aesthetic presentation of objects. Faced with this decontextualization, one of the effects of which is to make objects mute, Kasala introduces “the missing word”. Painful word since it expresses the sufferings of artisanal miners in Katanga, it recalls the bloody repression of the liberation movements, as well as traces the long list of political assassinations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in 1961 to that of Thérèse Kapangala, an activist engaged in the marches against the regime of Joseph Kabila, who was shot dead by the Congolese army in January 2018. Fiston Mwanza Mujila ties the polyphony of these stories to the evocation of the error of Bende, legendary founding figure, between god and ancestor, of the Luba tradition. The writer’s voice echoes in crescendo with the instruments, trembles, leaps, whispers and incant, is finally exhausted in the agitated story of a violent present, saturated with frustrated uprisings, deaths without burials and continuous mourning.
Performance is only one element in the multiplication of possible versions of a story with various components. The exhibition keeps its traces and rearranges them in the form of an interactive touch screen that allows visitors to arrange themselves and themselves the order of the Kasalas, and thus intervene in the making of history. The piece transposes the lukasa, a mnemonic table of the Lubas of Katanga, into the digital sphere, and thus recalls the latter’s dependence on the extraction of minerals: metals from the mines of Congo, such as coltan and copper, being essential resources for the development of digital tools.
Another variant of this story takes the form of a film, which entangles the capture of the performance, images made with an X-ray scanner and 3D models of objects from the museum collection with sentences taken from a film essay. famous: The statues also die (Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, Ghislain Click, 1953), who describes the colonial museum as the culmination of the destruction of living cultural practices. In a new series that extends this analysis into the present, Sammy Baloji superimposes a selection of photographs by Hans Himmelheber with digital models of ores from Katanga. He thus intersects the destructive impact of mining extractivism in the Congo with the history of colonial collecting and points to the aspiration to absolute control exercised by visual technologies used by museums.
Once again, Sammy Baloji associates collecting with hunting: the exhibition also shows a photograph from the archives of the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren. In the centre of a bourgeois living room decorated with hunting trophies, a musical instrument is hung on the wall. This hunting horn underlines the predatory subtext of the staging of bourgeois ease, of which violence constitutes the off-screen. Sammy Baloji juxtaposes a real scarified hunting horn with the photograph, exhibited in a display case simultaneously evoking museum domestication and the silent incommensurability of artefacts. In this work, the object is shaped from the photograph: the colonial archive generates the work while including a gesture of resistance. By scarifying the instrument, Sammy Baloji borrows from a secret and codified language that resists colonial deciphering. While the scarification manifests itself on the surface of the object, its significance far exceeds its ornamental aspect and remains reserved for initiates, imposing a limit on the ambition of domination, integral and voracious, of the colonial classification.
—Lotte Arndt, June 2020
Sammy Baloji: Kasala: The Slaughterhouse of Dreams or the First Human, Bende’s Error runs at Galerie Imane Farès until 14 November 2020.
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