A new exhibition, “Urban Now: City Life in Congo,” a collaboration between photographer Sammy Baloji and anthropologist Filip De Boeck, explores how the physical shape of cities in the Democratic Republic of Congo embodies the country’s history, its future and its sense of self. The show opens today at Open Society Foundations in New York City and is on view until July before traveling to Toronto and Lisbon. It uses photographs and video to explore sites in Kinshasa that range from Mount Mangengenge, a place of ancestral worship that has become a pilgrimage destination for Catholics and Pentecostals, to Forescome Tower, the city’s first skyscraper, built in 1946 as a landmark of Belgian colonial architecture. Other images show less recognizable places and allude to ideas about the current political structure. There is a broken pedestrian bridge leading to nowhere, and a billboard featuring a neon version of the city crowned by Limete Tower, begun by former President Mobutu in 1971, and the development now planned around the structure. Floating above the picture of the city is the face of current President Joseph Kabila and a reference to his Five Pillars of Congo—infrastructure, health and education, water, electricity, housing and employment—his goals for the country. There are also portraits, including a horticulturalist in her garden, a grave digger leaning on a modernist headstone and several images of land chiefs, leaders with inherited control of areas on the outskirts of the city, whose power exists outside of the state.
The show was developed in partnership with WIELS Contemporary Art Centre in Brussels, where it was on view earlier this year. Baloji and De Boeck have also collaborated on a recent book, Suturing the City: Living Together in Congo’s Urban Worlds, which was published by Autograph ABP. By looking at the forces that have shaped Kinshasa and other cities in DRC, whether economic, colonial, spiritual or environmental, Baloji and De Boeck are exploring the shifting definition of urbanism. As Kate Dawson wrote in a review of the book, in their work, “we are invited into the vastness of [Kinshasa’s] urban potential so as to recognise the immense potential of knowledge about the urban, beyond the confines of a few Western cities.”