Sammy Baloji beats the ban

Congolese artist’s photographs create a telling townscape

SAMMY BALOJI at Contact Gallery (80 Spadina, #310), to March 14. 416-539-9595. Rating: NNNN

Black History Month is a good time to take a stroll down the main drag of Likasi, a copper-mining town in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s mineral-rich Katanga province and the home of photographer Sammy Baloji.


We’re lucky to get this opportunity. What sets this 55-foot panoramic townscape apart from Ed Ruscha’s survey of the Sunset Strip or Stan Douglas’s portrait of West Hastings, aside from its African setting, is that photographing public buildings is illegal in the DRC.

The ban is evidently intended to conceal Congo’s riches from the jealous eyes of other African nations and the West, a fear stemming from a history of vicious plunderers from King Leopold to Joseph Mobutu and recent invasions by Rwanda and Uganda. Such laws also put money in the pockets of local police.

Baloji’s photos show arcaded one- and two-storey buildings, most Belgian-built between 1930 and 1950. Shops have metal window grates and, whether selling “habillement de luxe,” food or videos, look pretty much the same. Aside from Coke, Western Union and Ford, there’s little evidence of globalization.

Signs on the city hall promote education, and there are storefront churches and a public garden. Most residents are on foot or bike, and only one soldier’s out to remind us of the ongoing conflict in which 5.4 million Congolese have lost their lives.

The pieced-together shots sometimes cut off people or vehicles while maintaining architectural continuity, enhancing a sense of the structures as custodians of history over time. A soundtrack of street noise, roosters, a military band and one of the nation’s beautiful pop songs adds another dimension to the African ambience.

Fortunately for him and us, the award-winning photographer has suffered no repercussions so far for exhibiting this fascinating streetscape in Europe and North America.

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