The Phantoms of Congo River

Katrina Houghton is blogging for Redeye as part of CVAN NW's Critical Writing Programme. In her lastest post, she reviews The Phantoms of Congo River by Nyaba Ouedraogo. This exhibition is currently on display at The Study, Manchester Museum's new community research centre, where visitors are invited 'to use the museum's collections and tools, spaces and resources to pursue your own creativity and research'.

Amongst the collection in The Study, a new gallery space has been formed, which opens with photography by West African artist, Nyaba Ouedraogo. Katrina went along to the opening to review the work, and speak to the artist.  

The Phantoms of Congo River 

Deserted spaces and discarded weaponry meet alongside a powerful river that flows to wash away a turbulent past. The Phantoms of Congo River: Photographs by Nyaba Ouedraogo is the first exhibition in The Study – a new creative learning space on the top floor of Manchester Museum.

The historic Grade II* listed Alfred Waterhouse building has been restored and cleverly designed to showcase the breadth and depth of the museum's encyclopedic collection. You are invited to discover, make, wonder and share your findings and inspirations.

Phantoms of Congo River illuminates the gallery at the far end set alongside the museums own collection of colonial artifacts, connecting this historic space to its past and future. Ouedraogo describes his work as 'both a ballad to and a deconstruction of' Joseph Conrad’s infamous novella Heart of Darkness, which portrayed European colonialism through the eyes of an ivory transporter travelling down the Congo River. He tells me that initially it was difficult to read Heart of Darkness due to its painful recount of suffering and violence during colonial rule. However having discovered the river as a common citizen he saw a lot of life there wanted to find his own reality through photography.

Ouedraogo’s previous works are manifest by a desire to provide insight into present day African culture and their complex incarcerations. Fragments of colonialism remain embedded within everyday life in Africa. The continent continues to be exploited for its natural resources, whilst being used as a dumping ground for consumer waste. His work The Hell of Copper in 2008 depicted the ten-kilometer electronic graveyard of the Aglobloshie Market in Accra, Ghana. Here workers put their lives and the environment at risk by burning electrical waste in order to extract copper, which is then mostly resold back to the west in the form of cheap jewelry.

In his latest work, Ouedraogo re-envisions scenes from the Congo described in the novel, illustrating the aftermath of colonialism through ‘photographic poetry’. Choosing to move away from a documentary format he says 'in this series, specifically from the point of view of Brazzaville, I intentionally invoked tension, violence and the liberty and the life that exist in this river, mythic and mystical at the same time'.

Indeed these photographs are arranged around opposing forces of light and dark, violence and peace. Images such as The Three Bathers of the Congo River juxtaposed alongside Lord Of War expose not only the scars of economic conflict, but also the life and hope that continues to prevail. My initial interpretation was a feeling of rebirth; twilight settles on the riverbanks of Brazzaville, shadows fade to expose misty silhouette figures dusted with white kaolin clay. Though Ouedraogo explains he is not concerned with photographic technique, his work is recognisable through his use of long exposure and a soft focus that evokes the ‘mystical’ aura surrounding his images.

'I am looking for that invisible space in which everything becomes possible, a visual dialogue between seduction and anxiety, between attraction and repulsion.'

There is an absence of identity in his subjects with few frontal portraits, mostly shadows, backs and redundant objects. This encourages the spectators to become aware of the photographer asking the viewers to place themselves in the scene. Ouedraogo is providing a sequel to Conrad’s novel told through the eyes of Africa, in doing so confronting the ‘phantoms’ and reclaiming their culture.

Phantoms of Congo River is a harmonious match for the opening of The Study, encouraging new thinking and an opportunity to view Congolese artifacts within a current narrative. This isn’t a familiar museum set up; it is a workshop for your mind to nurture your intrigues and fascinations. Let your thoughts navigate amongst bespoke furniture by Ben Kelly Design, new work from Manchester Craft Mafia and the fascinating ‘aquaponic’ mint farm installation by the Biospheric Studio - where a fish tank generates the nutrients needed to grow plants. Lose yourself in what feels like the brain of Manchester.

In the words of Nyaba Ouedraogo 'I like the spirit that is coming from the museum'.

By Katrina Houghton


Image at the top by Nyaba Ouedraogo

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