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A Photo Exhibit Explores Life in the “Urban Now”

  • An exposed staircase in an empty lot
    A dilapidated pedestrian bridge sits along the Boulevard Lumumba in the Tshangu District of Kinshasa in 2013. © Sammy Baloji
  • Man walking across a street
    A man crosses the street in the Tshangu District of Kinshasa in 2013. Everyday lives in Kinshasa are to a large extent shaped by crumbling architecture and the lack of public infrastructure. Telephone cables strung by private citizens criss-cross the city, reflecting the ways in which residents find their own ways to weave together the city’s infrastructural gaps. © Sammy Baloji
  • An aerial view of a highway
    Cars and pedestrians travel along Boulevard Lumumba, with Mount Mangengenge in the background, in 2013. Mount Mangengenge plays an important role in the city’s spiritual geography. Formerly a place of ancestral worship, it has now become a pilgrimage destination for Catholics and Pentecostals alike. © Sammy Baloji
  • A billboard cutting across a aluminum fence
    A Cinq Chantiers billboard sits above a fence on Place de l’echangeur in the Mont Amba District of Kinshasa in 2013. Cinq Chantiers refers to President Joseph Kabila’s overarching agenda to modernize and rehabilitate the country. His “Five Pillars of Congo” include: infrastructure, health and education, water and electricity, housing, and employment. The billboard reads: “Our dreams of yesterday / today’s realities / tomorrow a better future / Long live the Five Public Works!” © Sammy Baloji
  • A city bus on a street
    A bus travels along the Avenue de la Libération (formerly known as the Avenue of the 24th of November during President Mobutu Sese Seko’s rule) in the Lukunga District of Kinshasa in 2015. © Sammy Baloji
  • Two men standing outside a night club
    Two guards outside the Grand Libulu night club on Avenue Lieutenant Colonel Lukusa in the Lukunga District of Kinshasa in 2015. © Sammy Baloji
  • A colorful hotel at night
    Lights adorn the Hotel Grand Royal in the Mont Amba District of Kinshasa in 2015. © Sammy Baloji
  • The shell of a multistoried building
    The Forescom Tower rises above the Quartier industriel (Industrial District) of Kinshasa in 2015. One of the early landmarks of Belgian colonial urban architecture in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) was the Forescom Tower. Built in 1946, it was the city’s first skyscraper, and one of the first high-rise buildings in Central Africa. Pointing toward the sky, it also pointed to the future. It embodied and made tangible new ideas of possible futures, and as such the tower materially translated and emblematically visualized colonialist ideologies of progress and modernity. © Sammy Baloji
  • A man sitting in a chair in open land
    David Ebalavo, Humbu land chief and head of the Mbuku Mvemba Mavuba clan sits on a chair in the Mont Amba District of Kinshasa in 2015. In Kinshasa’s eastern periphery, between the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of the Congo, land chiefs have been reigning over the same vast areas of land that their ancestors controlled when Welsh journalist and colonial explorer Henry Stanley arrived in the 1870s. In this process of rapid urban growth, these land chiefs play a decisive role, even though their administrative function is often not recognized by state institutions. It is simply impossible for an individual, a real estate company, or an industrial investor to obtain a piece of land without first negotiating with them. © Sammy Baloji
  • A man and a woman pose outside a building
    Martin Lusala Mayindu, Humbu land chief and chef de groupement of Kimwenza Matadi Mayo, poses with his sister in the Lukunga District of Kinshasa in 2015. © Sammy Baloji
  • A throne in a museum
    Former President Mobutu Sese Seko’s throne sits on display at the Institut des Musées Nationaux du Congo in Kinshasa in 2015. © Sammy Baloji
  • A notebook and pen
    The notebook of Sanga Chief Mpala Swanage Pascal Musenge, shown in 2013, contains a list of the names of all his predecessors. © Sammy Baloji
  • A man wearing a hat in front of houses
    Relocated villagers reside in the Tenke Fungurume Mining consortium housing camp in the town of Fungurume, Katanga Province, in 2013. Fungurume is surrounded by hills and mountains that form one of the world’s largest copper and cobalt deposits. In the mid-1990s, during the final years of President Mobutu Sese Seko’s reign, the Canadian Swedish Lundin Group obtained concessionary rights from the government to mine most of the mountains around Fungurume. Between 2009 and 2015, the consortium was mining multiple deposits concession-wide. The company also started to plan for the construction of a whole new city, an airport, labor camps for the workers, large processing plants, and a number of other industrial facilities. The construction of this new infrastructure would necessitate the further relocation of some 15,000 local Sanga residents. © Sammy Baloji
  • A woman sitting in a doorway
    A house is marked for demolition near the city of Lubumbashi in 2013. Three villages must make way for the new planned city of Kiswishi. © Sammy Baloji
  • New buildings with a swimming pool in the center
    Built on two artificially created islands in the Malebo Pool, the Cité du Fleuve, shown in 2013, is planned to grow to six kilometers in size and include over 200 villas, 10,000 luxury apartments, 10,000 offices, a marina, schools, cinemas, restaurants, and conference rooms. It connects to the rest of Kinshasa by two bridges and a transit road. Self-sufficient in water and electricity supply, the Cité du Fleuve is promoted to potential buyers as offering a luxurious lifestyle and secure land titles. © Sammy Baloji
  • A woman standing in a field
    A horticulturalist stands in the Malebo Pool gardens in 2013. Since the end of the colonial period, the south of the Malebo Pool—a lakelike expansion of the lower Congo River between the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of the Congo—has steadily transformed into a vast agricultural zone. In the 1980s, a South Korean agricultural company started to develop rice paddies there, but the project was abandoned after widespread looting hit Kinshasa in 1991 and 1993. After the Korean company left, local residents quickly moved in to occupy the rice fields. Before long, they started to expand them, often using shovels or bare hands to fill in and reclaim the pool’s marshes. A large portion of this vast agricultural space will now have to make way for the development of a new satellite city, the Cité du Fleuve, a private development that started in 2008. © Sammy Baloji
  • A man leaning on a tombstone
    A gravedigger leans on a tombstone in the Kintambo Cemetery in 2015. The Kintambo Cemetery, a place under constant threat of rapid urban sprawl, is one of the oldest and largest cemeteries in Kinshasa. It stands as a symbol of neglect and decay of the colonial infrastructure. Death has become commoditized with the growth of an informal economy around grave digging, hearse driving, manufacturing of cement crosses, and maintaining tombs. © Sammy Baloji
  • The view from inside a hearse
    A funeral coach for rent sits empty along Avenue Bypass in the Mont Amba District of Kinshasa in 2015. © Sammy Baloji
  • People and laundry outside an L-shaped building
    Residents walk past the Cielux Office Congolais de Poste et Télécommunication (OCPT) building in the Tshangu District of Kinshasa in 2013. Colloquially known as le Bâtiment (the Building), it is located in the neighborhood of Sans Fil, in the populous municipality of Masina, east of the colonial heart of the city. The Cielux site was constructed in the mid-1950s as one of many branches of the major post office in the central downtown municipality of Gombe. It housed a section of the national radio and functioned as an outgoing relay station for international telephone and telegraph communications (hence the neighborhood’s name, “Wireless”). When it served this purpose, the building literally connected Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) to the outside world. © Sammy Baloji
  • A man and a woman in a lounge
    Residents sit on furniture inside the Office Congolais de Poste et Télécommunication (OCPT) building in the Tshangu District of Kinshasa in 2013. Today, the Office’s building is occupied by several families, totaling more than 300 people. Most of them are still officially employed by the Office. The Ministry of Telecommunications has even allowed some of its employees to move into the building, as an advance for unpaid salaries or as a type of pension provision for retiring employees. © Sammy Baloji
  • Aging satellite dishes in a landscape
    Communication infrastructure sits abandoned near Menkao Village on Kinshasa’s eastern periphery in 2013. © Sammy Baloji

Material infrastructure and built form have tended to occupy a prominent place in conversations about the global phenomenon of urbanization. However, equally as important are those aspects of urban placemaking that defy straightforward depiction: how cities, territories, and their histories are imagined by the diverse people who inhabit them. This applies especially for attempts to grapple with the specificities of the African urbanscape and to imagine new urban paradigms for the African city of the future.

An example of this imagining is Urban Now: City Life in Congo, a collaboration between photographer Sammy Baloji and anthropologist Filip De Boeck. Together, they offer an exploration of different urban sites in Congo through the media of photography and video. They define the “urban now” as a moment suspended between the broken dreams of a colonial past and the promises of neoliberal futures; the exhibition offers an artistic and ethnographic investigation of what living—and living together—might mean in Congo’s urban worlds.

Organized in partnership with WIELS Contemporary Art Centre in Brussels, Urban Now: City Life in Congo marks the start of the Open Society Documentary Photography Project’s redesigned exhibition program, which will now alternate between shows organized in partnership with other institutions and curators, and the ongoing Moving Walls photography series. It also marks the start of a yearlong look at the topic of urbanization through the exhibition program.

Urban Now: City Life in Congo will be open to the public at Open Society Foundations—New York through July 13, 2017. Afterward, the exhibition will travel to the Power Plant in Toronto and Galerias Municipais/EGEAC in Lisbon.

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