Dr Pixley Kaseme Street, Durban, 2016
Dr Pixley Kaseme Street, Durban, 2016
Image: Supplied

In the accompanying text to his new exhibition of photographs, Guy Tillim describes the Museum of Revolution on Maputo's Avenida 24 Julho (named after the date of Mozambique's independence). It features a panoramic painting by North Korean artists depicting the liberation of the capital from Portuguese colonial rule.

"It illustrates the rhetoric of a revolution as the leader and followers parade through the streets and avenues, laid out with grandeur by the colonial powers," writes Tillim.

Using pictures taken on colonial-era streets renamed to reflect the post-independence ideals of African countries, Tillim's latest work, which won him the Henri Cartier Bresson Award, captures the new face of life on these streets. "[It] reflects a different reality now, of rebuilding and enterprise and new sets of aspirations imbued with capitalistic values."

The socialist ideals of post-independence Africa as reflected in Maputo's North Korean painting have been replaced by the material ideals of a globalised world - in which mobility is more important than five-year plans in the service of the imagined greater good.

In these photos - often split into two or three frames within the context of one space and time - Tillim presents small markers of frames excluded: a foot in one shot, invisible from the next; a pedestrian making a crossing between frames suddenly absent from the same scene captured just a split second later.

In Tillim's welcome embrace of the hustle of modern-day aspiration, a street in Dakar or Accra or Maputo or Harare is as busy as Oxford Circus or Times Square. The people in the frames are inseparable from the landscape which they inhabit, but not necessarily essential to the pictures as individual characters.
It's the reflection of a concern that Tillim has been exploring for several years now: to photograph urban areas as places where "people inhabit the frame as equal elements of the landscape, where they can be seen in relation to architecture and the environment".

Jason Moyo Avenue, Harare, 2016
Jason Moyo Avenue, Harare, 2016
Image: Guy Tillim

These streets with their celebratory names, reflecting the ideals of the governments who now rule over them, are constant centres of intersection and interaction between citizens of globalised, capitalised cities full of billboard advertising and street vendors.

They are also places where, thanks to Tillim's framing and formal considerations, one can contemplate the contradictions of a continent making strides to assert its identity in the wake of its colonial past and the many complexities and ironies that this history has left in its wake.

It's a testament to Tillim's observational empathy that these questions throw themselves easily into the minds of viewers. What seem uneventful depictions of daily city life prove to be a thoughtful reflection on the continent's present and possible future without ignoring the peculiarities of its past.

'The Museum of the Revolution' is at Stevenson Cape Town until November 25.

This article was originally published in The Times.

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