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I looked forward to seeing Another Congo (Oct. 31-Nov. 30), the exhibition of photographs taken by Italians Alex Majoli and Paolo Pellegrin and hosted by Art Twenty One, the new and chic white space in Lagos. I eventually walked through the door one Thursday morning and all that pent up anticipation dissolved as I moved from one unflattering image to the next.

Though the images are richly composed and mostly in monochrome, nearly all of Majoli and Pellegrin’s subjects are sad, mournful or angry. Regardless of whether they are photographed in supposedly fun, relaxing environment—like the guy in wet shorts, obviously just out from swimming at a beach—their countenance stays sour. Even the clown photographed at dusk, perhaps on his way to a gig in town, looked like he’d been forced into the costume. The man in the forest, perhaps taking a ritual bath, is nervous; the acrobatic contortionist-entertainer is dispirited.

Even when the lenses venture indoors (there aren’t that many samples of these on show), the story is not any more interesting. One or two images stand out though, and they represent what I expected Another Congo to be more of: joy in the midst of pain and faith in the midst of suffering. Two young women who meet on a street and happily hug each other, a few feet from a small bar; then there is the young lady immersed in a phone conversation, her back to a fence. Her face sparkles with the joy and pleasure that comes with speaking to a loved one.

I came out of the exhibition with one thought spinning in my head: you could never find happy people on the streets of Congo. That is a sad conclusion to make for works by two very accomplished photographers, taken over a period of two years and which form part of a collection hailed has having “formed an intimate portrait of Congolese culture”.

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Diaspora Congolese Alain Mabanckou, who contributed text to the project, thinks highly of the photographers’ efforts. “Paolo and Alex have succeeded in etching true authenticity onto these images, characters, and protagonists, onto bizarre objects and the environment, even onto a particular atmosphere, which is not perceptible at first,” he writes in the text that accompanies the exhibition, noting in another breathe that “they have avoided the pitfalls one usually finds when the Western eye, turned on Africa, focuses on anthropological reportage or on relating an exotic journey, embellished with carefully chosen photos to satisfy the need to satisfy the need for adventure and escape.”

I have not read a more tongue-in-cheek view of the West’s non-stop fixation with Africa’s poor population. I wonder what Paolo, Alex and Alain would think if they saw the lively works of French photographer Patrick Willocq, which is part of the 2015 Lagos Photo Festival and displayed in another space, just a few metres away from Art Twenty One.

Willocq is concerned about the plight of the Ekonda Wales of the DR Congo, which shares a boundary with Congo; disturbing as the issue is, Willocq’s approach to the subject is inspiring, if nothing else. What’s more: he imagines a time in the future when the pigmy tribe will be free of persecution at home and free to practice their traditions unhindered.

 

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But then maybe Congo (as much of Africa) is to blame for the gloom that dominates these works. In an interview with Huck magazine, both photographers describe how they learn they’d been shortlisted for the project and their approach to it while training their lenses on folks in Brazaville and Point-Noir. A good read, but Frankly if I had an opportunity to visit either Congo or DR Congo, based on the strength of the photos I have seen, I would certainly go to Kinshasa. Meanwhile, I look forward to subsequent exhibitions at Art Twenty One’s remarkable 600 sqm space. @PeluAwofeso

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