London

Guy Tillim

The Photographers' Gallery

In this show documenting colonial devastation, one photograph stood out for its optimism. Entitled Residents of Goma salute Laurent Kabila after his army’s takeover of the city from Mobutu’s troops, 1997, it depicts an urban plaza swarming with cheering people. This photograph—the axis around which the show turns—captures an ecstatic moment of frenzied energy between dark passages of Congolese history: the joyous end of the dictatorial command of Mobutu Sese Seko, vicious inheritor of the colonial rule of Belgium’s King Leopold II, but also the commencement of the country’s splintering into warring factions, each fighting for independence and democracy—mere code words, as it would turn out, for raw power.

Placing past and present in explosive counterpoint, most of Tillim’s works present two or three large photographs printed together on a single framed support. Those documenting the glory of empire (its colonial uniforms and royal portraits) sit alongside shots of contemporary ruin (decrepit palaces and war-torn landscapes). The artist shot the colonial-era artifacts in Belgian museums, suggesting his art’s oppositional aim: to confront unreconstructed nationalist pride—and, by extension, contemporary forms of imperialist conquest—with the political catastrophe that is its legacy. In an arresting series of eight portraits, “Mai-Mai Soldiers,” 2002, guerrilla warriors of the Mai Mai pose combat-ready, camouflaged in leafy twigs and holding large wooden bats; it is distressing to discover that the models are mere children, swept up into a barbaric violence whose historical repetition they cannot fathom.

Tillim, who grew up in a South Africa still under apartheid, dramatizes the grotesque failure of colonialism, whose patronizing pretext of a “civilizing mission” is personified in one image by a nineteenth-century neoclassical sculpture of a maternal figure, half-Athena, half-Mary, coddling an awed black child. It is only appropriate that, in a nearby photograph, an African boy casually urinates on an old rusting boat that holds the fallen statue of Henry Morton Stanley, the Welch-born explorer who helped Leopold found the Congo Free State.

The work’s combinatory structure encourages this subversive interaction between images, which also advances a reflexive critique of photography. Exaggerated by white bands separating the images, the juxtapositions imply contesting truth claims and in so doing overcome the limitations of single-frame documentary representation. This critique of the conventional documentary mode is furthered by the extensive use of descriptive titles printed on the walls, which places past and present as much as discourse and image in interpretive relay, thereby stressing historical consciousness and discouraging aestheticized reception.

That the weaker pieces are those in which the pairings appear more formally complimentary than historically dialectical is not surprising. Such inclusions—particularly the unrevealing formalist landscapes—expose Tillim’s project as uneasily divided between documentary and aesthetic functions, the irresolution of which raises the question of the ethics of the artistic representation of the devastated Democratic Republic of Congo today. While the large-format tableaux may fail to answer or openly problematize this quandary, they do powerfully succeed at revealing the intertwinement of this country’s tumultuous past and its chaotic present.

T. J. Demos