Daring to Dream with Eyes Wide Open: review of Baloji’s Zombies

In this review of Congolese-born Belgian artist Baloji’s short film ‘Zombies’, Thandi Loewenson celebrates a seductive and mesmerising tour de force that stirs up the fighting spirit in a people and a continent that has resisted colonial and capitalist extinction. This powerful, haunting review is written with Baloji’s lyrics, videos and ideas which weave through the text – linked in italics.

By Thandi Loewenson

roape.net highly recommends watching the film first (click below).

‘Zombies’ is a timely film. In the context of ‘Extinction Rebellion’, and the promise of a ‘Green New Deal’, there is growing fear over the correlation of climate breakdown and human extinction. Yet these actions, born out of movements in Europe and the United States of America, fall short of drawing connections between their own political systems and economies, and extractive, violent colonial histories that are complicit in creating the conditions for such crises to have arisen. They fail to acknowledge the long histories of extinction – threatened and enacted – to which black and brown bodies have been subjected, and the fierce resistance which already exists in our communities.

The New Economics Foundation invokes the language of militarisation in their programme towards a halcyon Green New future – ‘a ‘carbon army’ of workers to provide the human resources for a vast environmental reconstruction programme’ –  and Extinction Rebellion’s actions are already characterised by the violent exclusion and erasure of black and brown bodies and knowledge. It begs the question, when they speak of extinction, to which humans are they referring?

As ever, radical black excellence is on hand to elevate the discourse, and the Congolese-born Belgian artist Baloji’s short film ‘Zombies’ acts as a tonic, providing us with a reflection on how people who have struggled against forces of extinction for centuries are not only crafting creative reconstructions of life, and relations between humans and the earth, but also performing and enacting those reconstruction in the present.

This is not without nuance. There are many incarnations of life, and life in the afterlife in ‘Zombies’. Baloji crafts a narrative through which we find zombies as the passive undead – Brothers in sleep mode who wander through a life where everything’s fuzzy, everything’s fuzzy – and yet we also find zombies, revelling in the possibility of life after – sisters who have rejected an order, a sleeping sickness, that would seek to exclude them from the spaces and means of life. They respond instead with subversion through resplendent, reimagined beauty; the recycling of matter deemed undesirable and unwanted into matter of value; transgression of gender binaries and roles; and a new kind of politics which isn’t part of any ‘Africa rising’ narrative, it’s been there all along, mired in what some might mistake for detritus and waste or – worse – dismiss as ‘mere’ fantasy. There is only one death in Baloji’s film. The zombies we find in this telling of Kinshasa, and the emancipatory world order they perform and provoke, are very much alive. Zombies with nickel-coated feet.

The artist describes the film as set in ‘a hallucinated Kinshasa’. It certainly has the qualities of a hallucination. Colours are bright and saturated, characters are familiar and yet exaggerated, and the beat is hypnotic and dizzying. We jump between day and night in a frame, oscillate between perspectives. The camera lilts as we appear to walk through traffic and then suddenly slides around the scene. Kinshasa was built for 500,000 people and now over 15 million live there. It is a city of contrasts and that is its beauty. At the cutting edge of speculative fiction – as shots of a giant robotic traffic conductor confirm – the city simultaneously crumbles. Yet the refusal to be rendered waste, wasted and surplus to requirement, is alive here. In Kinshasa, and in her inhabitants, we find beings that reached an imposed limit and then, refusing to be contained, burst through one skin and continued to grow in a world composed of multiple sites of presence and absence, stitched together, overlaid, and experienced all at once.

This is not the ‘victorious independence’ that Patrice Lumumba welcomed on 30 June 1960: the first day after independence/ the clock stopped, time itself was ridiculed /justice sank underwater, public money was stolen, promises of the day after, promises of the dawn / where the soil disappears , the laws have replaced the amulets and goats have become carnivorous. In this life-after-the-end-of-time, between militias & rebels, pillages and spoils, we could find a space of the abject, a space of trauma and a space of mourning. Instead Baloji conjures forth a reading of life that is both visceral and poetic in its reflection on the violence of the everyday, whilst also pointing to the characters and terrains through which radical material and social transformation is taking place – cause for optimisme vigilant ! / [in] concrete utopias.

To try and capture Kinshasa, and the myriad experiences and ways of making life in such a city, in a 14:50 minute film is an exercise in brilliant madness. To do the complexity of the city and her inhabitants justice, the result can only feel like the re-enactment of a dream. ‘Zombies’ gives us an insight into the beauty and political potential of such a state.

In the opening scenes of ‘Zombies’ we walk through Kinshasa’s streets, at first through dense traffic and then, at dusk, through narrow lanes, faces illuminated by phone screens. Phones are held unnaturally high – in selfie position or as one would extend trying to reach out for that extra G, to connect with another elsewhere. This is both an inward and an outward condition; we are at once hyper aware of the presence of the body – Light on face oooh / Everybody shine oooh / Stuck to their phones / Just for selfies / Boys and girls / Everyone get the spotlight  – and of the absence of bodies, those who aren’t here (or those who were and have had to leave) and with whom we seek contact.

‘Zombies’ is the first track from the album ‘137 Avenue Kaniama’, named after the house of the artist’s previously estranged mother. My mother’s house was originally on Avenue Kaniama in the Katuba neighbourhood of LubumbashiWhen I tried to meet her after 25 years, I couldn’t find her house number. The street just got smaller and smaller, until it couldn’t even be reached by car, so we thought it was a dead-end. But then I got out and started walking, and in the end, I found her. In a world of stopped clocks, what becomes of the physical body? Perhaps, as these scenes suggest, it swells, holding multiple beings within its folds; the present, the present-but-far, the recent-passed, the long-remembered and somehow, those-yet-to-come too.

Does our skin look repulsive / Or has our sight been affected? Or are you stung / In your disturbed sleep? We leave the club, entering the light of day and following ‘the boss’ through Kinshasa’s streets as she un- and then re-dresses, arriving phoenix-like to work at the salon. A client at the mirror is being castigated. With hair like that, you can receive TV! She is defiant, Mom, wigs are old fashioned. It’s Nappy hair now. As she is crowned with a brass headpiece adorned with three malachite phones, she is resplendent and confident. She dances in front of the salon mirror and the camera lingers on her bare shoulders. Her skin rolls and surges, and becomes a beautiful landscape, constantly in flux. The bold yellow text – REPULSIVE – momentarily overlaid on her body is violently absurd, as is the idea that she might ever have been considered such.

Baloji raps on the track (in French), Brothers in sleep mode / How to see further / Than the end of his joint smoke? In response, we jump between shots. Close portraits of gender fluid characters stare unapologetically down the lens, at turns with piercing blue eyes and perfectly manicured eyebrows, shrouded in yellow flowers and veiled with coloured Perspex gels. The artist looks on from large round malachite framed glasses. The thin, beautifully crafted frames serve as another momentary reminder that we too must view this context through the lens of extractive colonialism which has resulted in subjugated, policed bodies and sexuality, amongst the myriad other intimate, everyday objects of such global violence.

Eyes wide open / Deep sleep / Zombies. Sleep has the potential to dull the senses and render us immobile, but deep sleep – REM – is by definition characterised by movement and vivid dreaming. In Zombies, under the shroud of sleep, memories are consolidated and simultaneously, so too comes the imaginary reconstitution of society and surroundings; the presence and possibilities available to black bodies expanded beyond limit, beyond gravity and beyond binary. Spliced between portraits are full body shots in which our zombies dance, lifting us up and taking us beyond. You’re asleep on your feet, on your feet / Zombies / Bodies are freed and we take flight from the concrete that surrounds us, aided by a finely crafted pair of wings, on top of a 4×4 and through exquisite voguing – in six-inch lace up black stilettos, a grass skirt and headpiece – that would have made even American dancer Willi Ninja’s eyes water.

Dreaming is often misinterpreted as a fanciful act – something that happens elsewhere, distanced from waking life. However, Baloji’s zombies sleep with eyes wide open. This is quite dangerous. In this waking deep sleep, characters emerge that are not only readying for a world to come, but have already built it, imaginatively, around themselves, ready to inhabit.  Fighting spirit, spirit / A bite like a Taser. These zombies are unafraid to come for the demons, tsetse fly, who act as the purveyors of the sleeping sickness and the voluntary servitude that a failure to dream of an alternative induces. Numb all over, we fight against it / Cobwebs forming in our armpits.  

This fight is brought into focus at a procession for ‘Papa Bolo’, a big chef politician, who is marched through the streets on a sedan chair held up by four shirtless men in wigs made of PVC pipe. The scene is opulent and farcical.  An array of weaves – ‘good hair’ – have been mounted onto a timber structure and are paraded through the street. Papa Bolo throws cash out into the crowd, stopping to be lowered for selfies. The old order reign. But even here, amongst a crowd who appear to have been mesmerised by the bling and the promise of cash, there is dissent.

Fighting spirit, spirit / Gives the vapors. Three zombies –  one entirely shrouded in condoms, another in a fabric made of brightly coloured bottle tops, and a third, golden, mineral, and electric, as if risen from the dregs of an e-waste dump (played by the artist Kongo Astronaut) – speak to the terrains of the struggle for a new world. As with these three zombies at the procession, disruptions must strike at the heart of the established order and seek to redress entangled injustices; sexual, biological, economic, extractive and ecological.

Baloji’s film inspires us to embrace a state of deep sleep with eyes wide open for this work – the creative reimagination of relations between people, and between people and matter – to occur. This world and its characters must accost us with the shock of the new, and they must also, concurrently, be rooted in the memories – spiritual, political, mineral and biological – of our region.

While there is space for ‘business’ in Extinction Rebellion (albeit now undergoing a phase of re-‘branding’ towards a ‘close relation’), there cannot be space for Papa Bolo here. The sedan chair becomes unstable. Papa Bolo HAS LEFT THE GROUP.

A merman with a golden crown and sceptre caresses his tail as a funerary procession leads us to a dump by a stream. The tone is gentle after the frenzy – musical, visual, and thematic – which has come before. Papa Bolo, his white suit bloodied, is laid to rest amongst the trash of the city. We are left with a scene of powerful beings in garments of great beauty; that which had been previously discarded, exhausted and undervalued rejecting such a characterisation, and not only sustaining life but, phoenix-like, reinventing it anew. The light indicates that the day could be ending or just beginning.

At the end of Zombies I am left convinced that the sun will rise – sooner or later – on a world entirely reimagined, already present in the bodies and imaginations, in the eyes wide open / deep sleep, of Kinshasa’s zombies. Baloji’s film is an utterly seductive and mesmerising tour de force that compels us to stir up the fighting spirit throughout the region. Because deadly is the routine / The heart’s resigned / Not moving / but sweat’s running in your eyes / Shake an arm / See if you’re alive and kicking / Or if you’re a zombie, zombie. It is now for us to dare to dream with eyes wide open, and to seek out, amplify and support those moments of transgression and creation which are already present amongst and within us.

All images are from ‘Zombies’, written, directed and produced by Baloji, with Popaul Amisi & Gaëlle Kibikonda, 2019.

Thandi Loewenson is an architectural designer/researcher who operates through design, fiction and performance to interrogate our perceived and lived realms and to speculate on the possible worlds in our midst. Using storytelling as a design tool and tactic, she engages in projects which provoke questions, whilst working with communities and policy makers towards acting on those provocations. Thandi is currently a PhD candidate at The Bartlett, UCL, where she is developing these ideas through practice-led research, exploring the extractive agendas driving the urban development of Lusaka.



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