Museum of the Revolution by Guy Tillim

There are books that I like right away just because of the title. Museum of the Revolution by Guy Tillim for example. From the title, it is suggested that by opening the book, a museum space will open itself, a place where things can be contemplated, where something new can be discovered, where you can move around and interact, be it only mentally. Of course, museums can also be places of delusion where history is veiled, where critical perceptions of the past or of the other are made impossible. Places where relicts of the past are preserved and exhibited only to please our own phantasies. Sometimes, museums are places of propaganda, where history is rewritten according to the taste of their patrons. Museums can even just be places where children are dragged into by their parents on rainy Sundays. Boring!

© Guy Tillim

Not so, in this one! In Mr. Tillim’s Museum of the Revolution, the normative habits of representing Africa to “the visitor” are challenged. No rebels carrying an AK-47, no villagers smiling at volunteers, no rhino bleeding for his nose or other clichés that leave us with an already well-known but altogether arbitrary image of the continent. Here, the vantage point from which westerners usually look at Africa and Africans is cleverly tilted.

© Guy Tillim

We can look at a bright mosaic of scenes of contemporary street life in a number of African big-cities. And, we can see how the same forces that are driving modernity in LA, Shanghai or Moskou are at play in Durban, Maputo, Harare or Accra. Street hawkers are offering their goods, notes are changed, students are going to university, people are checking on each other’s looks, everyone is trying to hide from the sun as much as possible. Many passers-by are connected by means of their mobiles with someone invisible, in another town, country or continent.

© Guy Tillim

The composition of the images is stunning. In spite of the abundance of information they contain (the omnipresence of cars, the eternal construction sites, the broken pavements, the bill boards), in spite of all that noise, we are able to hold our eyes on what is important and interesting: on the people and their interactions. We can observe how the human comedy in the street only comes to a halt when a president is being paraded, when the boots of the body guards are trampling on the flip flops. But when the parade is over, real life resumes its course. We realize that for the ordinary men in the street, it does not matter who is showing the sceptre. The parade was the real human comedy.

© Guy Tillim

Philosopher Achille Mbembe is quoted in the end of the book and he relates this observation to the process of decolonization : “Wasn’t decolonization – if such a nebulous concept has any meaning- simply a flimsy fantasy? …..Does the colonization/decolonization dichotomy even have a meaning? As historical phenomena, aren’t the terms mutually reflective of each other, inferring the other, like the front and the back of the same mirror?” The photobook/museum functions here as a space in which the author is able to raise a political question to the reader/visitor. But the question remains open for discussion. There are no highbrow, sociological or political positions claimed here.

© Guy Tillim

The central theme of the book is rather its own photography. Mr. Sunil Shah rightfully underlines in an article in American Suburb X that Guy Tillim manages to take us to the heart of everyday city life due to his faithfulness and trust in photography’s conventional qualities. Indeed, just like in any other conventional photograph, his shutter is cutting into time, his frame is cutting into space. Reality is fixed, frozen, stilled. But in Mr. Tillims pictures, everything seems to come together in a way that makes the frozen moment eventful and lively.

© Guy Tillim

What is more, by working in his book with spreads of photographs made on the same location and on the same moment, he succeeds to show us the movement of time itself in its purest possible form. In the Museum of the Revolution, history is not veiled or covered but is unfolding itself before our eyes in a vibrant way. In this photobook, conventional photography, which is by nature confirming the immobility of things, has won its struggle with the representation of the fullness of unfolding events.

© Guy Tillim

It makes that in the Museum of the Revolution, space is merged with time into one inseparable unity. All the localities that are depicted-  and I am paraphrasing Michail Bachtin‘s theory on the chronotope – are steeped in historical time, that is in contemporary pan-african time. This unity is to be found not only in the inidvidual images but above all in the sum of the depicted events itself. With its never ending frieze of vibrant scenes of street life in Johannesburg, Nairobi, Abidjan, Dar Es Salam the book is the museum of the completely real and essentially visible world of African history. And for me this is the real “Revolution” the title is referring to!

© Guy Tillim