Sammy Baloji | A Blueprint for Toads and Snakes



Based in the photographic medium, my research-based practice is informed by museological objects and cultural artifacts.  

In Swahili, the lingua franca of Lubumbashi where I was raised, in Katanga province, DRC, the word for photograph is “picha.” The word is derived from English, “picture,” yet picha also is used for any visual representation. Conceptually, then, since my language embeds no distinction between “photograph” and any other category of visual representation within a Western taxonomy of images — a painting, a map, a blueprint, a theatrical set — I reintegrate them conceptually through the notion of pichaPicha transgresses boundaries. This is why when I co-founded the Lubumbashi Biennial for contemporary art, we adopted “picha into our title. This unbounded ontology to the photograph is intrinsic to my work. For me, the concept of picha deterritorializes the way the West has conceptualized the photograph, bracketed off within a Western taxonomy of forms of visual representation. Picha re-appropriates a precolonial conception of “image” in which various forms are not taxonomized into different Western categories. For me, the photograph, then, is not a “medium” separated from others, it is fully immersed within a universe of images, of picha’s, which I use to challenge Western order and ordering.     

I deploy photography as a conceptual tool, which is to say that I use photography to perform particular functions, to do work. I use photography to reincarnate the historical—when I reproduce images from the archive, which may be photographs themselves or other visual documents, picha’s. For example, in in my multimedia installation entitled “A Blueprint for Toads and Snakes” (2018) (image# 7). It is a complex installation, with three main parts: a central “Stage,” edged with flats of tropical scenery (image# 8); a “White Cube,” a kind of gallery space, on the left (image# 9); and on the right a “Cinema” (image# 10). The installation concerns the imposition of colonial order upon the ancient copper-mining town of Lubumbashi and its diverse population, a manipulation that set the stage for efficient exploitation of the land and the people, and led to strife.  

 The imposition of order entailed imposing a Cartesian grid, into which different categories of population were sorted. This grid is represented in black-and-white on the floor of the central Stage (image # 11). This picha shows how the indigenous peoples were divided up by status and ethnicity, which inscribed and accentuated differences according to the colonial principle of “divide and rule,” and later exacerbated interethnic strife (image # 12). The colonial intention was that local peoples become as differentiated as “The Toad and the Snake” in the title of the 1957 musical play “Chura na Nyoka,” (image # 13) commissioned by colonial authorities from Katanga native Joseph Kiwele (1912-1961), who are unable to maintain a friendship due to their biological differences. An English translation of the script is read from the prompt box.

The theatrical flats on either side of The Stage represent “jungle scenery,” evocative, for Westerners, of an uncivilized, savage, zone. I commissioned this scenery from Kinshasa painter Yannick Luzuaki, currently based in Strasbourg. He executed it on canvas in the style of the “first Congolese painters”—such as Mwenze Kibawa and Pili Pili—who were trained by the French painter Romain Defossé, and considered by colonials to be the “first local artists,” though of course indigenous art had existed for centuries. Mainly collected by colonial administrators and other Westerners, these colonial-era naïve painters produced picha’s that reinforced essentialized Western ideas of “Africa” (image #15).  

The White Cube explores the separation of the colonizers from the colonized, white from black. To achieve segregation, it was necessary to eradicate that portion of the settlement where blacks and whites had informally settled together. Both populations were relocated, and the emptied land became a cordon sanitaire, a “sanitary cordon.” This was an empty buffer zone that took advantage of the river and was sized according to the supposed distance that a mosquito could fly, to try to prevent mosquitoes that bit black inhabitants from “infecting” white inhabitants. To create this new order, the earth had to be flattened in areas. Within the White Cube, two small historical photographs evidence this colonial transformation of Lubumbashi by landscaping the geography and re-housing the inhabitants (image #16). The White Cube is dominated by a much larger picha of a blueprint that describes the separation of black and white and the creation of the sanitary cordon (image #17). Superimposed on this, drawn in red, is a picha of a trapdoor (image #18). It is a mechanism through which minerals may be excavated and brought to the surface, but also, in the theatrical setting, the trapdoor is the device through which actors can miraculously appear and disappear: just as the colonizers arrived on scene, just as the people settled in the cordon sanitaire disappeared, and, later, as ethnic populations were expelled.   

The Cinema, to the right of The Stage, screens my film “Tales of the Copper Cross Garden. Episode 1” (2017), made for documenta 14 (vimeo link #19). The film presents the choreographing of black labor to produce copper wire today, which I present as a processual metaphor that parallels the molding of the indigenous people by colonial powers and particularly through religion. Although the tradition of smelting stretches back many centuries in Lubumbashi, today it is constrained by corruption and mismanagement of this natural resource, which should sustain the local population (image #’s 20-25). The soundtrack to the film (another work by Joseph Kiwele), is a syncretic Catholic choral work in the local language. It was performed by a Congolese church choir that used as its logo, pinned to their frocks, the Katanga cross, which was a precolonial, cruciform copper ingot (image # 26). The film interweaves quotes from Valentin-Yves Mudimbe, a Congolese philosopher and writer on African culture and intellectual thought, which highlight the ironies of this fraught history. The film underscores the intimate relationship between the mining industry, cultural manipulation, and religion, which was used to mold the indigenous people. 

The outer walls of The White Cube and The Cinema flank the central Stage, and are covered with my own photographs of portraits that were in turn painted from photographs (image # 27). Lubumbashi residents made such portraits as “durable souvenirs”—in the words advertising one painter’s studio (image # 28). Mostly, they are portraits of family members, but among them are portraits of political and religious leaders, royalty, musicians, and even the painter’s own portrait within his studio advertisement (image #’s 29-32). During interethnic strife in the 1990s, residents who were originally from the region of Kassaï were forced to flee, selling or abandoning their possessions. Their portraits, translations of photographs, were intended to last yet they are today in a fragile state. My photographing of them resurrects these picha’s that evolved out of photographs, yet I am also tracing through them a history of ethnic conflict. The Kassaïan population disappeared down the metaphoric trapdoor of history; yet they surface again through their picha’s and my picha’s. I arrange them like a cast of characters in my theatre of colonialism, in which the geography of division that is Lubumbashi and the Kiwele play set the stage for ethnic conflict and flight.