Fragile Landscapes: Guy Tillim's Image of the African City
Michael Godby (University of Cape Town)
Paper short abstract:
Guy Tillim's image of the African city in 'Avenue Patrice Lumumba'(2007)and 'Museum of the Revolution' (2017) captures the layers of colonialism, subsequent economic stagnation and, in the later book, the triumph of global capitalism. But the new essay also asserts human agency and ownership.
Paper long abstract:
This paper considers two recent essays by the South African photographer, Guy Tillim, on the present state of cities in Africa. 'Avenue Patrice Lumumba'(2007) documents the "strange and beautiful hybrid landscape" of African cities - the "empty shell" of the colonial inheritance, the dream of Lumumba's socialist nationalism, and the death of this dream. Tillim writes that in the frailty of this landscape there is an indisputably African identity - but it has to be said that this vision is extraordinarily bleak: the buildings are not only degraded but, for the most part, void of human life. And, formally, the blackish colour palette renders the buildings both dirty and grim while their repeated heavy horizontals and verticals create the impression of virtual incarceration. Ten years later, Tillim's 'Museum of the Revolution' (2017) deals with the postcolonial African city in a rather different way. Tillim proposes that the streets of the postcolonial African cities themselves constitute a museum, witnessing and, in a sense, documenting socio-political change through the generations. As with 'Avenue Patrice Lumumba', these streets exhibit, in their architecture and in their design, the historical layers of colonial domination, economic stagnation that generally followed independence and, currently, the triumph of global capitalism. But, in absolute contrast to 'Avenue Patrice Lumumba', 'Museum of the Revolution' shows people occupying these urban spaces; and crucially, by incorporating different points of view in diptych and triptych formats, Tillim creates a sense of movement and vitality that assert agency and ownership.
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