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Sammy Baloji: The Light Continent

We forget how big Africa is. The continental US, from Puget Sound to the Florida Keys, would tuck into the upper left-hand bulge of the continent that is the Sahara. Nearly 1 billion people live in Africa, 300,000 of them in Likasi, the city that is the subject and site for “Vues de Likasi,” an intriguing photo installation by Congolese artist Sammy Baloji. Located in the Democratic Republic of Congo, close to the border with Zambia in mineral-rich Katanga province, Likasi wears its colonial past on the surface of its buildings. In his installation, on view at a new space operated by the Contact photography festival, Baloji has made a walking tour of the city centre and pieced together a running image of the street facades. It’s a modest place; the Belgians called it Jadotville and built a city hall there in 1900. It’s still the city hall but its sign now reads “Likasi.” There’s a cinema too, called Bagatelle. It’s next door to the Blue Note Dancing Club.

Some of the grander buildings are now fallen in and abandoned; the sidewalks and streets are full of holes too. There are mostly men on the streets, except near stores that sell things for children like knapsacks and running shoes; then, there are women. Baloji took his photographs separately, over time, but you wouldn’t know it. Most of the scenes are under a high, blue-blanched sky with passing bits of cumulus cloud. Only the light changes, shifting shadows and warming into the golden glow of a late afternoon. In the gallery, there’s a soundtrack of early morning sounds, then various bits of local music that help to generate this sense of time passing. Together they make a wonderful portrait of time and place that seems more than a documentary. It is transference of a love of place, the kind of story that never makes it into the reports we usually hear of Africa. It’s a lovely, impressive, eye-opening show. (310-80 Spadina Ave, Toronto ON)

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