Autograph ABP presents a rarely seen archive dating from 1904, created by English missionary Alice Seeley Harris in the Congo Free State. These pioneering photographs publicly exposed the violent consequences of human rights abuses at the turn of the century, and are exhibited alongside newly commissioned work from acclaimed contemporary Congolese artist Sammy Baloji.
In the early 1900s, the missionary Alice Seeley Harris produced what was probably the first photographic campaign in support of human rights. She exposed the atrocities that underpinned King Leopold II’s regime in the Congo Free State, bringing to public attention the plight of the Congolese people under a violent and oppressive regime.
These photographs fundamentally shifted public awareness of the deep-rooted hypocrisy of King Leopold II’s promise of colonial benevolence, and caused an outcry at the time of their publication in Europe and America.
Over 100 years later, these issues remain of primary concern to Congolese citizen and artist Sammy Baloji. Like Harris, Baloji uses photography as a medium to interrogate current political concerns with reference to the past. Acclaimed for his photomontage works that juxtapose desolate post-industrial landscapes with ethnographic archival imagery, Baloji explores the cultural and architectural ‘traces’ of a country forever haunted by the spectres of its colonial past; in particular, the southeastern Katanga province and its capital, the city of Lubumbashi.
In this new body of work-in-progress, commissioned by Autograph ABP, Baloji continues to investigate the colonial legacies and fractured histories that haunt contemporary Congolese society. Notions of African utopias, post-colonial disillusionment, and a quest for authenticity amidst ‘the ruins of modernity’ define Baloji’s multi-layered practice: the impact of Western imperialism, Maoist communism, urban segregation and colonial sanitation politics as well as the unending mineral exploitation of the Congo’s natural resources, and with it the tragedies and traumas of state-controlled violence and ongoing human rights abuses.
Congo Dialogues marks the 175th anniversary of Anti-Slavery International and the invention of photography. The first major solo showcase of Sammy Baloji’s work in the UK, this exhibition presents a unique opportunity to see both historical and contemporary works interrogating the Congo and its colonial legacies. The Alice Seeley Harris archive was last shown to the public 110 years ago.