Sammy Baloji | Urban Now: City Life in Congo


Installation images from the Power Plant, Toronto. © Toni Hafkenscheid


Focusing upon the “urban now”, a moment suspended between the broken dreams of a colonial past and the promises of a neoliberal future, the exhibition offers an artistic and ethnographic investigation of what living–and living together–might mean in Congo’s urban worlds. As elsewhere on the African continent, Congo’s cities increasingly imagine new futures for themselves. Today, these new urban dreams often only manifest themselves in the form of billboards and advertisements for the city to come, often inspired by Dubai and other recent hot spots from the Global South.

Ironically, the city model they propose invariably gives rise to new geographies of exclusion that often take the form of gated communities and luxury satellite towns designed for a still somewhat hypothetical local upper middle class. In sharp contrast with these neoliberal re—imaginings of earlier colonialist modernities, the current infrastructure of Congo’s cities is of a rather different kind. The built colonial legacy has largely fallen into disrepair. Its functioning is punctuated by recurrent breakdown, and the city is replete with disconnected fragments, reminders and echoes of a former modernity that continues to exist in a shattered form, now void of its original content. These failing material infrastructures greatly impact upon the quality of the city’s social life and push it to the limit of what is livable.

Yet Congo’s urban residents constantly invent new social spaces to bypass or overcome breakdown, exclusion, poverty and violence. Exploring these spaces, the exhibition captures a more inhabitable and inclusive urban world, where the possibilities of collective action and dreams of a shared future continue to thrive. Consisting of 55 photographs and two films, commissioned specifically for the project, the exhibition by Baloji and De Boeck explores what ‘the urban’ means in such a complex post- colonial context. Urban living constantly attempts to suture the city, at finding ways to stitch Lacunae and losses, or pasts and futures together in the moment of the urban ‘now’. Baloji and De Boeck’s reflection on the complexities of the postcolonial urban world in this Central African locale is shaped around the visual archive that they have built up over the past years.

Based on their extensive joint field research in Kinshasa and branching out to some other urban sites in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Lubumbashi, Fungurume), the exhibition is conceived around a number of ‘urban acupunctures’, i.e. around explorations of specific sites that form important– though sometimes materially barely visible – nodes within the city. These are sites in which the city switches on and off, where the quickening or thickening of goods, people and publics are generated and the various connections between them become visible. They range from mountains to markets, from individual buildings to fields and gardens, from cemeteries to new city extensions, or from the human body to the pothole.

The archive that Baloji and De Boeck have constituted around these sites renders visible the often elusive ways that people not only manage to survive but to transcend that basic level of bare life and build a more inclusive urban commons, in which collective action and dreams of a shared future may be explored. Constructed as a large visual essay around selected sites, various forms of urban life, and the contrasting topographies of mountain and hole, the exhibition reflects upon the right to the city and the processes of colonization, occupation, mobility and dislocation that have given form to these specific urban terrains. It speaks to issues of memory, nostalgia, aspiration and the creation of publics in what often is a divisive urban-scape.

The exhibition Urban Now: City Life in Congo is initiated by WIELS, Brussels; in collaboration with The Power Plant, Toronto; The Open Society Foundations, New York; and Galerias Municipais/EGEAC, Lisbon.

– Sammy Baloji and Filip de Boeck

Installation images from the Power Plant, Toronto. © Toni Hafkenscheid


Material infrastructure and built form have tended to occupy a prominent place in conversations about the global phenomenon of urbanization. However, equally as important are those aspects of urban placemaking that defy straightforward depiction: how cities, territories, and their histories are imagined by the diverse people who inhabit them. This applies especially for attempts to grapple with the specificities of the African urbanscape and to imagine new urban paradigms for the African city of the future. 

An example of this imagining is Urban Now: City Life in Congo, a collaboration between photographer Sammy Baloji and anthropologist Filip De Boeck. The collaboration offers an exploration of different urban sites in Congo through the media of photography and video. They define the “urban now” as a moment suspended between the broken dreams of a colonial past and the promises of neoliberal futures; the exhibition offers an artistic and ethnographic investigation of what living—and living together—might mean in Congo’s urban worlds. 

– Yukiko Yamagata, interim director for the Open Society
Foundations Documentary Photography Project