Guy Tillim: Grande Hotel, Beira, Mozambique

By Tiffany Chae

Grande Hotel, Beira, Mozambique is from Guy Tillim’s project Avenue Patrice Lumumba (2008). Many streets in African towns bear the name of Patrice Lumumba in honour of Congo’s first president, who was assassinated in 1961, shortly after his speech at the ceremony marking the independence of his country in 1960.

Guy Tillim, Grande Hotel, Bieira, Mozambique, 2008, photograph. Courtesy of the artist.

Tillim’s series was shot in streets of this name throughout DR Congo, Mozambique, Angola, Benin and Madagascar. This large photograph of an old dilapidated hotel in Beira, Mozambique, is predominantly a damp, monotone grey. The sweep of the parabola staircase contrasts but also strangely harmonises with the decaying rectangular pillars that support the upper floor. One of the dominant features of the picture is the dark-coloured pillar that dominates the foreground, seeming to obstruct the route upstairs. The cracks and scratches on the pillars suggest that the building has fallen into disrepair and has lost its original function as a hotel.
Unusually for a photographer capturing bigger objects, but characteristic of Tillim, who covered many news stories as a freelance photojournalist for more than twenty years, he has used a 35mm film camera. The narrow perspective and restricted angle allow viewers to feel an intimate relation to the space, as if they are standing in front of it.
Tillim was a member of the South African photo collective Afropix in the mid-1980s, during the last days of Apartheid. With the end of Apartheid in 1990, the loss of this significant subject matter led him to seek new photographic opportunities, but his central concern remained the quest for African identity. He has continued to focus on the social and political conflict on the African Continent, visiting the Republic of Congo in 1996 to cover the Civil War caused by opposition to the dictatorial government, and returning ten years later to cover the first democratic vote in Congo.
Tillim’s strength is in extracting unique scenes from the texture of the landscape and transmitting its different codes, which are not always as dramatic or tragic as First World viewers might expect. Avenue Patrice Lumumba focuses particularly on architectures in the urban landscape.  Apartment building, Beira, Mozambique (2008), for example, reveals how ex-governmental owned buildings are now being used by citizens, and how their lives are being shaped after independence.
In Grande Hotel, Tillim’s approach to the subject has become quieter and more subtle. It is possible to interpret the state of the building as a metaphor for the current social and political situation in Mozambique. We can read in this image how the ambition of African nationalism after independence is currently in a state of decay. Tillim does not necessarily depict the present situation as a human tragedy, but as a reality, and his approach to the site is not intended to evoke a generalised melancholy: ‘It is seldom in the photos some coded metaphor for the human condition’, he has said.[1] He is simply underlining that fact that since the government of Mozambique has not allowed private ownership of estates for more than twenty years, residents are using buildings without permission, and they are quickly falling into decay.
In Avenue Patrice Lumumba, Tillim writes: ‘these photographs are not collapsed histories of a post-colonial African state or a meditation on aspects of late-modernist era colonial structures, but a walk through avenues of dreams, Patrice Lumumba’s dream, his nationalism, in these de facto monuments.’[2] Hence the building in Grande Hotel is a monument, and the work is about memory, dream and Lumumba’s iconic legacy. The scratched overlaying the decaying pillars could be understood as a metaphor for the encounter of past and present, which are delicately interwoven in this picture. According to Tillim, the portrayal of the city and the street is a puzzle and is an infinite task. The photographs reflect his pursuit of beauty, and an eye-witness view of social and political change.
Guy Tillim, born 1962

1 Joanna Lehan, 'Guy Tillim: Things as the seem: Interview with Joanna Lehan', Aperture, Issue 193 (New York: 2008) pp.63.
2 Guy Tillim, Avenue Patrice Lumumba (London: Prestel, 2008), pp.7.