Extractive histories and a waste-laden present: On Sammy Baloji’s Essay on Urban Planning

Sammy Baloji’s Essay on Urban Planning, shown in the African Mobilities exhibition at Munich’s Architecture Museum in Germany in 2018, denounces the eradication of local identities through colonial methods of segregation. The work assembles 12 colour photographs, mixing past and present aerial views of Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with documentary panels of fly specimens. 

Between 1918 and 1951, a health campaign had been set up to combat malaria. The aerial views of Lubumbashi show the separation between the urban centre and the peripheral suburbs by a strip of land — a cordon sanitaire — of about 500m wide, oriented according to the direction in which the wind blows. This was believed to be the maximum distance that a mosquito can travel in one go. 

Under hygienic pretext, these 500m of barren land reflected the policy of racial segregation of the colonial era. However, following the phenomenon of urban migration, the city plan devised by the colonial administration has lost its organisation. 

Baloji also takes into account more-than-human communities living in precarity. His photographic work, Essay on Urban Planning (2013), assembles past and present temporalities of Elizabethville/Lubumbashi to show how the urban centre and the peripheral suburbs are separated by a strip of land, and invokes a wider spectrum of species to reveal the disorganisation of colonial city planning. 

Baloji’s work presents an interesting opportunity to expand our understanding of relations between colonialism, extractive practices and environmental catastrophes in urban Africa. His practice asks further questions about what it means for the continent to face pressure from planetary deterioration associated with gouging out the earth, contaminating water and depleting the oxygen ratios in the air. 

Baloji’s earlier work serves as a precursor to a larger body of work with similar sets of concerns, such as Extractive Landscapes (2019), his solo exhibition at Summer Academy at Stadtgalerie Museum’s pavillon in Salzburg, Austria. This work addressed the ways in which complex histories are reflected in the landscape, and how it is inscribed in artefacts and the earth by showing traces left by mining in the mineral-rich Congolese province of Katanga.

Starting from the exploitation of natural resources in this region, Baloji examines processes of transformation. His work turns geological maps into abstract compositions once separated from their legends. Similarly, he turns copper shell casings into decorative flower vases. Baloji’s work plays with making visible and simultaneously obscuring the historical living conditions and work processes in the mining region to discuss the power exerted by global value chains. In so doing, he invites viewers to interrogate how landscapes, images and objects all operate as bearers of testimony.

The African Mobilities volume on prototypes will explore human-generated waste and toxicity. It will explore the human and more-than-human communities living in the precarious conditions shaped by past and present waste and wastelands. This precarity, however, calls for investigation of the different material histories strewn about the continent and diaspora.

In this sense, Baloji’s film, Tales of the Copper Cross Garden, commissioned for Documenta 14, is visually relevant for conjuring a compelling picture of the processing of copper as a choreography of Black workers’ bodies, as they transform raw material into a product for the global market. In this film, the material process by which copper is drawn into wire from glowing, semi-liquid ingots serves as a metaphor of the colonial endeavour, in which the Congolese population was moulded into a workforce, showing the ways in which the church played a pivotal role in reshaping Congolese society. It captures the material entanglements inherent in the ubiquitous ties between the mining industry, cultural manipulation and religion.

These explorations surface discussions about African material futures that need to begin with a reminder that although African environments are not homogenous, the spaces and traces, circuits and cleavages determining material futures are as fluid as the temporal scales that bring them into being. 

Urban Now: City Life in Congo (2017), Baloji’s work with anthropologist Filip de Boeck, focused on the “urban now”, or to put it differently, “a moment suspended between the broken dreams of a colonial past and the promises of a neoliberal future”. This is perhaps the crux of the forthcoming African Mobilities volume on prototypes: using prototypes as a concept to profile and present the multiple narrations of both the problematics and promise inherent in multiple African futures. It simultaneously weaves together extractive histories with a waste-laden present to forge materially complex futures. 

Dr Mpho Matsipa is a curator,  research fellow at Wiser and lecturer in the  School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand and Columbia University.   She has written essays on the politics of  art and architecture, and curated several exhibitions and discursive platforms, including at the Venice Biennale (2008, 2021).

Sindi-Leigh McBride is a research assistant for African Mobilities and writer from Johannesburg, currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Basel. Her essays, art writing and short stories have appeared in Africa is a Country, Bubblegum Club, Prufrock, the Mail & Guardian and more.  

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