Gloria Oyarzabal: “There’s absence in our books, i don’t remember learning about Africa”

Sara Vega | @saravegajournal

Picnolepsy— “the epileptic state of consciousness produced by speed, or rather, the consciousness invented by the subject through its very absence: the gaps, glitches,and speed bumps lacing through and defining it.”   – Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance

Poverty in third world countries is, paradoxically, a much-used artistic motive in first world countries. Stories of slavery, abuse and colonization in Africa have been recurring subjects, most often used in the fields of photography, photo documentaries and photojournalism to let the world know about a sad reality we aren’t familiar with. However,  these messages rarely cause a real effect in our daily lives.

Honestly, we don’t really know about african history, about its main political figures or the details of what happened during the colonization period. Even if we do attend a lecture, or photography exhibition about it, it doesn’t seem to stick to our minds. We briefly try to emphatize, but we rarely meditate. Then, once we’ve left the exhibition or lecture we carry on, mostly unbothered. 

In 2016, Gloria Oyarzabal’s “La Picnolepsia de Tshombé” (Tshombé’s Picnolepsy) won the prize of the Fòrum Fotogràfic Can Basté‘s 14th edition. Using artistic techniques such as collage and photomontage, Oyarzabal’s project tells the story of the Congo, and is centered in one of its most famous political figures: Moise Tshombé.

The exhibition is named after the concept of picnolepsy, initially used by french philosopher Paul Virilio. This abstract term refers to a state of absence, a brief episode in which somehow a cut is produced in our consciousness, making us forget whatever happened in that small period of time. Oyarzabal takes this idea of picnolepsy in order to strike a clear message: that we, as europeans, should be aware of african history and the role we’ve played in it, because our minds tend to forget about it very easily.

Now, this is not any new topic in the field of photography. Many photographers have also tried to portray this message, they have travelled to places such as Congo and done a wide photo coverage of the native lifestyle. However, Gloria’s exhibition has one small twist: she has never been to Congo, and therefore none of her photos have been taken there. “Any of it is real” explains Can Basté’s photography coordinator Ferran Quevedo “the whole exhibition is a recreation of Congo made from old polaroids and photos that she took in different places, and made it look as if it were Congo”.

As told by Ferran Quevedo, with this technique Oyarzabal gets her real purpose: to put forward the concept, and not the form, of the exposition. In other words, it doesn’t matter how it’s done as long as it makes you understand the message. “It makes it more complex, but way more interesting, and isn’t that what art is all about?” explains Quevedo. Due to its great success, Can Basté has recently re-opened the exhibition, which is open to visit from 25th january until march 3rd.

The year is 1876, and King Leopold II of Belgium created the African International Associaton, which was initially peaceful and against slave trade. However, 3 years later explorer Henry M. Stanley launched an expedition through the Congo River that resulted in the torture of hundreds of natives. The King himself had financed it. In 1884, the Berlin Conference literally split Africa and distributed it as the rightful property of Europe. Belgium was assigned the Congo, and during this control period the native Congo population decreased on a 50%, resulting on 10 million natives being slaughtered and tortured by the colonies.

Almost one century later, during the decade of 1960, came the process of decolonisation. The Congo, particularly the region of Katanda, was extremely rich in minerals and therefore a secessionist debate grew into the society, lead by politician Moise Thsombé. In 1963 he was accused of the murder of elected leader Patrice Lumumba and had to exile to Spain. He was misteriously captured while travelling to Mallorca, and died in a prison in Algeria in 1965.

Following the rise and fall of this uncommon figure, “La Picnolepsia de Tshombé” is a radiography on Congo history and how it afects our present, as well as an analysis of the relationship between Europe and Africa. The author, Gloria Oyarzabal, was born in London in 1971 and currently resides in Madrid. She’s based in Fine Arts and has been working in cinema cine 1996, taking care of artistic direction and photography. We got the chance to speak with her about the key concepts of her work, as well as her experience abroad and artistic purposes.


How did you came in contact with the character of Moisé Tshombé?

Ten years ago i attended the photography exhibition documenta, which takes place every 5 years in Kassel (Germany). I was at a book store when i came across a publication. What drew my attention the most about it was an article about the sixties in Africa. It was focused on Moisé Tshombé, who held a key role during the 1960’s african decolonization, plus, that article related him somehow to Franco. I read it and found it a fascinating story, and aesthetically speaking it was very appealing, full of colours and archive images. Two years later, I made the decision of moving to Mali in order to work in several projects as well as participating in a film. While in Mali, i finally understood how we perceive Africa, the image that we receive from that country, who really was Tshombé and why is he related to Franco. Just then, the Mali government was overthrown and i left to France, and then to Madrid, where i started to officially develop this exposition. There were so many layers, so many images and so much information i didn’t know how to organise it so I, who came from the Fine Arts field, started gaining knowledge in photography. There, I discovered about the method of docufiction, and realized it was the perfect format for this project.

What is docufiction?

It’s a format that gives you freedom, it allows you to document images that you haven’t been able to witness in real life, but in your imagination. As a fact, I had never been to Congo, neither in Mallorca (I did, in fact, go to Mallorca afterwards), but i understood the colonization process and all the history that had been built around it, and had the desire to portray it.

Why did you choose that technique?

First of all, i’m very acquainted with cinema since my partner is an experimental cinema director and i’ve often collaborated with him. For ten years we had a cinema room in Madrid named “La Enana Marrón”, where i became in contact with SUPER 8 films and many other techniques. I feel comfortable watching something from the past that makes me understand a present concept, how past images can help us understand what’s happening now. That was enough reason for me to put these images together and try to portray how we feel about Africa nowadays.



How did you choose the exposition’s title, “La Picnolepsia de Tshombé”, and became influenced by Paul Virilio’s work?

A friend of mine told me about Paul Virilio’s book, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, and i found his work very exciting to explore. His books have stayed with me eversince. The contept of picnolepsy, that i took from that particular book, refers to small moments in our daily life in which, in an unconscious way, we don’t remember something. Taking this definition, i put it in relation with how we, the european society, sometimes seem to forget about Africa.

How is picnolepsy related with Tshombé?

Reading his story felt like getting into a mystery narrative, and it made me question how we live in a state of picnolepsy towards poor countries, specially Africa, as a consequence of colonization.

Where did you take most of the pictures that recreate Congo?

There’s a bit of everything. Some of them are archive images and polaroids i had found, some of them were taken in Mali while i was living there. Some others were taken in France and some in Mallorca, when i finally visited it several years after starting this project, and some in Madrid. Picnloepsy doesn’t need a defined geography, i could just recreate it in other spaces.

What is the purpose of your exhibition, critical or divulgative?

Definitely a critical one. To me there is a responsibility as divulgator as an artist, but what i really wanted was to pinpoint with my finger the privilege we have as europeans, and that we abuse of.



What has been your process of creation?

Conceptually speaking, i started this project many years ago, but i’ve been formally working on it for 4 years. It started out as a small project. I was surprised to find out that this african figure had such a strong relationship with something that affects us so, such as Franco’s dictatorial regime. As i read and investigate, i ended up finding information about fiscal paradises during the Cold War. From that point i took a background view to colonialism and its consequences. This work is not only an artistic expression to me, it has a reason to be, a social message. There’s an absence in our books, i don’t remember learning in school about decolonization, about Africa. We are somehow responsible of all that’s happened in Africa. I don’t pretend to victimise anyone, but we have to be aware of this reality, and i’m trying to make people learn it, if they join my motive then they are welcome.

At last, did you discover what was behind the mysterious relationship between Tshombé and Franco?

Yes, i did a deep search on that. During the sixties, Franco wanted to clean his public image, he wanted to earn a positive view in an international level. Tshombé was a secessionist leader with great power, money and influence, he had a lot of interest with minerals and great relationships with the United States. Plus, he was christian and anticomunist, which matched with Franco’s ideals. It didn’t matter that Tshombé was a secessionist leader, it didn’t matter who he was in Congo after all, but how could that benefit Franco’s image.



Primary sources:

  • Ferran Quevedo – Photography coordinator in Espai Can Basté
  • Gloria Oyarzabal (Artist)

Background sources (webite articles, published interviews, press notes):

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