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  • Leaving RuinsExplorations of Present Pasts by Sammy Baloji, Freddy Tsimba, and Steve Bandoma
  • Bogumil Jewsiewicki
    Translated by Allen F. Roberts French by (bio)

If art is where the greatest ruins are, Our art is in those ruins we became

(Walcott 1962:13)1

Reference to the poetic work of Derek Walcott helps explain the particular attention of three Congolese artists directed to material and moral ruins that bear witness to traumatic experience. Walcott (1992) inscribes violence at the heart of Antillean heritage: “Decimation from the Arawak downwards is the blasted root of Antillean history.” Since the Atlantic and East African slave trades and perhaps before, violence and its management have been at the heart of collective memories of societies of the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The societies of Congo and of Walcott’s Antilles share an ambiguous attitude toward the colonial/slave past. While history is written from others’ perspectives, experience is inscribed in imagination and carried by heritage. Walcott rejects the distinction between imagination and collective memory, and when he writes that “every island is an effort of memory” (1992), he stresses the necessity of memory’s permanent effects. Walcott only insists upon the (relative) absence of ruins to underscore the strange nature of history, “which looked over the shoulder of the engraver and, later, the photographer. History can alter the eye and the moving hand to conform a view of itself.” As he would add, “the history of the world, by which of course we mean Europe, is a record of intertribal lacerations, of ethnic cleansings.” Such a gaze has chosen ruins as evidence of the presence/absence of history.2

Walcott opposes art to history in a “process of the making of poetry, or what should be called not its ‘making’ but its remaking, the fragmented memory…. Art is this restoration of our shattered history.” In his famous phrasing, “Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape.” In place of the ruins and heroes designated by the gaze of history, he continues, “I see cabbage palms moving their fronds at sunrise, [and] I think they are reciting Perse…. At least islands not written about but writing themselves!” (Walcoltt 1998:78).3 The voice of the poet “Perse,” having preceded Walcott to the Nobel Prize in Literature, “make[s] out of these foresters and fishermen heraldic men!” (Walcott 1987:217). It is the artist, then, who reveals to the world the experience and patrimony ignored by history: “The past is the sculpture and the present the beads of dew or rain on the forehead of the past…. The process of poetry is one of excavation and of self-discovery.” Seen from the ruins recognized by a local imaginary, “Caribbean literature is not evolving but already shaped. Its proportions are not to be measured by the traveler or the exile, but by its own citizenry and architecture.”4

Baloji, Bandoma, and Tsimba—all three artists born after the independence of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo—have only indirect understanding of the colonial past, and yet it is the past of their “modernity.” They carry in their heritage its incorporated experience and question the history that does not belong to them because it was written from the gaze of elsewhere and refers to the generations of their fathers and grandfathers. The ruins that this gaze designates are not theirs, insofar as the last half-century has left no such experiences that might stand as ruins in future.5 The vestiges of the DRC’s Second Republic (1965–1990), during which their fathers were dismissed as nothing but “squatters” in their own land, are only sterile ghosts even as their fathers will never become ancestors. That is, their past is no longer relevant, and their memory, [End Page 6] without pertinence to present-day life, obstructs any immediate future, for the Apocalypse is the horizon of collective attention now. In its shadow, imaginary escape to somewhere else can only be a destructive...


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