From the Archives : Colonial-era Photoraphy

ImageA young Luba woman in the Belgian Congo
Photograph by Emile E. O. Gorlia (1910)
EEPA 1977-0001-135-01

Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives

National Museum of African Art

Smithsonian Institution
 
This photograph of a young, unnamed Luba woman was taken in approximately 1910 by Judge Emile E. O. Gorlia from Belgium in what was then the Belgian Congo and is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Gorlia was acting as an alternate to the public officer at the time, in Lusambo, a community in Congo’s Kasai province. He was a keen amateur photographer and photographed in detail the experience of being a government official in the Belgian Congo. This particular photograph was taken during his first tour in Africa. It shows a young Luba woman whose name we are unlikely ever to know, wearing bold earrings, a nose ring, and impressive necklaces. There are few details that provide more context to this woman’s story.  All we know is where the photograph was taken—which is not necessarily the same as where the anonymous young woman was from, as populations in Eastern Kasai at that time were being uprooted and displaced due to wars with Arab populations in the north.
 
 
It is interesting to consider this photograph alongside the work of Congolese artist Sammy Baloji, who has seductively and evocatively drawn attention to colonial-era images in which Africans are too often reduced to stereotypes and landscapes appear as wild or unpopulated. In his piece in Earth Matters, Portrait # 2: Femme Urua sur fond d’aquarelle de Dardenne [Luba woman against watercolor by Dardenne], Baloji overlays an 1898 photograph of a Luba woman over a contemporary watercolor of the landscape representing the two conflicting representations of reality.   
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