The phantoms of colonialism still influence our views of Africa and its people, it exists as a ghost in our collective memory and we view contemporary Africa through this prism. The Phantoms of Congo River exhibition by Nyaba Ouedraogo at the Manchester Museum exploits our preconceived colonial gaze to develop an archive of social understanding of the Congo whilst disrupting this at the same time. The exhibition deconstructs Joseph Conrad’s famous 19th century novel Into the Heart of Darkness which explored colonialism through an ivory transporter’s journey down the Congo river. Ouedraogo retraces this journey through his photographs of the riverbanks of Brazzaville in the Republic of the Congo, however rather than a documental narrative he explores a more ambiguous representation describing it as ‘photographic poetry’. The series spurned from his desire to ‘provide a narrative on African societies and their multiple incarnations’ in which contemporary Africa life intermixes with ancestral tradition, and the exhibition is structured on these opposites of old and modern, clarity and blurriness, peace and violence, the familiar and the strange.
Two pieces Moinda and Lord of War explore these opposite whilst also exploring two different preconceptions of the Congo. The first Lord of War offers a contemporary view of the Congo and the Congo war, in its depiction of a forgotten war head suspended in the river’s muddy banks. It plays upon our western notion of Congo as a place of conflict and corruption whilst serving as poignant reminder of the devastating effect the war had on its people. Moinda meanwhile looks to the past and ancestral traditions and spiritualism, it depicts a candle and small figurine alluding to an ancient ritual; with the blurred quality of the photo creating a sense of a hazy memory so the question of time is brought in to foreplay.
The timeless quality of the photos question the viewer perception of reality and it is this creation of questions and ambiguity rather than a definitive narrative on colonialism which make the exhibition so intriguing. This is emphasised by the setting of the photographs within the Manchester Museum which houses a large ethnographic collection and helped shape our view of different cultures through the narrow point of colonialism. The museum’s curator Stephen Walsh has worked alongside Ouedraogo and has incorporated some of the museums Congolese objects from its collection. These are displayed in glass frames in a traditional ethnographic format which contrasts with the mythical quality of the photographs. The objects have a sense of detachment that also contrast to the photos which create a more intimate relationship with the viewer of a shared experience of life on the river. La Vie (life) perfectly encompasses this in its ageless depiction of a man’s celebration of the river as a life force; this image has a cultural cross over in which the river globally has an important impact on people’s lives either economically or spiritually. What the exhibition ultimately does by creating this shared memory and intimacy is destroying the sense of detachment colonialism created towards African art and culture, whilst acknowledging the past the exhibition seeks to represent contemporary Africa in all its forms.
Claire Walker is a writer based in Wigan.
Image courtesy Manchester Museum.
The Phantoms of Congo River: Photographs by Nyaba Ouedraogo, Manchester Museum, Manchester.
11 September 2015 – 10 April 2016.