Sammy Baloji, untitled, 2013, ink-jet print, 16 x 23 7/8". From the series “The Album,” 2013.

Sammy Baloji, untitled, 2013, ink-jet print, 16 x 23 7/8". From the series “The Album,” 2013.

Sammy Baloji and Alice Seeley Harris

Autograph ABP/Rivington Place

Sammy Baloji, untitled, 2013, ink-jet print, 16 x 23 7/8". From the series “The Album,” 2013.

TIM AND SPACE are out of joint: This is the first sensation that confronts us when we look at an untitled work by Sammy Baloji from 2013, one of the photomontages composing that year’s series “The Album,” which was at the center of the first-ever UK show focused on the Congolese artist. In the work, three porters, photographed in black-and-white, hold up a large stork, stretching out the bird’s voluminous wings and drawing its head upright, presenting what must be a hunting trophy to the camera. The men all wear fez-like caps with long-sleeved white shirts and knee-length trousers, the defining uniform of colonized servants, tipping us off to the image’s provenance: an archive of documents dating from 1911–13, when what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo was under the Belgian flag. But this is no sepia-toned hagiography, for the men occupy an acidly colored landscape at the site of the Bolengo refugee camp, near Lake Kivu in the conflict-ridden DRC. In Baloji’s synthetically chromed take on this site of exile and violence, historical actors meet their country’s postcolonial future.

With this paradox of hue and setting, Baloji’s photomontage creates a startling juxtaposition between colonial-era visual culture and scenes of the devastation from the DRC’s ongoing, long-term military conflict, inviting comparisons between the country’s disparate and fraught histories over the past several decades. In fact, the powerfully illusionistic effect of the montage—the figures appear securely situated on the camp’s ground, as if magically transported from their own time into the present-day landscape—proposes a subversive line of historical continuity. The piece implies that colonialism’s deathly predation serves as repressed backdrop for the current forms of corporate resource extraction and international conflict that have transformed the DRC’s southeast into a war zone and displaced multitudes of people. The paratactic rupture whereby the past is thrust into present crisis also provocatively historicizes contemporary conditions—such as refugee camps and humanitarian interventions—revealing the ways in which the living are haunted by a calamitous modernity.

The show, titled “‘When Harmony Went to Hell’—Congo Dialogues:Alice Seeley Harris and Sammy Baloji” and ambitiously curated by Autograph ABP director Mark Sealy, emphasized these historical echoes by combining Baloji’s work with the early-twentieth-century photography of English missionary Alice Seeley Harris. The latter worked to stave off the assault on the Congolese by Belgian king Leopold II’s regime of rubber exploitation in his “Congo Free State,” 1885–1908, which operated under the notoriously familiar alibi of Europe’s “civilizing mission.” Her small black-and-white documents detail the horrific practice of cutting off the hands of villagers, children among them, who failed to meet their imposed quota for collecting rubber. Taken during Harris’s 1904 trip to the Congo, these were among the first photographs used as evidence of human rights violations in African colonies. Published in anticolonial newspapers and displayed at public gatherings of the activist group Congo Reform Association, they captured the imagination of Europe’s emerging civil society and contributed to the international outcry that ultimately forced Leopold II to transfer his personal African fiefdom to the Belgian state in 1908. By combining Harris’s work with Baloji’s, the show implicitly probes the political value of contemporary art, given that most portrayals of geopolitical conflict are now detached from the social movements that once contextualized such engaged photographic practices.

Yet Baloji’s work is also enriched by this additional history, which is likewise reflected in his own methods. Adding to the photomontage technique deployed in “The Album,” Baloji also offers single photographic prints that lend further insight into his project, specifically the tragic moment of decolonization and recolonization that occurred around 1960. At that point, Patrice Lumumba became the first democratically elected prime minister of the DRC, governing for less than a year before he was arrested, tortured, and killed, along with his colleagues Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito, for daring to contemplate real Congolese independence. This Belgium-UN-US supported coup brought to power Mobutu Sese Seko, the infamously ruthless dictator more than willing to give his country’s natural assets over to Western corporate control in exchange for his own financial gain. Referencing the failure of that moment in Congo’s tumultuous history, Baloji includes a photograph of a Congolese man standing before the execution site of and impromptu memorial for Lumumba in the rain forest of the Katanga province, a mineral-rich region of the country.

That wealth also funded Mobutu’s extravagant private estates, one of which appears in Baloji’s triptych Return to Authenticity! View of President Mobutu’s Pagoda, N’sele, Kinshasa, 2013. In what is perhaps the artist’s most richly layered play on historical resonance, the work draws together three distinct temporalities. In one image, a young Congolese woman dressed in tribal fashion and resting her arm against the back of what appears to be a ’30s Ford Model T has been relocated to the present-day ruins of the dictator’s ’70s-era property. The other two photographs depict barren scenes from the abandoned grounds, vestiges of Mobutu’s profligate and delusional utopia, built on the artifice of World Bank financial dependence and now lying in disrepair. While Baloji’s montage can only schematically approximate the complexities that connect and separate the various historical registers that it shockingly combines—among them primitive colonialism, Mobutu’s Zairianization, and now the reality of postcolonial wreckage—his imagery, at its most powerful, conjures generations of apparitions still awaiting a just reckoning.

T. J. Demos is a reader in the department of art history, University College London. His most recent book is Return to the Postcolony: Specters of Colonialism in Contemporary Art (Sternberg, 2013).