photo credits: http://www.tate.org.uk from Avenue Patrice Lumumba
When you are a child of West African parents and of a first generation raised in the West you know three Africas:
The first is the one truest to the rest of the world, a dark continent of difficulty. Frequently misunderstood as a country and acknowledged through headlines of turmoil, of conflict, poverty and disease.
The second Africa belongs to your parents and is spoken by them with a fondness usually reserved for childhood memories. ‘Africa is a place where all of life is,’ they say, often while tutting at another story on France 24 about Gabonese kickbacks to a European politicians ‘…if only it wasn’t so corrupt’. ‘You could swim in the Ogooué River and be happy for days…if only it didn’t belong to Shell.’ ‘You will never taste oranges as fresh or as sweet as those that grow in your own back garden…if only…’
Africa in its third and final incarnation is the one that exists in your imagination. This one is slippery because it is a mash up of things known, things assumed and things hoped for. It is the Africa you simultaneously belong to and feel removed from. Your attachment is through blood and longing. You are separated by geography, language and custom.
Viewing photos from Guy Tillim’s Avenue Patrice Lumumba collection at the Tate Modern allows you to glimpse all three Africas at the same time. Tillim’s pictures are of buildings on many streets throughout the continent named after the assassinated independence leader (and first legally elected Prime Minister of the Republic of Congo) Patrice Lumumba. On a fifth floor wall, in a corner room that is part of the gallery’s States of Flux: Architecture and Power display hang three photos, two of decaying apartment blocks and one of a grand hotel in disrepair.
The first thing you notice in these photos is the the mass of concrete used to construct the clunky modernist structures. You ponder their size and weight, the grey upon grey upon grey, the dull lines that form squares upon squares upon rectangles upon squares. These buildings seem incongruously solid. The sky above them has a similarly stuck quality, it is steel blue, the one or two white clouds present look fixed into place, as though they’ve never moved.
Tillim sees his work as highlighting a dream deferred, a reverie that died after Lumumba was assassinated:
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.
The fact that they carry memories is an expression of optimism, for if objects can remember they can think, somewhere inside them is sign of life. These buildings do breathe and speak and tell a story of post-colonial struggle, of the domino effect of infective leadership wrought by Lumumba’s death, of neo-colonialism slinking in, taking precedence over progress. And the more you look at them, (you stare take some time and stare), the more you see evidence of existence through perseverance. A lit street lamp, a child playing in the shadow of a concrete pillar, a desk, piles of books. These buildings are still in use and so they signify a dream in progress rather than one on pause, construction was the first act, stagnation the second and the third is being written, is still to be played out.
When you are a child of West African parents and of a first generation raised in the West understanding Africa is about reconciling all the Africas you know. Tillim’s photos can help you do this, they invoke feelings of being in flux, up and down and in the middle, of definitions in transition. They prompt you to remember what Africa has been (through), what it is, and optimistic about everything it is still to become.
Check out this display as part of Tate Modern’s State of Flux Collection.
More about Guy Tillim.