The Story of Congo Tales
Pieter Henket was interviewed by the Peter O’Callaghan QC Gallery's Siobhan Ryan to share more information behind the making of Congo Tales
I interviewed the Dutch photographer Pieter Henket at his home in New York City via Zoom, as we do these days. It was Polling Day in the United States of America, and New York City had already begun “boarding up” in anticipation of unrest. The previous evening, Henket had got chatting with some young Latinos. They were equivocal about voting, but he thinks he talked them round. If they made good on their promises, it meant seven or eight more votes for Joe Biden. New York will go to the Democrats. “It always does,” says Henket, but every vote counts.
Three years ago, Henket was thousands of miles and a cultural-world away from New York, in the Congo Basin as the guest of the people of Mbomo, a remote district in the Odzala Rainforest. He was part of an international crew commissioned to make a visual record of the stories, myths and legends of the area, which have traditionally been handed down orally.
It is said that when an elder dies, a library burns to the ground. This adage is the impetus for the Tales of Us project, whose mission is to preserve the lore of threatened cultures by having the people stage their own stories, in their own environment, and having portrait photographers photograph the event.
In the Congo Basin, the tradition of communicating history and lore through storytelling has been threatened by the impact of modernisation and of lives lost through disease and conflict. The Tales of Us team, comprising the founder Eva Vonk, Henket, Kovo N’Sonde (a French-Congalese artist and philosopher), Said Abiter (art director) and Roger Innis (production designer), and a truckload of equipment travelled 17 hours from the capital, Brazzaville, by 4WD, ferry and punt for a photo shoot which had been four years in the making. Contacts were made, stories gathered and translated, the villagers schooled in performance, and costumes and sets designed. Tales of Us required that the shoot be of the same high production standard expected of the glossy magazine and celebrity shoots which Henket is used to working on, which meant lugging cameras, lighting and gear to the site and having generators brought in. This was unprecedented for the Mbomo people, most of whom had only experienced photography on rare visits to an old-style photographic studio in town, to pose stiffly in front of hand-painted sets.
The result is uncompromising. Deceptively simple costumes and masks fashioned from the local flora bring the myths to life. The photos are seductive and lush—qualities which match the richness of the tales and the magnificence of the rainforest environment. The cast, drawn from the villagers, inhabit their parts. For all this lushness, however, the tales have a harshness which is true to the lives and the environment of their protagonists. Stories such as Murder of the Elders, a sorry tale about rebellious youth, and The Little Fish and the Crocodile, in which friendship is sacrificed to primitive urges, demonstrate that oral traditions are the foundations of a society’s morals and ethics.
Henket and the team travelled back to Brazzaville in 2018 to show Congo Tales to the Mbomo villagers and the people of the Republic of Congo. Since then, the suite has been shown at the Barberini Museum in Pottsdam, Germany, the Museum De Fundatie in Zwolle, Netherlands, and the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York City, United States of America. Six photographs from the series were recently acquired by the Netherlands’ Rijksmuseum.
Congo Tales comes to the Peter O’Callaghan QC Gallery as part of PHOTO 2021, a biennial International Festival of Photography, for which the Bar will partner with government, educational and cultural institutions, as well as commercial galleries, to present a city-and-state-wide immersion into photography with the theme of ‘The Truth’.