Photographer and graphic designer born in Likasi, Alain Nsenga explores, through his work, scenes from daily life and their profound meaning. Through his camera lens, he questions the realities of daily life in order to provoke and question societal issues in today’s Congo. Currently in Lubumbashi where he will soon be exhibiting his work, the editorial team of Hamaji Magazine went to meet him. Unfiltered interview.
Who are you Alain Senga?
I am a photographer born in Likasi, 120 kilometres from Lubumbashi in the Haut-Katanga province . My father worked for 19 years at Gécamines. When he was laid off, he moved to Kolwezi and then to Lubumbashi where he found work not far from Sakania in the mines as well. I grew up in this strange world and I know a little bit about the history of Katanga and the history of the mines.
Why choosing a career in photography?
I started photography relatively late because where I grew up, there weren’t really any photographers. They were mostly street photographers, going from door to door, taking pictures that we would keep in albums. When I arrived in Lubumbashi, I wanted to become a doctor first. Then I realised that medical school was long and that I didn’t want to spend all that time on it. So I started computer science; there was a course called Multimedia Design. I first completed computing studies before moving on to design. That is when I really found my way: I got into graphic design, multimedia and photography.
You were the graphic designer for the Picha Biennial from 2013 to 2017 and, in 2019, you presented your work there.
I did an internship at Picha in 2012 and met professional photographers there. I then discovered another form of photography: art photography. We immediately collaborated on the 3rd edition of the event. I started as an assistant to the graphic designer of the Biennial. Then the 4th, 5th and 6th editions happened. This event is a magical experience in terms of networking. Some encounters triggered in me the desire to develop my artistic side.
What is the contribution of the Biennial on the Katangese art scene?
The Biennial is undoubtedly an important artistic event in Katanga in particular, for the country as well of course. When someone says “I am selected for the Lubumbashi Biennale”, it is huge, because he/she will meet artists who come from all over the world. Not to mention the press which, as in 2019, came from all over the world to relay what happened during this superb edition.
What influences your work as a photographer?
My experiences and memories. It’s like food. Sharing what I’ve been through is essential to me. I work a lot on everyday life, on what surrounds us, on the city. I show it with its evolution, what has been destroyed, what has been built… African cities evolve so fast, too fast even to the detriment of any logic, any perspective.
Your series Métamorphoses explores the relationship between black women and their image, their hair in particular. Can you tell us more about it?
Métamorphoses is the fruit of several observations. First, my mother. Growing up, I never saw my mother’s hair or my grandmother’s hair until I was 18. My questioning then focused on the faces of my loved ones, on their hair and on the concept of beauty. I saw around me how problematic this concept of beauty could be, women relationships to their hair. The different cities of Katanga were conceived during the mining exploration and the new inhabitants settled with their customs, their religion, their architecture, but also their codes of beauty that they of course imposed on the natives.
We still live in a world where people think that being white or having a fair complexion or straight hair is the key to paradise. The word metamorphosis then seemed obvious to me.
It’s a work that questions society as we conceived it. I began by photographing advertising billboards, then the façades of hairdressing salons. Then I went to meet girls and women and what they told me made me upset: “You see, when you asked me to come and take pictures, I didn’t feel comfortable in the street because I thought that I didn’t have my hair done, I thought people were making fun of me”.
Is it fair to say that this is a work of exploration and advocacy?
Yes, but I wonder if it’s really up to me to talk about that because I only show women in my show, and I’m always asked, “How can you speak on behalf of women?”. But then, how can I include portraits of men in my project? They all have shaved heads!
Let us project ourselves into the future: where do you see yourself in ten years or so?
In Lubumbashi! My work is recognised all over the world today: United States, Asia, Europe, Africa. I never thought I would become an artist, but since then I have had my say and therefore I like to think and believe that “I am from everywhere”.
Interview collected by Brigitte Mbaz for Hamaji Magazine
Alain Senga will be exhibiting his art in Lubumbashi – METAMORPHOSES – French Institute of Lubumbashi and GAC of ASBL Dialogues from April 24th to May 6th 2020