Congo collective won’t mention the war

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Young photographers dispel negative stereotypes with experimental images of Brazzaville’s urban landscapes

They are young. They are skilled. They are fed up with the dark narrative international media keep reporting on their region. Génération Elili, which means the generation of the image in Lingala language, is a photographer collective born a few years ago in Brazzaville with the desire to see Congolese taking part in the building of their history. From urban jungles to deep forests, from disused shipyards to decaying railways they tell new stories and prove that creative photography is possible anywhere.

Documenting the city

Looking at Génération Elili’s work in their gallery of Bacongo, a vibrant neighbourhood of Brazzaville, or browsing their occasional exhibitions in town, one is struck by the diversity of techniques and approaches. Urban documentary photography takes a fair share of the attention. Works such as Baudouin Mouanda’s, a founding member of the collective, evoke the life of students at night. “Streets are a second home for them” says Mouanda. “There they can hang out together, meet new people and dream of rosy futures.”

Some use photography to shed light on social problems. With her Coupé-Coupé series, Khelly Manou de Mahoungou documents the phenomenon of low-cost meat that is increasingly popular in the streets of Brazzaville and Kinshasa, in neighbouring DRC. To get around rising food prices, growing numbers of Congolese buy their meat from informal eateries, where quality control never occurs. A plate of “coupé-coupé” costs about the sixth of a kilo of fresh meat, and the choice is swiftly made.

Others prefer not to tell particular stories. They show the city as it comes to them: enormous, sprawling, ebullient craters where the lives of millions collide in the never-ending traffic jams. Add to this cocktail the absence of street lighting at night and you obtain the perfect hunting ground for photographers with a liking for urban landscape. Émilie Wattelier, a French woman based in Brazzaville, finds beauty in these dark atmospheres. “An African city on the equator line… The night falls early and at once… In this shade, one passes by ghostly silhouettes… At night, all the places are the same…” she writes as a label for her work.

Finding new ways

Others are experimental. In Elsewhere – a view from Elsewhere, Richard Goma superimposes parallel universes: nature and cities. The result is troubling, images of garbage surmounting pristine canopies or cars lost in dense forests. “My work is a call to urban planners: they should consider the benefits of nature in their work. Flora is essential to fight against erosion or to give oxygen to our cities” he says. Goma’s work suggests a nagging problem: in Congo as in other parts of the world, massive urbanisation and poor urban planning have devastating effects on human health and the environment.

In a complete different aesthetic, Francis Kodia presents a reflection on shipwrecks. There, among rusted carcasses or in humid containers, he meets a strange fauna: tramps looking for a temporary shelter, welders trying to fix what can be fixed, scrap merchants having just found their new El Dorado. Through the poetry of his work, Kodia wants to raise awareness. “The shipyard has destroyed our landscape” he explains. “And one must not forget that these shipwrecks massively pollute the river with significant leaks of oil and chemicals.”

Finally, Génération Elili counts daydreamers in its ranks. Arnaud Makalou, the artistic director of the collective, just finished a work where he uses railways as a mean to wander about in the country. “Railways link extremities together. Few people are aware of it, but railways are built for humanity to send itself messages.” Along Congolese decayed rail lines, Makalou encounters the country’s people – ageing seasonal workers, voluptuous women, mischievous boys – and discovers incredible landscapes.

Passing on creativity

Promoting contemporary artistic creation in their country has become a cornerstone of Génération Elili’s activities. Over the years, the collective has significantly matured. Today, it counts about 20 active members who have developed several partnerships and captured the attention of some big names of world photography. Hector Mediavilla and Philippe Guionie, two major contemporary documentary photographers, and Philippe Moison, renowned for his portraits, have all supported the collective by giving master-classes.

In a Congolese society often cast by external commentators as docile and passive, Elili aims to plant a seed that will keep growing. “Everything started from emulation. Years ago, five of us had the chance to attend photography classes sponsored by a cooperation program. After this training, they started to teach others and the collective was born” says Arnaud Makalou. “Today we want to repeat that story. We work with orphans, teaching them the techniques of photography, encouraging them to show their own perception of reality. It is not only about technical skills. We want them to be artistically aware.”

Hadrien Diez is a freelance cultural journalist based in Nairobi © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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Posted on May 2, 2013, in Photography News and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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