On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Congo's independence, Noorderlicht Photogallery is presenting two exhibitions dealing with the country. After Congo belge en images, a selection of historical photographs from the period when the Congo was the personal possession of King Leopold II, the exhibition Congo (belge) begins on August 14. In it the Magnum photographer Carl De Keyzer sketches a penetrating picture of the remnants of the Belgian colonial past in the contemporary Congo.
Working from the Guide du Voyageur au Congo, a 1958 travel guide, between 2006 and 2008 De Keyzer sought out the tourist attractions of the colonial Congo. That was far from simple. Roads had disappeared, whole regions were inaccessible, and the omnipresent corruption and bureaucracy made the whole enterprise a contemporary journey into the unexpected.
What particularly struck De Keyzer was the scope of the colonial system. The Belgians were able to leave an abiding stamp on a territory that was eighty times as large as their own country. ‘It is amazing to see, on the spot, how purposefully the colonial system was imposed,’ says De Keyzer. ‘You land in a city or town in the jungle, and each and every time there is the church, the mission station, the trading station, the Belgian neighbourhood. Everything is linked together, by wire and road, with the one primary purpose of getting the lucrative raw materials to the ocean.’
In Congo (belge) De Keyzer connects this colonial legacy to the chaos and disintegration in the modern Congo. As the backdrop in his photographs, the architectural and infrastructural remains provide a surreal dimension. The ruins in the idyllic landscape and the new uses to which the old structures have been put – with no small effort and invention – wryly symbolise the desperate condition of the country. This makes Congo (belge) a unique exhibition, which confronts us with the way in which a colonial heritage continues to make itself felt, mentally and materially, even a half-century after independence.
The exhibition will be opened on Friday, 13 August, at 5:00 p.m., by Frits Gierstberg, director of exhibitions at the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam, and endowed professor of Photography at Erasmus University, Rotterdam. Carl De Keyzer will be present.