New to the Ackland: A Photograph by Rachel Malaika

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Two people in carved wooden masks look out the broken windows of a ruined building

Two masked figures peer at the viewer from the interior of a once colorful building, now dilapidated with broken windows and graffitied walls. This is the scene of Observant Gazes (Regards observateurs) by Rachel Malaika, a photographer working in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

This image is one of a series entitled Ancestral Root. In it, Malaika populates figures who wear Kuba-inspired masks purchased from contemporary markets among the ruins of the palace of former Congolese president Mobutu Sese Seko (in power 1965-1997). Seko’s rule frequently fabricated “traditions” for his propaganda needs. Upon construction in the 1970s, his palace in Nsele demonstrated such ahistorical liberties through its hybrid Kuba and Chinese architectural elements. In contrasting histories both erased and preserved, Malaika asks her viewers to consider the evolving, complex histories within the DRC, from the former centers of power literally decaying, to the symbolic and ritualistic cultural forms now readily available for purchase by tourists.

Rachel Malaika and her photography was brought to the attention of the Ackland by the UNC African Studies Center as part of its online exhibition program that features emerging African artists. Viewers may watch a conversation its staff conducted with Malaika about this series on YouTube.

— Lauren Turner, Associate Curator for Contemporary Art and Special Projects

Image Credit:
Rachel Malaika, Congolese, born 1986, Observant Gazes (Regards observateurs), from the series Ancestral Root, 2021, color photograph, sheet: 25 3/4 × 33 5/8 in. (65.4 × 85.4 cm), image: 23 5/8 × 31 9/16 in. (60 × 80.2 cm). Anonymous Gift, 2023.18.1. © Rachel Malaika