ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Rebecca Fertinel - 2018 - Tussen verbondenheid en verstikking [NL, essay],
Between Being Connected and Suffocating
A conversation with Rebecca Fertinel on her photo series ‘Ubuntu’
In august of 2015 photographer Rebecca Fertinel (°1991) was invited to a wedding by her friend Tracy Tansia. Here, Fertinel was introduced to the warm, unabashed life-approach of the Congolese community in Belgium and the Bantu concept ‘Ubuntu’: that you really only become human when you are connected to everything and everyone.
In Fertinel’s photographic documentary, the concept of Ubuntu seems to intertwine with the desire to belong to a group and maintain a group identity in a changing environment, as we can deduce from the guest’s uniform appearance.
The photographed scenes seem to take place in an indefinable era, at an indefinable place. This is not due to the black-and-white photography, but to the ‘classic’ clothes and hairstyles, which become timeless in the absence of time-bound colors. Only when we look at the settings for certain architectural elements or spatial accessories, we understand that we are not in the United States in the 1950s, or Kinshasa in the seventies. We are in Flemish cultural centers and church halls in 2017.
Apart from a timeless indefinability, these photographs are also characterized by a striking observation of intimate moments, which can only be captured by a photographer when everyone is accustomed to him or her. As the book progresses, the trust between the photographer and the people she photographs increases.
This is not immediately noticeable, however, because Fertinel chose to display the left side of all her horizontal photographs on the right page and the right side of the same photograph on the other side of this page so that the reader has to flip the page to see the entire photograph. Graphically, this is a wonderful solution to bypass the disadvantages of the ugly fold in the middle of a book. On a photographic level it is a masterly stroke, because all half photographs retain their compositional and substantive strength.
Nationalism, it is claimed, is nothing but a collective narcissism. Identity? According to Nietzsche, Western belief in personal identity was nothing more than a consequence of the fact that Western languages contain personal pronouns. Others suspect that this belief has resulted from the personified image of the monotheistic religions. In pre-Christianic Greece, Rome, Asia, Africa and America, people thought differently and individuals were encouraged to dissolve in the community and to break away from their personal opinions, their desires and their delusions of grandeur.
Most people feel safe and know when they are connected to their group. But artists are only born when they can free themselves from the customs of their group. Thus everyone searches for their own path. That's what these photos tell me.
- What do you think of the introduction to his text?
Rebecca Fertinel: It surely adds some thoughts to the photographs, but I think we should mention as well that the photos were made in a family context. I also would have liked you to write more about the concept of ‘Ubuntu’. The passage about collective narcissism is quite negative, while the idea of Ubuntu is very positive.
It is true that migration is of all times. People are always looking for new or better things and always lose a part of themselves because they have to leave something behind. But this book is specifically about the Congolese community in Belgium. Without the colonization and the scramble for Africa, this community would not be so big. Traumas pass from generation to generation and are still relevant, even if a third generation has already been born in Belgium.
Congolese culture continues to fascinate me. Different tribes were essentially matriarchal. There were forms of patriarchy, but the power structures as we know them today have been brought about under the influence of Western colonizers. The underlying matriarchal structure has, however, been preserved. This shows in their respect for the aging, wise woman, which contrasts sharply with the Western approach of women who supposedly decay when they get older.
Ancient traditions from before colonization, such as Ubuntu, still live on, fused with Christian influences. Ubuntu also applies after your death, for example: if you lead a sincere, dignified life, you will become an ancestor who is worthy of respect. Life and death go hand in hand. Congolese culture is also an oral culture. People from the African diaspora are very attached to certain cultural practices, because they are almost never recorded in texts, but only preserved by experience.
Creating this photo series made me feel like part of a group. It was a valuable feeling that I had lacked in my own life. This project is therefore also my story. The images tell a story of who I am as well. As you browse, the theme of the Congolese community disappears, and you begin to see the underlying message, to which everyone can probably relate.
Everyone in a similar situation has experienced the desire to connect with certain traditions on the one hand, while simultaneously feeling different and no longer seamlessly connected with the old culture on the other hand. ‘Ni congolais, ni belge.’ Within the group, the individual feels strong, but outside the group he or she will feel lonely and deviant. We need each other.
Looking for ways to go beyond the registration of the uncomfortable, artificial togetherness, I started to emphasize the moments in which the guests no longer seemed to know what attitude they should adopt. Thus, as the book progresses, a deeper, almost secret connection emerges. See, everyone is looking for a place in life. That is the beauty of Ubuntu for me.
Montagne de Miel, July 6th 2018
Translated by Yasmine Sadri