Guy Tillim

Goodman Gallery | Johannesburg

Photojournalism works towards narrative conclusions in ways that especially artistic uses of the documentary genre bend away from or pass over. In many ways Guy Tillim is a war photographer, and his work often bears these conclusions in mind. But as collations for exhibition his photographs nimbly draw the viewer towards and away from swift endings. Twisting in and out of these narrative expectations, his exhibition Congo Democratic scrutinises the public theatre of political support for presidential candidates in the run up to elections in the DRC in July 2006.The main gallery is dominated by Tillim’s colour renditions of the bodily mass that perpetually engulfed Jean-Pierre Bemba. In a photograph of supporters lining a road as Bemba walks to a rally, the presidential candidate is nowhere in sight, there is just enough of his private army cropped into the image to recognise them as the militia holding back the waving crowd, and the low angle eliminates the violence that was typical at the peripheries of such gatherings. But it is the dominant sky, clouded in threatening greys, that paints the real atmosphere of Bemba’s support on the ground. Featuring large at the front of the exhibition is a photograph of Bemba entering a stadium in central Kinshasa. It is a sublime inversion of portrait convention in which the back of the hulking presidential candidate is offset by the frontal identity of the craning bodyguard.In a supplementary series documenting the supporters of Etienne Tshisekedi is an equally unusual portrait of protester paused from the moving crowd. He has stopped to face the camera and is holding a piece of cardboard against his chest, penned with a slogan that marks his allegiance: “Kabila Chauffeur Taximan en Tanzani”, the last a xenophobic positioning of Jospeh Kabila as outsider.In stark contrast to the embodied energy and action of the loyalties to Bemba and Tshisekedi are photographs of Lumumbist Party supporters, in one of the gallery’s wings. Grubby photocopies of party leaders on pin boards, the lack of any overwhelming support in suburban streets, and a solitary party activist in his home all contribute to a version of electioneering that is rudimentary, modest and quiet. In the gallery’s other wing are equally quiet (in their stillness) markers of actual voting: the six-page, poster-size ballot paper, voting booths and the peacekeeping presence of the United Nations.There are two earlier works that have been included in this exhibition: from the Leopold and Mobutu (2004) series, a diptych of the separated feet and body of a colonial statue of Henry Stanley, abandoned in different government lots in Kinshasa; and the 16 black-and-white portraits of the Mai Mai militia, taken in the eastern DRC in 2003.Both are archival reminders of the more and less recent pasts that inform the drama of the election event. The fallen Stanley also quietly counterpoints the large-than-life statue of Patrice Lumumba that looms in the background of some of Tillim’s new photographs. The Mai Mai portraits, on the gallery’s back wall, remain in the corner of one’s eyeing of the main space. The child soldiers’ heads are partially camouflaged with foliage – in a botanical politics that is visually similar but functionally different from the protective foliage covering Pieter Hugo’s honey collectors – and their aggressive handling of the wooden sticks mimics the use of weapons of war.Congo Democratic premiered at the 27th São Paulo Biennale at the end of 2006. Significant artists should be showing in significant spaces and this Johannesburg exhibition – simultaneous with a showing at Extraspazio in Rome – is a welcome gallery introduction of Tillim to Johannesburg. In one of the less partitioned versions of the Goodman Gallery’s irregular spatial geometry, Tillim’s work has been curated with a skill and sensitivity that smartly foregrounds the present and pending human body in the physical geographies of public, suburban and private spaces. As a body of work and as an exhibition, it is one of the most concerted petitions to a realm that has been the sole preserve of the outstanding David Goldblatt.
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