Article, Volume #31

Martyr Street

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Labelling a martyr is, in a way, an expression of collective guilt. Martyrs are a simultaneous reminder of the hopes and ideals that an individual stood for, and also the oppressive nature of humankind to smother those ideals.

Memorializing martyrs then is a way of atoning for this collective guilt and to give renewed hope that the dreams of the fallen can somehow be realized. A popular way of memorializing martyr is to name streets after them – creating a potentially difficult juxtaposition. To what extent can a street, subject to all the pressures of the city, live up to the lofty ideals of an individual? And what does it say of us when a memorialized street itself becomes a symbol of broken dreams? Guy Tillim and Susan Berger have both created photo series that examine this deep irony.

Tillim looks at Patrice Lumumba, the great hero of African independence, who was murdered by his colleague Mobutu Sese Seko; after taking power of Congo, Mobutu subsequently canonized him as a hero and was regarded so throughout continent. Several African nations were quick to memorialize Lumumba’s honor by naming streets after him. today, Tillim’s shots of these avenues display a heavy sadness – faded signs of the hopes of an independent Africa embodied in dusty streets, toppled over statues, and stained concrete modernism. Over in the United States, Berger takes on Martin Luther King Jr. and the many MLK Boulevards across the countries that were baptized in his wake. These streets are often situated in some of the most destitute inner-city neighborhoods – a sign of the great white flight that emptied out many American cities in the latter half of the twentieth century and the systemic racism and poverty that persists today.