Just as most British towns have a street named after Queen Victoria, many African cities have an Avenue Patrice Lumumba, named in honour of the Republic of Congo’s first democratically elected leader, who was assassinated in 1961 just weeks after taking office. Though he was only briefly in power, and perhaps not long enough to disappoint, he’s still remembered as a beacon of a new African independence.
These disparate Avenue Patrice Lumumbas form the scaffold for this exhibition by South African photographer Guy Tillim, who cut his teeth as a photojournalist for agencies like Reuters and Agence France-Presse during Africa’s turbulent 1980s and ‘90s. At Foam, he displayed about two-dozen images, some taken in these eponymous streets in Angola, Benin, Mozambique, Madagascar and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The yellowing, grey, late-Modernist buildings still standing on these chalky avenues were once built as city halls, apartment blocks, hotels and universities at around the same time that many of these countries won independence from colonial rule.
Though the images focus largely on dilapidated buildings, they don’t depict the kind of Afro-pessimism that curator Okwui Enwezor has decried. The buildings are disheveled and in slow decline – marked by a broken window or a cracked, empty swimming pool – but they’re still very much in use, though not always as the original builders intended. On the mammoth and presumably once-august balcony of Mozambique’s Grande Hotel in Beira (2008) there are no cocktail-sipping diplomats, but rather plastic jugs, and laundry hanging out to dry. Tillim finds intimate spaces where people work and live and these flourishes of daily human life – a book left behind, a drying pillowcase – set these photographs apart from the increasingly popular abandoned-building genre.
The cracked walls of these buildings have indeed grown pale, as if echoing the way grand hopes of a fresh start have since been dashed. Likewise, the colours in these muted, sun-dappled photographs fade into the background; even the foliage seems stuck in a desaturated kind of suspended animation. In City Hall offices, Lubumbashi, DR Congo (2007), the crackled warren of desks and cabinets looks like a postcard from a long-lost, pre-digital age: rusted filing cabinets with drawers open, crooked binders dating from 1980, a seemingly disconnected phone, and no computers in sight. The office itself is sprouting vines from a flowerpot, and a small map of Africa has faded into illegibility. The people who work here seem frozen in time, bureaucrats with stacks of paper waiting for the next chapter of African history to launch.
As a whole, these buildings aren’t so different from those you might see in Kiev or Bratislava, so maybe they weren’t that splendid to begin with. Many of them actually began their slide into disrepair before they were even completed, eerily presaging the ever-growing number of stalled, half-built construction projects in today’s Las Vegas or Dubai. This makes the contrast to their clean presentation here all the greater. These wooden-framed, large-format prints were arranged in a determinedly orderly way, each of uniform size and hung at uniform height in clean white surroundings.
Ultimately Tillim’s photographs aren’t trying to present an architectural survey of post-colonial Africa, but rather a framework for one African photographer to examine the post-colonial history and complex present of a continent in flux. In the book accompanying the exhibition, Tillim calls it both ‘a walk through avenues of dreams’ as well as a look at the death of Lumumba’s dream. ‘How strange,’ he writes, ‘that modernism, which eschewed monument and past for nature and future, should carry such memory so well.’