Colonial Extractivism and Epistemic Geologies in the Congo

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Whether for its rubber, its copper, its uranium, its coltan, or its lithium, the Congo has seen and continues to see its earth continuously looted by European colonial powers. For the last 16 years, Sammy Baloji has been dedicating his artistic practice to the literal and historic stratas his research has led him to excavate. Caroline Honorien and Léopold Lambert talked with him about what decolonization would signify in this context.

Baloji Funambulist 1
Untitled #6 from the series Mémoire by Sammy Baloji (2006). Courtesy of the artist and Imane Farès.

Léopold Lambert: Could you talk about your relationship to geology? On the one hand, your photographs often capture the literal geology of the earth of the Congo, an earth that billions of us carry every day in our pockets or handbags, which is a vertiginous reality to consider in the exploitation of the country’s resources. On the other hand, your work in the archives also has something to do with geology in the way you exhume historical layers to explain the top one, which is the present.

Sammy Baloji: Sure. I was born in Lubumbashi, which is the second largest city in the Congo, and it is a mining town. What I want to underline by calling it a mining town is the impact or the importance of mines, both in the structuring of the city, of society, of work and of how the mining industry plays an important role in this territory. Even daily life in the 1980s was punctuated with the mining industry. I’m not necessarily talking at the level of labor, but even the sound of the mine’s siren actually played a marker in the rhythm of life, the rhythm of society. So, we had a rhythm of life, which had several layers and which are all linked to a single element: extraction.

We’re talking about extraction, but we’re not talking about transformation. Since the creation of the city until today, and even if we are talking about all this ore, it is because in the Congo, there is no processing company for this raw material. There is just this extraction, and then there is the ejection of this raw material outwards, which creates an imbalance. And even the action of extracting consists in going to the lower stratas and bringing the ore back to the surface. The slag heap of Katanga that we know very well, that we see in all the images, even on the currency, has become both a political and economic symbol. The slag heap is an important symbol which is in fact a product of the waste resulting from the extraction or even washing of the commercial slag heaps which is very present in the Katangese landscape. And so, whether it’s culturally or even organically, I’m influenced by all these elements, which brings about this perception, this sensitivity.

My work is also informed by the political events that occured in history. I was talking about the 1980s, on the one hand, but you should know that in the 1990s, there was an economic crisis and a political crisis happening in the Congo, and in particular in Lubumbashi. And this crisis is very much linked to the question of the end of the Cold War, quite simply. The dictatorial power, that of Mobutu in any case, could no longer be and could no longer be supported, whether by the United States or by Belgium. One of the reasons for the support to this dictatorial power was the protection of uranium, which had been used for the first atomic bomb. And the Congo was also surrounded by quite a few countries that were communist. And so, it was much more important to keep the Congolese state under control, hence Mobutu being kept in power throughout this period from 1965 until the 1990s. Then, it was the end of the Cold War and suddenly, Mobutu was no longer relevant as a character in the new setting, which was considered to be a “democracy” somehow. So from the 1990s, there was an economic and political crisis set in the Congo and in Katanga, which caused the mining sector to decline, and which made it subject to a neoliberal transformation. On the one hand, there could be artisanal extraction because of unemployment, and on the other hand, investors could come from everywhere else to exploit the minerals. All this homogeneity that I was talking about in the 1980s disappeared during this whole period of transition which goes from 1990 to 1997, when there was a coup d’état. These years built a landscape that is no longer the regular one, it is now a fairly capitalist or quite devastating universe, always in search of this mineral, but with a social composition which is completely unequal.