On the Frontier, Lubumbashi Biennial Makes Art from Obstacles

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Siddhartha Mitter(New York Times)

LUBUMBASHI, Democratic Republic of Congo
This hot, dry metropolis may seem an unlikely art center. It is a thousand miles from the capital, Kinshasa, on the southern edge of an enormous, unwieldy country typically associated with wars and other crises.
Yet the Lubumbashi Biennial, founded in 2008, recently held its sixth edition in this city in the mineral-rich Katanga province. It gathered work by 42 artists from Congo and beyond, including contemporary African stars like Ibrahim Mahama, Emeka Ogboh, and Kemang wa Lehulere, and a collaboration with Ruangrupa, the Indonesian collective that is curating Documenta 2022.
During the opening weekend, the poinciana trees were in bright orange flower around the National Museum, the biennial’s main site, which sits next to the provincial parliament house. Built in the 1950s under Belgian colonial rule, both structures are gems of African modernist architecture. A funeral had taken over the parliament building’s plaza, with mourners assembled under white canopies.
Photographer Sammy Baloji, the best-known contemporary artist from Lubumbashi and a founder of Picha, the collective that runs the biennial, explained that the parliament building was originally a theater, before the Katanga secessionist regime in the early 1960s took it over. Under the long Mobutu dictatorship it reverted to culture; Baloji, born in 1978, recalled coming for performances. Since Mobutu Sese Seko’s fall in 1997, it has again been the region’s seat of parliament, home to the murky power games that come with mineral abundance.
“They held public trials in the back. Some people were eventually executed,” Baloji recalled of the post-Mobutu transition. “It’s a political space now,” he added. “And that’s a metaphor for the city, where art is hemmed in by political forces.”
As Baloji posed for a few photographs, two policemen under a tree announced that photography required permission from their commander. Discussion resulted, inevitably, in a small payment. “Even today, public space isn’t public,” Baloji observed. “It’s a space of constant confrontation.”
The global mushrooming of biennials and triennials has reached Africa, with new or forthcoming events in Casablanca, Lagos, Kampala, Rabat, and Stellenbosch among others, joining the well-established Dakar contemporary art and Bamako photography biennials. Still, Lubumbashi stands out as a frontier event, remarkable for its resilience.
Its first edition was an act of daring, imagined after Baloji’s conceptual, collagist photographs documenting Lubumbashi’s decayed mining and railways facilities earned him the chance to exhibit at the Bamako biennial in 2007.
“That’s where I met a community of African artists who were questioning their history and their relationship to the world,” he said.
The first Lubumbashi Biennial assembled 15 artists on a $90,000 budget, supported by the French cultural center and a local industrialist. For the second, Simon Njami, an influential Cameroonian curator, served as artistic director, bolstering the event’s credibility. A Congolese art historian based in Belgium, Toma Moteba Luntumbue, supervised two subsequent editions — still on a shoestring.
This year the baton was passed to Sandrine Colard, a Congolese-Belgian art historian at Rutgers University who did research for her doctoral thesis here, on Congolese colonial photography found in archives and family collections.
“It was too beautiful an opportunity to let pass,” Colard said. Among the biennial exhibitions, she installed a series of colonial-era photographs of Lubumbashi families, recaptioned by present-day residents to comment on nuances and tensions in the way people showed themselves to the camera. “Too often research is done here but presented and consumed elsewhere, and not to people who should be its first audience.”
Mining and its impact — social, political, ecological — were apparent in the biennial. Hadassa Ngamba, an emerging Lubumbashi artist, exhibited a fabric piece with sections alluding to the region’s minerals, including shards of bright green malachite.
A wall painting by Ghislain Ditshekedi, in black, red and gray mounted by wood blocks, suggested the circuit board of a modern computer — made possible by minerals — and includes markings inspired by those on a Paleolithic bone tool found in Congo that some scholars argue is an ancient tally stick.
Jean Katambayi used a Tesla coil to zap into life a car-shaped carapace of copper wire, a comment on how sleek electric vehicles rely on Congolese lithium and labor. “Will we ever achieve truly renewable energy?” Katambayi asked after the performance.
War and other crises also found attention from Congolese artists’ perspectives. In works made in Goma, the headquarters city in eastern Congo for agencies responding to an Ebola outbreak and long-running armed conflicts, the filmmaker Petna Ndaliko and the photographer Pamela Tulizo questioned daily life in a place overrun by foreign media and nonprofits.
The Congolese-Belgian photographer Léonard Pongo examined Congo’s natural history in landscapes made in remote parts of the country, using close shots or diffuse light to imbue them with mystical energy. The large-format installation was set up, pointedly, on an artificial beach in an upscale shopping and residential complex.
“Congo still represents the total possibility of life on Earth,” Pongo said, adding that human depredation was less likely to kill the environment than to backfire on our species. “Nature doesn’t care about us. It can eat us up at any moment.”
Like every biennial, this one too faces the challenge of proving its relevance to city residents and their more material needs. While children and students engaged warmly with artists at their installations, a photo project in working-class Kamalondo brought skepticism from local people, who pulled down the poster images within two days.
Used to obstacles, the Lubumbashi artists aren’t giving up.
“To see beautiful things is important for consciousness,” Katambayi said. “It’s the beginning of a solution.”