Scenes of stillness and gentleness amid decay

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / May 5, 2009
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CAMBRIDGE - Sub-Saharan Africa can present a unique vibrancy. Think of the exuberance of its music, the lushness of its vegetation, the world-historical wonder that is Nelson Mandela's smile.

The sub-Saharan Africa Guy Tillim records in his photographs seems to lack even the memory of vibrancy. Its stillness goes far beyond any lack of motion. The most one can say about these abandoned hotels and dusty bureaucratic warrens is that the faded splendor they sometimes possess mustn't have been very splendid to begin with. Tillim's images are postcards from a post-colonial world. They document not just the moral bankruptcy of colonialism but the nearly complete bankruptcy of its legacy.

A white South African, Tillim is the first winner of the Robert Gardner Fellowship in Photography. Gardner, who funded the prize, is best known for his documentary "Dead Birds." A legendary figure in the field, he taught film at Harvard for many years.

"Avenue Patrice Lumumba: Photographs by Guy Tillim" is a product of the fellowship. It's at Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology through Sept. 7. The photographer has described it as "a walk through avenues of dreams."

Naming streets after Patrice Lumumba is a common practice in southern Africa. Lumumba, the first elected prime minister of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, was murdered in 1961, only months after taking office. So he is that most alluring of historical types: the idealist who died before his ideals could be tested and, perhaps, found wanting. Thus the streets named for him very much are, as Tillim suggests, avenues of dreams: a dream of a continent freed from outside rule and left to flourish in freedom and prosperity.

The reality proved far different, which makes the dreamlike quality of Tillim's pictures all the more striking. There are 21 of them, taken in Mozambique, Madagascar, Congo, Angola, Ghana. Each is big, roughly 2 1/2 feet by 4 feet, and in color.

The color is so delicate as to seem almost faded - a function of the thin, watery light that fills many of Tillim's photographs. That's one contributor of dreaminess. Another is the parade of incongruity they record: a chair with torn armrests, headless statues, a sheet flapping on a clothesline in a drained swimming pool. Through a trick of perspective, a plaque shaped in an outline of the African continent looks like an oddly formed stain or bit of missing plaster.

Finally, there's the relative absence of people. A few times we glimpse a pedestrian on an otherwise-abandoned street, or a civil servant becalmed at his desk. But "Avenue Patrice Lumumba" is about space and the structures erected (and slowly collapsing) within it, not the people who use them.

The sense of depopulation makes sense. Given the chance, who wouldn't flee such scenes of unemphatic oppressiveness? The modifier is as important as the noun, though. Tillim reveals scraggliness, disrepair, and decay, but no horror. His pictures exhibit a gentleness that's at once generous-spirited and beguiling. He is a fellow African, after all, and there's nothing judgmental about his photographs. When Tillim speaks of "my embrace" of "this strange and beautiful hybrid landscape," one doubts neither the genuineness of his feeling nor the accuracy of his words.

That embrace would be better served were the photographs hung with more formality. They lack both mattes and frames. Perhaps the idea was to give the images an air of casualness and sense of greater immediacy. The effect, though, is of a disregard for upkeep and detail comparable to that evident in so many of the scenes Tillim has photographed.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

AVENUE PATRICE LUMUMBA: Photographs by Guy Tillim At Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, 11 Divinity Ave., Cambridge, through Sept. 7. Call 617-496-1027 or go to