- Mining Time in Sammy Baloji’s Mémoire
Mémoire, a series of photomontages constructed in 2006 by the Congolese artist Sammy Baloji, comprises a set of black-and-white archival photographs embedded onto colored prints of the contemporary landscape of Lubumbashi, a city located in the Katanga province of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the thirty composite images, Congolese men and women and European officials extracted from photographs produced mainly during the 1920s–30s in the Belgian Congo appear to enter today’s dilapidated industrial mining sites in and around the city.
The history of Katanga and contemporary struggles in the region are central to the work of Sammy Baloji. The Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 gave Katanga to the king of Belgium, Leopold II. Beneath its surface, Katanga concealed a geological wealth of copper. In addition, the area contained zinc, cobalt, tin, gold, wolframite, manganese, tantalum, anthracite, coal, and uranium. Union Minière du Haut Katanga, a company established by King Leopold in 1906 and backed by Belgium’s largest holding company, Société Générale de Belgique, exploited this wealth.1 The establishment of Union Minière followed virulent criticism of King Leopold over evidence of atrocities in his Congo Free State.2 This outcry led the Belgian Parliament to take control of the colony, changing it to the Belgian Congo. Dependent on taxes produced by commercial enterprises, the state offered Union Minière continued access to Katanga (Fetter 1976; Vellut 1982).3 In 1910, Union Minière constructed a foundry and started to extract copper in 1911. Nearby, the city of Elisabethville, today Lubumbashi, was established. Union Minière exemplified “industrial paternalism” in its attempt to control every aspect of the workers’ existence, from accommodation to schools, clubs, wives, health care, breastfeeding, and so on (Reid 1985; Hunt 1988). Independence slowly led to the end of the company. In 1966, under President Mobutu Sese Seko, Union Minière became state owned and was renamed Gécamines (La Générale des Carrières et des Mines) as per the order of the government’s authenticity program. Exhausted by Mobutu’s extortions, Gécamines started to collapse in the 1980s. The company fell behind in its payment schedules, started laying off its workers, and left its sites in disrepair, a course that accelerated in the 1990s. Unemployment currently overwhelms Katanga.4 Many men are now creuseurs or “artisanal miners,” engaging in strenuous, dangerous activity lacking appropriate safety equipment. This current state of affairs is a significant break from the colonial past of industrial mining under high finance.
Born in 1978, Baloji grew up in Lubumbashi. He started photographing the city in 2004. Hubert Maheux, a curator at the city’s French cultural center, provided Baloji with the equipment to take photographs for an architectural guide to Lubumbashi. Mémoire originates from Baloji’s experience of photographing the city. A Belgian entrepreneur, George Arthur Forrest, who established the French cultural center, supported Baloji’s early career.5 Forrest is the owner of Groupe Forrest, a conglomerate founded in 1922 around the mining industry in Katanga, whose services vary from transport to civil engineering. Forrest was appointed an executive of Gécamines from 1999 to 2001. He took this opportunity to acquire the archive of the former Union Minière.6 It was subsequently digitized.7 This archive provided the black-and-white photographs which Baloji worked from in the series, digitally extracting figures and transposing them with Photoshop onto digital photographs taken by him of the contemporary sites.
Pertinent to Baloji’s work is the influential notion of the “post-colony” as articulated by the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe in a collection of essays with that title from 2001. For Mbembe, the postcolony expresses a given (and shared) trajectory—that of African societies emerging from the experience of colonialism with its concomitant violence. He opened the collection with a scathing critique of the way in which the West characterizes Africa, arguing that the continent is primarily understood [End Page 62] through conceptions of “‘absence’, ‘lack’ and ‘non-being,’ of identity and difference, of negativeness—in short, of nothingness” (2001: 4). This article argues...