We recently paid a visit to the Design Exchange in Toronto to check out an exhibition by South African photographer Guy Tillim titled, “Avenue Patrice Lumumba”. The collection takes its title from the revered Pan-African leader whose name adorns many buildings and streets across the continent much like Martin Luther King boulevards run through the inner cities of America. Just like MLK, Lumumba had a dream that he did not live to see come alive. He was assassinated a few months after his incendiary speech where he asserted his vision of a new Africa independent of the historical yoke of the coloniser. The year was 1960.
Guy Tillim’s “Avenue Patrice Lumumba” looks at African architecture from the vibrant post-independence 60s not as they were then – proud, glorious and optimistic, but as they are right now – decrepit and neglected. Nevertheless, Tillim’s discerning eye often seeks out the beauty beneath the decay as if he is looking from the sentimental point of view of the architects who designed it or someone reminiscing about the better times these buildings have seen. There are photographs with people that seem suspended in time and there are photographs with people you can’t see. The ghosts are right there in the cropped photograph of the magnificent curling stairway or gutted out patio of what used to be Grande Hotel in Beira, Mozambique and in the street with a torn-down(and then re-instated) statue of Kwame Nkrumah in Accra, Ghana. This juxtaposition of gloom and nostalgia creates a tension that gives dimension to what could have otherwise been a cold clinical exploration of African architecture.
The mid 60s and early 70s was a culturally fertile period in the world but especially in Africa where words like “Freedom” or “Independence” still retained their literary connotation and had yet to graduate to the esoteric. African artists were emerging from colonialism and grappling with the challenges of defining African modernity. We can hear this overt fusion in the music and see it in the artwork from that period. Unfortunately African architects for the most part have been overlooked despite creating the most permanent and visible artifacts of a time: buildings. We know that restoring a house takes a tad more work then blowing the dust off a vinyl-record but Guy Tillim’s photographs have inspired us to, at the very least, pay closer attention to these buildings and the dreams enshrined in them.
“Avenue Patrice Lumumba” can be viewed at The DX(234 Bay Street, Toronto) until June 14th as part of the Contact Photography Festival.