This review of Sammy Baloji’s solo exhibition at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence appeared in the February issue of Artforum:
Sammy Baloji, installation views at Palazzo Pitti
At the heart of Sammy Baloji’s exhibition “K(C)ongo Fragments of Interlaced Dialogues. Subversive Classifications” were four exquisitely carved ivory oliphants, or hunting horns, from the Kingdom of Kongo. Two of these carvings belonged to Florentine banker and arts patron Cosimo I de’ Medici. Among this show’s many facets was a set of variations on the interlocking geometric patterns that adorned prized possessions such as oliphants, which the newly baptized rulers of Kongo gave to their European counterparts and the papacy as part of diplomatic exchanges. Similar designs were featured on cushions and carpets woven out of raffia palm fibers, so fine as to recall the texture of velvet, which testify to stylistic cross-influences between West Africa and Europe during the Renaissance and beyond. Based between Brussels and his native Democratic Republic of Congo, Baloji appropriated these motifs in a weaving presented on a wooden loom, Goods Trades Roots, 2020, as well as in the series of copper and bronze “Negatives of Luxury Cloths,” 2017–, and The Crossing, 2022, a nearly three-hundred-foot-long crimson carpet that elegantly linked the six communicating gallery spaces of the Andito degli Angiolini, the Medicean residence of the Palazzo Pitti.
Baloji’s ongoing research project Fragments of Interlaced Dialogues, 2017–, took its cue from the landmark 2015–16 “Kongo: Power and Majesty” exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, in which an oliphant from the Palazzo Pitti’s collections had pride of place. Here in Florence, the artist presented a letter from the King of Kongo, Afonso I, to Manuel I of Portugal, dating to 1514, in the form of facsimiles suggestively peeking out of an archival chest of drawers borrowed from the museum’s storage. The letter offers a rare African perspective on the period of relatively peaceful trade and diplomatic relations in the context of Kongo’s early Christianization and shows how precious gifts such as the oliphants first made their way to Europe. In the ensuing decades, such objects frequently changed hands and, later on, found institutional settings. Depending on where they ended up, they might have been categorized as curiosities, natural wonders, cultural artifacts, or ethnographic objects—but rarely as works of art. A case in point is that of the nineteenth-century wooden sculptures of the Luba Shakandi people from the Brissoni collection held at the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology in Florence, displayed in a glass vitrine as part of Baloji’s exhibition. In 1922, these were among the works in the “Scultura negra” (Negro Sculpture) exhibition at the Venice Biennale, but were then demoted again to the rank of ethnographic exhibits upon being returned to the Italian institution.
Belonging to different historical moments, the loosely interconnected “fragments” on view are in dialogue with their immediate (and local) context as much as with each other. The artist chose to mount some of his own sculptural and photographic works on grid-like metallic supports he found in the museum’s storage spaces. Reflected in the oculus crowning the domed square space at the heart of the show, the giant black-fiberglass globe surrounded by reproductions of historical maps of Africa in the site-specific installation Gnosis, 2022, nods to the one in the Hall of Geographical Maps at the nearby Palazzo Vecchio. Its title echoes that of Congolese philosopher V. Y. Mudimbe’s 1988 book The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge. Spanning several centuries, the attempts at mapping out a vast continent amount to an “invention”—in the etymological sense of “finding”—of Africa. The most recent maps on view, labeled Geological and Mining Map of the Democratic Republic of Congo, 2005, were a work of Baloji’s that illustrated how the slave trade and plunder of the colonial era seamlessly gave way to the current exploitation of his country’s natural resources, including copper, in particular.