Behind the scenes of ‘Unextractable: Sammy Baloji Invites’ – An Insightful Interview with the Curators

Installationview Kunsthalle Mainz: Unextractable: Sammy Baloji invites, Sammy Baloji, Kasala, Photo: Norbert Miguletz

In a riveting conversation with the curators of the ‘Unextractable: Sammy Baloji Invites’ exhibition, Africans Column delves into the inspiration behind the theme and the intricate curatorial process that shaped this groundbreaking showcase. The exhibition, currently captivating audiences at Kunsthalle Mainz since its commencement on October 27, 2023, until February 11, 2024, unravels the profound impact of extractivism on societies, with a special focus on the Katanga region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This collaboration, based on a concept by Lotte Arndt and Sammy Baloji, co-curated by Yasmin Afschar, Lotte Arndt and Marlène Harles, brings together 13 artists from the DRC and Europe, creating an immersive experience that sheds light on the interconnectedness of global trade chains, capitalist consumption, and the resilient resistance against extractive industries.

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Installation view: Kunsthalle Mainz: Unextractable: Sammy Baloji invites: Sammy Baloji, embossed copper plates, 2025 Nilla Banguna: Wankito (umwanakaji). La femme forte, 2023, printed fabrics, Photo: Norbert Miguletz

Full Interview:

Africans Column: What inspired the theme of “Unextractable,” and could you provide insights into the curatorial process, particularly how Sammy Baloji’s exploration of the history of mining in Lubumbashi influenced the selection of the 12 artists and shaped the overall exhibition narrative?

Curators: The concept of the exhibition took its starting point at the intersection of Sammy Baloji’s artistic research on forms of cultural transmission in Luba communities in Katanga and Kivu, Lotte Arndt’s work on toxic conservation as part of the research project Reconnecting “Objects”, and the focus of the 7th Lubumbashi Biennale, which took place in October 2022 on the theme of Toxicité. At the crossroads of these three ongoing ventures, Sammy Baloji and Lotte Arndt jointly developed a concept that brought together a dozen artists associated with Picha, an association founded by artists around Sammy Baloji and Patrick Mudekereza in Lubumbashi in 2008. The aim was to gather in Mainz works dealing with extractive structures and the ongoing manifestations of industrial and informal mining in the city of Lubumbashi, which many of the artists have been developing for years and which were shown as part of the Biennale. Sammy Baloji is presenting three major works and a series of collaborations and elements of ongoing research. Apart from the thematic focus, another aim of the exhibition was to bring together artists who have been working as part of the same solidarity structure: the Picha association, which not only organizes a biennial, but also supports artists in the development of their projects over months and years. Several elements in the exhibition thus allude to working processes: the focus lies not on completed works, but on how they are created, conceptually and materially. Based on a concept by Lotte Arndt and Sammy Baloji, the exhibition at the Kunsthalle Mainz was co-curated Yasmin Afschar, interim director, and Marlène Harles, assistant curator of the Kunsthalle, who for their part have contributed a great deal of interest in and support for collective artistic approaches.

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Installationview: Kunsthalle Mainz: Unextractable: Sammy Baloji invites: Sybil Coovi Handemagnon Dessus, dessous et à travers (Over, under and through), 2023, Photo: Norbert Miguletz

Africans Column: The exhibition is organized around three thematic skeins. Can you delve into how these themes—particularly “Expropriation of land & the transformation of earth into raw materials” and “Confrontation with the colonial archive and its continuities” —help shape the narrative and impact of the artworks on display?

Curators: Expropriation of land & the transformation of earth into raw materials derived from Sammy Baloji’s artistic documentation of the extractive industries in the Katanga region, which turn land into resources and treats societies merely as a potential labor pool.

It appeared not only as a theme addressed in many of the artistic works presented here. It also fundamentally reshapes the relationship between inhabitants of the region and the environment they dwell in. Rather than to just testify of an isolated economic phenomenon, this extractivist logic transforms the relationship that people have with each other, and with the place they live in. It changes the very idea of who somebody is, and how “objects” are considered as separate from beings.

The physical and psychical dimensions of this destructive processes are for example addressed in Franck Moka’s work: Moving between and often bringing together sound, music, video, film and installation, Franck Moka addresses social, political, and historical issues in DRC and questions the relationships between human beings and the environment in which they live. Shimoko started from an article about the ubiquity of pollution caused by mining in Lubumbashi. It continued with several months of bibliographical research on environmental pollution in the city. The installation, developed in the frame of a residency at Picha in collaboration with Framer Framed, Amsterdam, and first shown at the Lubumbashi Biennale in 2022, consists of recordings of environmental sounds in mines and the responses among local people to the related pollution. In Level II of Kunsthalle Mainz’s Tower, we encounter these recordings as snippets emanating from one of the five speakers in the room while standing on a shaking platform covered with sand and stones. The screen next to the platform complements the sound recordings with a video which shows close-up of eyes, skin, and minerals from the Katanga region. Shimoko is the Kiswahili term for smoke. It refers to the smoke that rises from factory chimneys before ending up in the air and then being breathed by the residents of Lubumbashi. This pollution has dramatic health and environmental impacts for the local inhabitants and the environment in which they live. The shaking platform marks the presence of the mining industry and recalls the vibrations and tremors felt during mining operations, which can also be perceived as a form of pollution. The city of Lubumbashi and its region are one of the country’s economic centers. Industrial mining of cobalt and copper has developed strongly during the colonial period, and has built the structuresstill used by the current mining industry. It involves treating the soil as a mere source of raw materials with no consideration for the local population.

Franck Moka’s installation invites us to physically experience sensations that convey the precarious nature of these living conditions.

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Jackson Bukasa & Dan Kayeye & Justice Kasongo; Mozalisi (The Creator), 2022-ongoing, HD Video current version (6:05 min), with the puppets of Justice Kasongo. Courtesy of the artists, Photo: Norbert Miguletz

Africans Column: Sammy Baloji emphasizes collaboration between art producers, activists, and academics. How did this collaborative approach influence the development of the exhibition, and how did the participating artists contribute to this collective structure?

Curators: The exhibition presents several of the works that Sammy Baloji has developed in collaboration with others, artists, writers, but also crafts persons, and dwellers of the regions where the work is conducted.

By building structures for transdisciplinary exchange, Baloji allows for a multi-faceted approach to colonial ties, interrupted chains of knowledge and the logics of capitalist extractivism. “Unextractable” extends this collective practice, and brings people with different approaches together and in conversation.

One of the strong statements of the exhibition is that cultural practices are kept alive through permanent reinterpretation and change, not by trying to conserve them unchanged and forever, which is the mission of Western museum’s collecting and archiving practices and which leads to folklorization. The exhibition takes Sammy Baloji’s interest for the Kasala, a ceremonial poem, recited by Luba people in several Congolese provinces, as a starting point, to integrate five different versions and uses of the poem: as a performance by the writer Fiston Mwanza Mujila with musicians in the Rietberg museum in Zürich, later transposed into the film and installation Kasala. The slaughterhouse of dreams; as a publicly read text by writer Jean Kabuta on the occasion of the inauguration of Sammy Baloji’s monumental sculpture The Long Hand in Antwerp; in the form of questions accompanying the audience throughout the exhibition, and through the work by Julia Tröscher, who met Sammy Baloji when he was teaching a class at the master program of Sint Luca Artschool in Antwerp, and developed a narrative poem anchored in feminist performance practices and trans-species embodiments. For her film and installation, she chooses the figure of a fish-human that becomes the vantage point for a genealogy of the universe that overlaps with her own – and transposes thus the Kasala in yet another context.

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Installationview Kunsthalle Mainz: Unextractable: Sammy Baloji invites: Fundi Mwamba Gustave & Antje Van Wichelen, 2023, Photo: Norbert Miguletz

Africans Column: The exploration of the colonial archive is a central theme in Sammy Baloji’s work. How do the artists in the exhibition engage with the colonial archive, and what specific practices and historical experiences are they uncovering and presenting?

Curators: When it comes to the “Confrontations with the colonial archive and its continuities”, one of the strands in the exhibition, several artists interrogate the distorting images that the colonial archive and library produce and search for strategies of how to read across or along the archival grain, and connect with interrupted chains of knowledge. Sybil Coovi Handemagnon for example, presents an archival cabinet, containing archival boxes, a table with gloves, a large collage and images printed on semi-transparent paper. The installation joins elements from the artist’s continuous research into colonial images with an ongoing, a collaborative investigation into museum conservation.Coovi Handemagnon, traverses the toxicity of colonial archives to “listen to images” (Tina Campt, Listening to Images, 2017), i.e. to create non-linear genealogies that resist historical violence. In an ever-evolving collage, which she has been working on since 2021, Coovi Handemagnon analyses the paintings celebrating the ‘civilising mission’ from the pyramid-shaped hall of what used to be the entrance palace at the 1931 Paris colonial exhibition. By incorporating the cast of her own hand into the collage, she positions herself in the history of anthropometry, while simultaneously investing her family’s archives. She affirms the possible connections, trans-temporal solidarities and possibilities in the making, by looking for the traces of stories represented or missing in the images. In Mainz, Sybil Coovi Handemagnon presents boxes on archive shelves, containing images, texts and notes from an ongoing research that the artist is currently conducting in dialogue with Lotte Arndt in several museums in Europe and West Africa. During their visits, the artist and researcher are examining the traces of ‘toxic conservation’ a term referring not only to the treatments with biocides to which many collections have been subjected, but also to the Western museums’ attempt to endlessly conserve: By using chemicals and showcases, they keep life out, they interrupt transformative cultural practices, and thus avoid any risk of decomposition of the objects. Once artifacts have been objectified in this way, are reconnections with the cultural contexts from which these artefacts originate still possible? Coovi Handemagnon is inviting visitors to put on gloves, to question the images for themselves, without being able to overcome the distancing of the conversation practice.

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Sammy Baloji: Les petits chanteurs à la croix de cuivre, 1960, black-and-white photograph, dimensions variable. Courtesy Royal Museum for Central Africa (Tervuren). Photo: Norbert Miguletz.

Africans Column: The works on display were developed in collaboration with various entities, including Framer Framed Amsterdam and Reconnecting “Objects.” How did these international collaborations contribute to the diversity and richness of the exhibition, and what challenges and rewards did they present?

Curators: Collaborating with several structures allowed us to work in a longer perspective than just for a short-time one shot exhibition. Framer Framed had funded the residency of four artists at Picha during the pandemic. They generously agreed on collaborating with our exhibition in Mainz in supporting the first-time presentation of the works of two artists that came out of the residency. For the artists, it enabled them to work on a long time and result-open basis, while to us, as curators of the exhibition, it allowed us to join in an ongoing collaboration that matched ours. The attention is here on working conditions, long-term engagement and the practice of cultural work in sustainable structures.

Reconnecting “Objects” (https://reconnecting.art) is the research project that embraces Lotte Arndt’s current research on toxic conservation and cultural transmission. Involving the project in the exhibition enlarged the scope of the questions, by connecting the interrogation of toxicity as linked to the mining industry, and museum conservation. The chemical aspects – contamination of soils and of people, is one connecting element, but the cultural one, the expropriation of land and the separation of people from the conditions of a meaningful cultural environment, is just as important. Nilla Banguna, a fashion designer from Lubumbashi and resident artist at Picha, showed work that she developed in the frame of this partnership. Banguna collaborates with a group of women from the Makwacha village, situated 45 kilometers from Lubumbashi. There, Picha is currently developing a residency space and building a silk screen workshop. Transmitting a pictorial practice across generations, the women of Makwacha paint the outer walls of their houses with clay drawings every year. A process, which they start anew once the rainy season arrives and the water washes the pigments away. The works developed for the exhibition at Kunsthalle Mainz are the result of a collaboration with her sister Patricia Banguna Kazadi and two women from the village, Fernande Musha Sebelwa and Josephine Kyungu Muloba, who create drawings and silk screen prints on long fabric webs. Collectively they transpose the local pictural practice of the wall paintings onto mobile materials, such as cotton fabric, thus valorizing the patterns and enabling them to be transmitted onwards and used in emerging contexts.

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Installationview Kunsthalle Mainz: Unextractable: Sammy Baloji invites: Isaac Sahani Dato Topos, 2022, Photo: Norbert Miguletz

Africans Column: The exhibition aims to resist the impact of extractivism and shed light on global trade chains and capitalist consumption. How do you envision the impact of these artworks on the audience’s perception and awareness, and do you foresee any future developments or initiatives emerging from this exhibition?

Curators: The exhibition is a generous invitation to engage with themes that might be foreign to a large part of the German audience. At the same time, we are showing the works of 13 different visual artists of whom each and every one is bringing together much more than one single message or testimony. The goal is not to illustrate a certain topic but to create an encounter that unfolds in various associations and lines of thoughts. As works of art they not only address the audience on an intellectual level, but also on a sensual and emotional level that can indeed change someone’s perception.

The exhibition is being well received through the local community, particularly speaking to a young audience. It is also great to see the interest of University students and scholars willing to work with and in the exhibition itself. For each exhibition, a team of professional art educators develops workshops and other formats that allow to engage with the themes of the exhibition from individual perspectives.

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Installation view Kunsthalle Mainz: Unextractable: Sammy Baloji invites: Fundi Mwamba Gustave & Antje Van Wichelen: Ubatizo, archive footage, 2023, Photo: Norbert Miguletz

Africans Column: As the exhibition unfolds, have there been any notable reactions or feedback from visitors? How do you gauge the success of Unextractable in terms of fulfilling its goals in raising awareness and promoting dialogue about the issues presented?

Curators: In spite of its programmatic title, and thematic engagement, the works in the exhibitions are conceived as artworks, and it is important not to reduce them to tools for awareness rising but to fully consider them in their aesthetic dimensions. This said, most contributing artists deliberately chose questions that they feel are pressing in the context in which they live and work – and they are frequently read with more insights in the context of their production than they are in a white cube in Europe. While Georges Senga’s bird view photographies of the shores of an artificial lake in a former open pit mine, and a neighbourhood falling into ruins strike some visitors for their graphic precision, and close to abstract colour fields, they inform audiences that are familiar with the region about phases of industrial mining activities, and economic crisis, well known in the region.

Developed simultaneously, but independently from the exhibition, postcolonial city tours through the city of Mainz, and a seminary at the university focussing on the history of the anthropology department and its collection, that comprises objects from the Congo, aim to link local critical research and the people who are carrying it to the exhibition.

The walks for instance, which happen throughout the duration of the exhibition, extend the topics addressed by the artists at the Kunsthalle to the context of Mainz. They sensitise the participating people for the city’s colonial past and the continuities that are still visible in street names, places and companies. The tours have been booked out every time and have engendered very interesting conversations in and around the exhibition.

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Installationview Kunsthalle Mainz: Unextractable: Sammy Baloji invites: Julia Tröscher: There was a Never, there was a Yes, 2023, Yes/Emotion, 2023, Photo: Norbert Miguletz

Africans Column: Lastly, how do you envision local and global audiences engaging with the exhibition, and what conversations or actions do you hope it might spark within these communities? As curators, how do you envision the impact and legacy of this exhibition in the broader context of art and activism?

Curators: We hope that we can transform the way we do things among ourselves: by sticking together in the long run, by providing help and working in lasting networks, by understanding cultural work as collective sense-making. But we are also aware that creating international visibility of artists who are at different steps of their careers, does not mean the same for everybody. While some of the artists are very present on the international scene, others are in early stages of their trajectories. Also, starting to work internationally is not only the possibility for a life across continents, but also a confrontation with the rudeness of European border regimes, Visa politics, and many forms of racism. Keeping close contact with Picha, a structure run by artists and for artists, that provides a space for exchange and support, seems to be central in this process.

From an institutional point of view we find it important to create structures that allow for all kinds of collaborations and partnerships aiming at multiplying perspectives and voices. Inviting Sammy Baloji who in turn extended this invitation to peers and collaborators and in working with various partner initiatives was a way to expand the institution’s network in such a way.

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Nilla Banguna: Wankito (umwanakaji). La femme forte, 2023, printed fabrics designed and produced by Nilla Banguna in collaboration with Patrizia Banguna Kazadi, Josephine Kyungu Muloba and Fernande Musha Sebelwa in Lubumbashi
Sybil Coovi Handemagnon: Dessus, dessous et à travers (Over, under and through), 2023, Multimedia installation: photomontage on wallpaper fleece, pigment print on white 42 g paper, pigment prints on 310 g, plaster sculptures, archive boxes with photographs and documents, metal shelves, cola-nuts, nitrile gloves, tissue paper. Courtesy of the artist, Photo: Norbert Miguletz

Conclusion:

As ‘Unextractable’ continues to captivate audiences, the impact of these artworks extends beyond mere awareness, aiming to transform perceptions and provoke meaningful dialogues. By engaging with themes that might be unfamiliar to many, the exhibition invites a diverse audience, offering an encounter that unfolds in various associations and lines of thought. The success of ‘Unextractable’ is not solely measured by its thematic engagement but also by its aesthetic dimensions, recognizing each artwork’s ability to address the audience intellectually, sensually, and emotionally.

The exhibition is not just a temporary event but a catalyst for lasting change, fostering collaboration, understanding, and a collective sense-making approach in the realm of cultural work. The legacy of ‘Unextractable’ lies in its ability to transform the way we engage with art, activism, and each other—bridging global perspectives, amplifying voices, and creating a space for lasting networks to flourish.

For more information about the exhibition, read this Booklet accompanying the exhibition (pdf)

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