Does image-making serve the preservation of oral tradition? Candice Jansen hears from Patrick Willocq, a photographer documenting a once ephemeral ritual of the Walé in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
© Patrick Willocq. Basomis (body guards of Walé) during seclusion ending festival.
Where would photography be without serendipitous encounter? Without it, Patrick Willocq may never have created his series, I am Walé, Respect Me (2013). Set upon a stage constructed with the help of villagers five metres high and seven metres long and deep, against a backdrop of 35 metres squared, Patrick recreates then photographs the interior life worlds of special Ekonda Pygmy women called Walés. He describes his role in preserving this sparsely documented rite of passage as that of a medium or a translator. I spoke to Patrick about this shortly after his most recent three-month trip spent working on this project. After each stint in the villages of the Congo, Patrick laments how hard it becomes to return to what he calls ‘civilisation’. When I asked him why, he replied: ‘life is so simple in the villages. It’s down to basic needs and human values are very strong. But, while things are so simple, they’re also so complicated’.
Candice Jansen | A Walé of the Ekonda Pygmies can be understood as a young woman who’s just had her first child?
Patrick Willocq | Yes, and she is in some form of seclusion for about two years, sometimes more. She can also be very lonely because of taboos she must observe. For example during seclusion, she cannot have a sexual relationship, she can’t prepare food, she can’t go to the fields–she can’t work. When she comes out, she sings at a seclusion-ending festival: a huge celebration with about 500 people where the Walé performs for the whole afternoon. I attended one of these celebrations where I discovered she actually was singing about everything she’d felt, suffered, and loved while in seclusion…. I then felt that I had to document this ritual, which is an oral tradition: nothing is written, nothing is recorded–when the celebration ends, her music is gone.
© Patrick Willocq. Walé Lokito pointing at her suitcase during her seclusion ending performance.
Can you describe how you went from being captivated by the Walé and her music to coming up with the idea behind I am Walé Respect Me?
I felt that the key to the world of the Walé were her songs…. I worked with Martin Boilo, a Congolese ethnomusicologist who’s researched the ritual, and together we recorded and translated the songs whose meanings are not easy to understand. An entire repertoire of one Walé song can fill more than thirty pages it’s so rich. The idea to basically stage what she was singing came to me from there…. Since I’m a photographer, I navigated the architecture of their music by having each picture correspond to a song that the particular Walé sings the day she comes out of seclusion.
© Patrick Willocq. Walé Lokito, unfair sharing.
With this in mind, how did you explain your intentions to the women?
Basically, it was through drawings. I would sketch my visual interpretation of her song, show it to the Walé and ask ‘is this your song?’ There would be a back and forth between us sometimes if my drawing didn’t capture the sense of her song.
Much collaboration underpinned this…
Yes. Villagers helped me build the props, construct the ground stage, and backdrop, which is actually quite big. I recruited a team of pygmies that knew the forest and how to transform its materials to help me build, demolish and rebuild the sets again. When people work with me (whether as a builder or a Walé), I pay them. It’s a paid job that creates a financial interest to work with me. Walés also struggle financially and there you should offer, not always money, but very often every day things that are needed. So I get the picture but they also benefit. It’s a very equal relationship.
© Patrick Willocq. Walé Mpia and her caucasian husband.
Audio Track Title | Bakalé biàlé bòpálá yôyàbòma, Ipaya ábálé bòndélé, Ipaya ábátá bôme, emí mbálé Patriki (rival Walé, do not kill each other, Mpia married white man, Mpia found husband, I married Patrick.)
Really? This image (without understanding the terms of your relationships) could communicate a kind of disparity between you and them– a disparity that still shapes photographic representations of Africa. Do you agree with this? What do you make of the representation of you in this image?
No, I disagree…. Pygmies are a proud people. Westerners shouldn’t think than anyone can go to these places and make them do what they want. That’s not how it works there. If they don’t want to do something, they simply won’t and I speak from experience! Mpia (the pictured Walé) wanted an image with me in a car and because these Walés are queens; no way was I not going to obey her wish. Besides, I liked the idea. Even if I were black, I would’ve gotten the same treatment. Referencing me in her song was her way of thanking me for helping her family with bringing her out of seclusion, that’s all. Actually Martin is also referenced in another Walé song, so it’s got nothing to do with my skin colour. The representation of me is not the point of the image: she wanted me to pose in the car but I had to take the picture. The village chief volunteered to play ‘me’ and somebody suggested we apply baby powder to his face to make him white–everybody laughed and had fun together…. Doing the stage photography is a fun process.
The chief participated… so villagers also have a stake in the images beyond simply posing for the vision or building its infrastructure?
They get very involved in how things should be done when the Walé poses on stage. They come to see their Walé.
What do you mean by their Walé?
Walés, by respecting the taboos imposed on her, are very respected. The community is very proud, generally speaking, of a Walé from their community. So they come to see their queen basically.
© Patrick Willocq. Walé Oyombé, nkúmu.
Since Walés are held in high esteem, what hinders her from coming out of seclusion?
Walés are unproductive during seclusion and so it’s a cost to her family. Also the celebration has dancers, drummers and guests who need food, alcohol and so on. But more importantly for the Walé, the husband and family have to provide a suitcase of goods like shoes, garments for her and her child, jewellery, hair and makeup products, and so on. Very often the husband will actually leave for the closest city to get a job to finance that. Even the family and Walés (who compete with one another for the best suitcase) will not allow seclusion to end until her suitcase is complete. It represents her honour and prestige in the eyes of the community, and this is where I help. I help complete the suitcase, which is a huge financial relief.
What do you make of your influence in how this tradition occurs in the villages you work in?
My influence is limited. There are still Walés that don’t want to participate. Nobody is forced to do anything. However, for those keen to work with me, I guess the photo session is becoming part of the ritual. But be careful here, my work requires long-term partnership with the collaborating Walés…. I’m not really changing any part of the ritual at all, just barely witnessing and documenting it in my own way.
In quite a compelling way…
Thank you. Actually the first type of pictures I took of the Walé was more traditional reportage photography. But I felt that this type of work has already been seen. I really wanted to go deeper. I think that working through the songs enabled me to reveal something that’s never been revealed before, that moves away from showing these women being passive with their child … I mean how many pictures do you have of that kind of Africa?
Do you feel that your work transcends this history of representation?
Well, I certainly hope so…. I’m not a war photographer. I’m a peace photographer attracted to the beauty of human beings. So that’s my position.
The images do have a whimsical beauty to them…
Yeah, definitely, they’re like a fairy tale to a certain extent. Restricting myself to using materials of the forest actually helped to create that magical effect because the constructions are not perfect. They’re almost as if a child did them.
© Patrick Willocq. Asongwaka, educated Walé.
How have you found this work received by audiences outside the context you photographed in?
Overall pretty well, I’d say humbly. I think the series has now won, been nominated or been a finalist for eight different awards. So I think that speaks for itself. And I think people like that this has never really been done before, you know? Working with tribes and actually rendering part of the culture through staged images…. I think that also women generally speaking (not that men don’t care, it’s not that), but I’ve had very passionate discussions with mothers looking at the pictures in exhibitions.
You’ve mentioned often the idea of this never having been done before. Is that important for you in your work?
Let me put it this way: yes and no. I’m aware that if you want to stand out you need to differentiate yourself. But I can’t say that drove me to this. What drove me to this was embedding myself within that culture and the result is what it is…. As I said earlier, in the beginning I was taking a lot of other pictures that didn’t translate fully what these women had to say.
Speaking of beginnings, how did you come to this story?
About three years ago, completely by coincidence, despite having been in this part of Congo for many years, I took a wrong turn on a walk one day and encountered my first Walé. It was a visual shock–this woman looked completely different from other women in the village. She had red powder all over her body. She wore copper bracelets and wore her hair differently. I was intrigued and drawn to this woman. I asked questions and didn’t get many answers except for that she was what they called a Walé. What that meant I had no idea…
Patrick Willocq (b.1969) is a self-taught photographer who, after spending a portion of his adolescence in Congo, returned to document indigenous culture through carefully crafted performative images. I am Walé, Respect Me (2013) has won a number of awards including the POPCAP ’14 Prize Africa.
This article forms part of an interview series with the winners of POPCAP’14 prize for contemporary African photography.
Written by Candice Jansen.
All images courtesy of the artist. All rights reserved.