Guy Tillim, Avenue Bagamoyo, Beira, Mozambique, 2008 © Guy Tillim.
Guy Tillim, Investigations to preserve building, Porto Novo, Benin, 2007 © Guy Tillim.
Guy Tillim, High school, Lubumbashi, DR Congo, 2007, © Guy Tillim.
Guy Tillim, Lubumbashi City Hall, DR Congo, 2007, © Guy Tillim.
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Avenue Patrice Lumumba
May 20-August 30, 2009
Avenue Patrice Lumumba is the latest project by South African photographer Guy Tillim. Many African towns have streets and squares named after Patrice Lumumba, the politician who won the Congolese elections in 1960, when the country gained independence from Belgium. He was one of Africa’s first elected leaders and soon became an African icon. In Avenue Patrice Lumumba, Tillim focuses on the modernist architecture that emerged in countries like Congo, Mozambique, Madagascar, Angola and Benin shortly after they became independent. This architecture symbolised the sense of optimism that permeated the new, post-colonial era.
Today, many of these government buildings, luxury hotels and schools are decayed, empty or used for some other purpose. They have become monuments to long lost dreams. Tillim tries in Avenue Patrice Lumumba to come to terms with the process of change that has held Africa in its grip over the past fifty years.
At the celebrations marking the independence of Congo in June 1960, Patrice Lumumba gave a historic speech in the presence of the Belgian king, Boudewijn. He spoke plainly, rejecting the notion of a neo-colonial order in which the former imperial masters would retain indirect control of the country and its resources. Lumumba was assassinated in January 1961. In his place came Mobutu Sese Seko, who gained power in a coup d’etat supported by the West. While Mobutu emerged as a classic African dictator, Patrice Lumumba continued to embody the African ideal of true independence — a dream that has all but vanished in virtually every country. The dilapidated state of the modernist buildings that were erected in numerous African countries when they achieved independence, parallels the fate of that utopian ideal. Many have fallen into disrepair; others have since been given new functions.
Tillim photographed edifices in various African countries. His photos are clear, yet complex, and printed in large format. While Tillim concentrates on the buildings, these are anything but architectural pictures. First and foremost, they are photos about Africa, taken by a photographer who feels a strong connection with Africa and a personal involvement in modern African history. Tillim is not out to show the bankruptcy of the African dream. His oeuvre revolves around the constant processes of change in (southern) Africa. His native South Africa, for example, still feels the impact of the radical changes that followed the abolition of Apartheid. Yet above all, Tillim feels himself to be an African and so also focuses on changes that have affected other African countries: from colony to independence, from dictatorship to democracy, and from hope to despair. In a way, Tillim’s oeuvre is an ongoing attempt to come to terms with the unstable, uncertain state of the African continent today.
Guy Tillim was able to create Avenue Patrice Lumumba as the first recipient of a Robert Gardner Fellowship in Photography, granted by Harvard University’s Peabody Museum. The project is also the subject of a book published by Prestel and available at Foam.