The Odzala-Kokoua National Park is the crown jewel of the Congo Basin— one of the largest, oldest, most intact preserves that has never been logged, or overexploited by poachers and hunters. In an age where the natural landscape is disappearing at a tragic rate, this corner of the world is one of the last major blocks of the African forest.
Located in the Republic of Congo, just north of the equator, Odzala is 1,360,000 hectares in size and home to numerous habitats that make it an ideal home to the Kota, Mboko, Mongom, Bakola, Kwélé, and Ba’aka Autochthons. The low population density helps the lanscape maintain itself, and those who do live here play an integral part in its protection.
These are ancient peoples, their stories passed down from one generation to the next, preserved through oral traditions that make them vulnerable in a world that is quick to capitalize on profits.
Eva Vonk, an executive producer at Tales of Us, approached Dutch photographer Pieter Henket to collaborate in the creation of Congo Tales, an education and conservation project that includes a book and exhibition that photographically illustrates the folktales of the Mbomo people with them playing starring roles.
“My photography is an encounter between my eyes and the eyes of my subject,” Henket writes in ““Capturing Tales,” an essay for the book. “Creating mysterious narrative with a touch of realness. Telling stories with compositions of light and emotions. For as long as I can remember, I have had a profound admiration for large-scale 17th century painting because of its ability to capture a multi-layered story on a single canvas.”
Henket seamless translates the tales of the Mbomo into lush, monumental scenes of folkloric life — elegant, elegiac images that occupy the space of reality and myth at the same time. The tales featured here begin as a cosmology rooted in environmental concerns, establishing a dialogue between heaven and earth, river and forest, nature and culture.
“These stories are etiological myths that tell of the origin of creatures and things the conquest of fire, and the abandonment of tradition,” August Miabeto writes in “Nature as Mother of the Arts,” an essay included in the book.
“Or they are wise moral tales which espouse certain values and rules for living. Sometimes, in their subtext, they reveal the multiculturalism that has resulted from migrations and the intermingling of peoples.…[They] invite us to listen to nature, the mother of the oral, pictorial, and music arts in their aspects.”
The stories are, quite poignantly, a reminder of how long humanity survived before the West invented itself as “the cradle of civilization,” moving us towards the brink of apocalypse in just a few thousand years. These are stories of how to live: with the land, with each other, and with the knowledge of death. They offer understanding of the universal human condition, with all its strengths and flaws, removed from the possibility of it leading to the destruction of earth.
Congo Tales beautifully reminds us long before the West invaded every continent around the globe,, indigenous cultures have flourished and thrived for tens, if not hundreds of thousands of year. How they managed to preserve themselves and the land can be found in the understanding that art and culture are not things of profit — they are simple a resource to be shared.
Pieter Henket: Congo Tales is on view at Kahmann Gallery in Amsterdam through April 5, 2020.
All images: © Pieter Henket, courtesy Kahmann Gallery. Produced by Tales of Us