When Harmony Went to Hell. Congo Dialogues. The Tragedy of Colonialism.

Alice Seeley Harris, The Congo

The following is excerpted from a press release on the exhibition.

‘When Harmony Went to Hell’Between January-March 2014, Autograph ABP presented a rarely seen archive dating from 1904, created by English missionary Alice Seeley Harris in the Congo Free State. These pioneering photographs publicly exposed the violent consequences of human rights abuses at the turn of the century, and were exhibited alongside newly commissioned work from acclaimed contemporary Congolese artist Sammy Baloji. This is a deeply moving and compelling body of work which serves as an emotive reminder of the ultimate tragedy that is Colonialism

Sammy Baloji
(Work by Sammy Baloji)

Alice Seeley Harris
(Image by Alice Seeley Harris)

In the early 1900s, Harris produced what was probably the first photographic campaign in support of human rights. She exposed the atrocities that underpinned King Leopold II’s regime in the Congo Free State, bringing to public attention the plight of the Congolese people under a violent and oppressive regime.
These photographs fundamentally shifted public awareness of the deep-rooted hypocrisy of King Leopold II’s promise of colonial benevolence, and caused an outcry at the time of their publication in Europe and America.

Over 100 years later, these issues remain of primary concern to Congolese citizen and artist Sammy Baloji. Like Harris, Baloji uses photography as a medium to interrogate current political concerns with reference to the past. Acclaimed for his photomontage works that juxtapose desolate post-industrial landscapes with ethnographic archival imagery, Baloji explores the cultural and architectural ‘traces’ of a country forever haunted by the spectres of its colonial past; in particular, the southeastern Katanga province and its capital, the city of Lubumbashi.

Alice Seeley Harris

(Alice Seeley Harris, Manacled members of a chain gang at Bauliri. A common punishment for not paying taxes, Congo Free State, c. 1904. Courtesy Anti-Slavery International)

Alice Seeley Harris

(The site where Patrice Lumumba, Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito were executed and first buried. Photograph by Sammy Baloji, Katanga Province, Democratic Republic of Congo, January 2010)

In this new body of work-in-progress, commissioned by Autograph ABP, Baloji continues to investigate the colonial legacies and fractured histories that haunt contemporary Congolese society. Notions of African utopias, post-colonial disillusionment, and a quest for authenticity amidst ‘the ruins of modernity’ define Baloji’s multi-layered practice: the impact of Western imperialism, Maoist communism, urban segregation and colonial sanitation politics as well as the unending mineral exploitation of the Congo’s natural resources, and with it the tragedies and traumas of state-controlled violence and ongoing human rights abuses.

Congo Dialogues marks the 175th anniversary of Anti-Slavery International and the invention of photography. This was the first major showcase of Sammy Baloji’s work in the UK, and presented unique opportunity to see both historical and contemporary works interrogating the Congo and its colonial legacies. The Alice Seeley Harris archive was last shown to the public 110 years ago.

Alice Seeley Harris
(Photography by Alice Seeley Harris)

For More on the Exhibition Visit.