The second exhibition held at the new location of the Fondation Henri-Cartier Bresson features the work of the South-African photographer Guy Tillim, the winner of the 2017 HCB Award. More than a tour of African capitals, Museum of the Revolution is a challenge to contemporary history.
From Maputo to Abidjan, from Dakar to Nairobi, the exhibition takes us across several thousand miles that separate these cities. One might expect a journey, imagine crossing savannas or rainforests, but there is nothing of the kind. If it weren’t for the labels, it would be impossible to tell these large urban tableaus apart, with their impersonal, noisy streets. Guy Tillim photographed this decidedly modern Africa for four years, from 2014 to 2018, sending a jolt to our outmoded imagination that craves exoticism.
True to life
We are intrigued by the near-life-size characters rushing this way and that, going about their daily business. Here’s a man getting ready to cross the street; there, a woman in a hurry, about to step outside the frame, as if she were going to brush past us. Through his use of large formats, Guy Tillim plunges us right into the heart of the scene: we are among the passersby, within their reach; we can see them, hear them, and have the uncanny feeling of being in the same moment. Perhaps this is due to the familiar nature of these scenes which look so much like our own city life? What’s more, in some images we recognize popular European company logos and the typography of our own street signs. More than a testimony to modern Africa, these pictures show us how much globalization has transformed and standardized cities and lifestyles. Herein lies the power of Tillim’s images which transcend their own frame and simple, raw, immediate testimony.
A long-time war photographer, Guy Tillim cut his teeth with Reuters and Agence VU’. He learned through experience how to position himself in the thick of the action and to convey the atmosphere and the essence of a scene in captivating, realist images. And yet he admits that over time his attention has gradually turned toward what goes on in the background: “I photographed events, but it was the landscape that touched me.”
On his long photography walks, he gleans not only snippets of life but also observations on the effects of decolonization in large African cities: architecture without an architect, chaotic urbanism that expands without rhyme or reason. Large avenues, renamed with every political regime, have become mute witnesses, “museums” of a society that transitioned from a colonial to a postcolonial status quo, marked by years of disasters and wars. Despite the appearances, we are not looking at street photography, but rather at landscape photography where modern, yet already aged buildings eloquently comment on the historical instability of these not-so-remote regions.
By Coline Olsina
Guy Tillim, Museum of the Revolution
From February 26 to June 2
Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, 79 rue des Archives 75003 Paris