Sammy Baloji

Since 2005, Sammy Baloji (1978, Lubumbashi) has been exploring the memory and history of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He carries out ongoing research on the cultural, architectural, and industrial heritage of the Katanga region, and questions the impact of Belgian colonization as well. His use of photographic archives allows him to manipulate time and space, comparing ancient colonial narratives with contemporary economic imperialism. His work highlights how identities are shaped, transformed, perverted, and reinvented. His critical view of contemporary societies is a warning about how cultural clichés continue to shape collective memories, thus allowing social and political power games to keep dictating human behavior.

Tales of the Copper Cross Garden
Installation, 2017

In Tales of the Copper Cross Garden, Baloji emphasizes the forms that reveal how closely the axes of colony and church are intertwined and the strength with which those entities have forced themselves on the local Katanga culture. Evident in the urban planning of Elizabethville — the colonial name of what is now Lubumbashi —, church and state are clearly visible on the carfax of the colonial city. The copper crosses that the children of the choir hold over their hearts show how singing was a repressive mechanism of colonialism; to the artist, these crosses suggest how missionaries attempted to steal locals’ souls while exploiting copper resources for the sole benefit of Europeans. Baloji’s installation is about symbol and place, in particular about the city of Lubumbashi in the province of Katanga, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and about the local symbol of the Katanga Cross, a copper ingot used as currency for both local and international trade from the 1300s in the Katanga region. In sub-Saharan Africa, copper was preferred to gold. It shared gold’s luster but was harder and easier to transform. Processed from raw ore, this “red gold” of Africa embodied and symbolized magical transformation. The crosses of Katanga also had symbolic value. They bound local people to their ancestors and to their history and were thus symbols of identity as well as objects of prestige. Copper dominates the long history of Katanga. It was a key factor in Belgian colonization. It is the raison d'être of the city of Lubumbashi, and copper mining remains the mainstay — albeit a crumbling one — of the local economy today.