Visual history of post-colonial Africa, honest and in your face

Review: Shirley de Kock Gueller

Museum of the Revolution by Guy Tillim (MACK and Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris)

museum of revolutionPublished to coincide with his exhibition in Paris  at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Guy Tillim’s book, Museum of the Revolution, is his record of Africa post-colonialism.  It’s a “new reality” of “rebuilding and enterprise”, one that reflects the changes that have taken place. Tillim, the recipient of the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson 2017 Award,  was in Paris for the opening of the exhibition, which runs until June 1.

The winner of several other awards  such as the Daimler-Chrysler and the Robert Gardner Award from the Peabody Museum at Harvard, Guy Tillim is considered to be the leading photographer of Africa as it is today. The book is a result of five years to 2018 spent walking the streets of Africa, from Johannesburg to Dakar and Dar, Luanda to Maputo.

As a photojournalist in the 1980s and1990s in Africa, he captured political events, gruesome and very real, for local and international media such as Reuters and Agence France Presse. His documentation of, for instance, teenage soldiers in Rwanda, civil war in Congo, the mayhem that was Angola, resulted in exhibitions and in publications detailing Africa perhaps at its worst.

“At a certain point,” he told the reviewer: “I became less interested in the events and more in the landscape, and started photographing the avenues and buildings of these cities. This first foray resulted in body of work called Avenue Patrice Lumumba, published in a book by Prestel in 2007. In the past five years I’ve gone further and populated these ‘cityscapes’. This culminated in Museum of the Revolution. ”  

Although his fascination with African cities persists, he says, he has always wanted to live in the countryside and for the past four years he has realised this dream, living in Vermaaklikheid in the Western Cape.   

Apart from pertinent words from Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research’s Cameroon-born  Achille Tembe’s Sortir de la grande nuit, (an essay on decolonised Africa), a few words on Tillim himself, an afterword and the credits, the photographs  flow uninterrupted except by blank pages. Unless you have no interest in location and want to absorb the photographs as they appear in no apparent order or chronology, or read with one hand keeping open the section with the locations at the back of the book, this does tend to interfere with the absorption of any narrative current. Also, without sufficient page numbers, finding an indexed picture is not as simple as it could be. Publishers’ style?

That said, this is history, honest and in your face, and superbly recorded. There are some incredible photographs, reflections of a continent surviving and in places flourishing, despite the memories and evidence of violence, the cracked concrete, rubbish-lined streets and frowning faces.  There’s a vibrancy that Tillim captures, among the angst and decay; people getting along with their lives, a positivity emanating from advertising billboards, high rises and construction and the fashionably dressed young and beautiful.

What’s next?  In Tillim’s words: “Usually, with the completion of a cycle of work a door opens that suggests a way forward. This time the view of the door is not clear.”

One thing is clear. His eye and his lens will soon alight on other compelling aspects of perhaps familiar subjects.



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