Léonard Pongo, The Uncanny

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by GOST Books (here). Softcover, with folded flaps, 165 x 218 mm, 192 pages, with 111 black-and-white images. Includes an essay by Nadia Yala Kisukidi in English/French. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: When diasporic photographers return to the homelands of their parents and extended families, their visits are often steeped in an uneasy search for clues to personal identity. The resulting images that they make typically shift between feelings of being inside and outside this “home” world, belonging and not belonging, and the journeys become wrenching processes that blend the familiar and altogether unfamiliar. Most of the time, the photographs that emerge document this interior struggle from an intimate personal vantage point, one that internalizes the artist’s own hybrid history and matches it against what he or she discovers along the way, refracting the ideas back toward him or herself. Perhaps we might call all of these photographs self-portraits, of one kind or another, in that they consistently wrestle with how an identity is forced to adapt and redefine itself.

Léonard Pongo is a Belgian photographer with a multi-national family and ancestral ties to the Democratic Republic of Congo, so we might reasonably have expected that he would eventually be drawn to making photographs of contemporary life in the DRC. That opportunity came in 2011 when he traveled to the DRC to cover the general election, and over the next several years (through roughly 2017), he dove deeper into the project, moving between the cities of Kinshasa, Kananga, and Lubumbashi, and immersing himself in the flow of life there.

Of course, Pongo likely experienced the same insider/outsider tension felt by nearly all diasporic returnees, but his artistic response has been much less literal and predictable than most. In general, he doesn’t seem to be searching for frictions, unpacking stereotypes or visual cliches, highlighting perceived oddities, challenging preconceived notions, or making implied judgements about what he encounters. Instead, he seems to have internalized a view that the aggregate “truth” of what he might see in the DRC is decently nuanced and tough to understand, and so he has opted instead for a wandering stream-of-consciousness kind of approach to experiencing its rhythms, where he leans into the shadows, blurs, and confusions that he finds surrounding him. There are no easy answers, neat resolutions, or summarized personal learnings offered by The Uncanny; instead, it asks us to let go of those hopes and rigidities and allow its teeming life to wash over us.

Stylistically, this mind set has led Pongo to intentionally move away from photographic precision, embracing instead the fluidity of motion, the complexity of darkness, and the uncertainty of chance. Plenty of photographers have traveled somewhere new and opted for a trip through the grittier sides of town, using high contrast black-and-white to amplify the bold shocks they’ve decided to show us; others have used dark black and white in a more self-consciously precious way, ending up with more mannered and obvious moodiness.

Aesthetically, Pongo is doing something different. His pictures do revel in the subtleties of light and dark (so much so that it is often hard to tell if it is day or night), but they’re more loosely atmospheric than the pictures of the intentionally brash and provocative crowd. Often, his approach feels slightly oblique and quietly curious, which generally allows for more open-ended interactions and charged exchanges. When he brings motion, shadow, and shifting light into the photographic equation, many of his DRC images recall the expressionistic work of Ming Smith, whose ghosts and silhouettes shuffled through the streets of an anonymous and unwelcoming New York City.

The Uncanny doesn’t really follow a narrative line, nor does it try to methodically explain or analyze the situation on the ground. Pongo’s approach is more wandering and episodic, with intermittent stops at churches, dance clubs, pool halls, bars, and even a wedding reception, with less defined moments in the streets, along deserted roads, and in the homes of friends and family woven into the flow. Portraits and images of people make up the vast majority of the pictures in this photobook, and almost none of them are neutral or straightforward in the mode of much of contemporary portraiture. Pongo pays close attention to expressions and gestures, each becoming its own small drama and the aggregate creating a kind of unstable visual vocabulary of his DRC experience.

Many of these moments and encounters take on an edge of strangeness, from a man blowing a sinuous smoke ring to various fleeting blurs and doublings which turn faces into ghoulish laughing masks and ghostly approximations. Other faces offer a range of possible interpretations – exhaustion, wariness, anguish, seduction, and even an openness to being seen, where we are being sized up as much as we are doing the looking.

One of Pongo’s strengths is to be found in his close observation of the complexities of gestures. Ambiguity is used constructively, making room for questions and interpretations. Why is a man crawling through the watery mud near a truck tire? What are the men doing on the roadside, all standing with their hands on their hips? What is happening at the shadowy meeting of men around a table? He seems particularly aware of hands and how touch is exchanged between people. Hands throw punches, cover faces, bless heads and congregations, intertwine in quiet thought, pull boots on, dangle machetes, hold Bibles, and smack a handcuffed man across the top of his head. Pongo is similarly aware of moments of relaxed calm – after dinner with a table full of dirty dishes, lying under a mosquito net, or having a smoke laid back on a couch.

As the darkness deepens, Pongo drifts through various night spots, where dance hall movements feel more like mystical reveries. Between the flared lights, the mirrored doubling, and the spinning dancing, the grip on crisp reality continues to loosen. Dancing becomes falling, groping, pushing, turning, touching, and posing, each moment seemingly time shifted and distorted until individuals become ghosts and dissolve into a blur of scattered sparkling light. As the energy rises to a fever pitch, dancers flip upside down and spin on their heads, but soon we encounter bodies lying in the streets (one seemingly covered with blood and feathers), the limits to this frenzy perhaps reached in ways we cannot entirely comprehend.

In the fringes around these varied encounters, Pongo takes note of his surroundings, making photographs that further set the scene. Feral animals make several appearances, from an intertwined snake and an ominously reaching monkey to scuttling cockroaches and a newborn baby goat. From there, Pongo turns his attention to the streets, where smoky fog envelops the city and car headlights flare through the ghostly bodies along the roadside. Detail images of dirty rubble, scrawled graffiti, stained pavement, and shimmered reflections eventually give way to even less distinct imagery, where crowds on the sidewalks and the bus station float into dappled wetness. This oscillation is made specific with an image of dark blossoms against a light sky; this same image is reversed on the book’s cover with silver ink on black paper, the tonal inversion of light and dark never quite reaching a point of stability.

What stands out about The Uncanny is its position that refuses to intellectualize or narratively structure the experience of the returning diasporic individual. Instead, it crafts an unwieldy dream-like dance that implicitly accepts that these ephemeral encounters will feel unfamiliar, and in some cases strange or even threatening. The flow of gazes and gestures Pongo has recorded recalls the feeling of treading water, his visual language of shadow, blur, and movement offering a constant thrash of conflictingly unsettled emotions. Seen as a single artistic statement, The Uncanny smartly delivers a thrum of otherworldly energy, encouraging an untethered drift rather than a neatly tied up conclusion.

Collector’s POV: Léonard Pongo does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar.)

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