Confronting complex histories of postcolonialism in Africa: The photography of Guy Tillim
In Conversation with Ellie Brown, June 14, 2023
Art — Photography, Art, People
Born in Johannesburg, Guy Tillim worked as a freelance photographer for news platforms including Reuters and Agence France Presse between the late 1980s and early 1990s. He was also a member of the Afrapix collective until its close in 1990. Disillusioned by the photojournalistic gaze that came with this work - in which news images of unfolding events, such as the end of apartheid in South Africa, were presented without context or critique - Tillim shifted his attention to the urban landscape as a site to examine the transformation of life (urban, civic, political, social) from a diﬀerent perspective.
In the series Jo’burg (2004), for example, the photographer looks at the city he grew up in in the early 2000s - a time of transformation and flux rendered in views of apartment interiors in various states of decay. In a later series on the city, Joburg: Points of View (2014), Tillim turns his attention to the city’s streetscapes, presented as a series of diptychs stitched together by the photographer. The differences between the two Johannesburg series reflect the photographer’s ongoing dialogue with how photography and images are negotiated.
Most recently, the photographer exhibited a collection of work made between 2007 and 2022. In The Street That You’re On, The Same On You Know (at the Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg, May - June 2023), Tillim revisits many of the cities that have appeared in previous work, including Accra, Dakar, Harare, Berlin and São Paolo. Explaining the premise of the show over email, Tillim says that he “made many diptychs of street scenes in these cities, perhaps to encompass more of the vista, or maybe just for a change in point of view [...] Recently, I revisited the images and started stitching them together and they took on a new life, conveyed the thing I wanted to say in the first place. So here we are with an exhibition of these images.”
In Avenue Patrice Lumumba (2007-8), Tillim captures the streets and public spaces in cities across the continent, including countries such as Congo, Mozambique, Madagascar, Angola and Ghana. Here, we see the hangovers of colonialism through images of late-twentieth century buildings: the ideals that underpinned their construction have faded, but they linger as ghostly architectural relics, coexisting with the new aspirations and ideas of postcolonial landscapes. Later, in the series Museum of the Revolution (2014 - 2018), the photographer again photographs streets in cities across Africa. As Tillim explains below, the series examines the naming and remaining of streets in the process of de-colonisation, as different politics have emerged, taken hold, and been supplanted in the aftermath of the post-colonial fallout.
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