Congo red

This article is going to mix three things that apparently have little to do with each other: art, war, and microbiology.

As in the previous post, it all started with an art exhibition at the Strozzina museum in Florence: as part of the exhibition called “Unstable territories“, a room was all covered in black and featured several screens in the middle. A wild and alien landscape was being screened: it featured hills filled with trees and grass fields, all red. Some of the screens started showing soldiers marching through refugee camps, while tanks and guns were firing in the distance; all the people were looking at the camera in complete silence. A few dead bodies on the side of the roads were shown too, surrounded by fluorescent red grass. The piece is called “The enclave” by Richard Mosse, shoot in Congo using an infrared film used by the army to spot disguised weapons. The objective of the piece is quite straightforward: by showing an environment full of what resembles blood, the impact of the war on the population is exposed for everyone to see. The beautiful and quiet landscapes are transformed into a nightmare.


A few months later, an article suggested that, instead of increasing the awareness about the too-often forgotten war in Congo, the art piece caught the interest of many people only because of the peculiar effect obtained through the use of infrared film. I first thought that it was wrong, but I soon realized that I knew close to nothing about that subject; kindly enough, the author pointed out a truly complete book on that war, called “Dancing in the glory of monsters“. The author does a great job in telling the long and intricate story of this war, going from the responsibility of the international community and state corruption down to the dreadful stories of the single civilians.

After reading that book, a few considerations come to mind: first of all, it is true that the work of Richard Mosse cannot be fully appreciated without a minimal knowledge on this horrible conflict. Among other things, the fact that the victims of the many mass killings have been buried in a hurry results in countless nameless graves that have been eaten by the jungle; the symbolism of the red landscape acquires then additional depth, pointing out the long trail of death that the war has brought. But something else quite unusual comes to mind after reading this story, which relates to conflicts in other parts of the world (a prominent example is the conflict in middle-east). We tend to pick a side in many of the traditional conflicts, for cultural reason or even just family tradition; not on this one (at least for me). Being such an unknown story, and given the horrors that have been perpetrated by all sides, the only possible side to pick is the civilian population. In fact, picking sides in the “traditional” conflicts after reading this book feels just wrong.

Now’s the turn of microbiology: in a visit to the Typas lab at EMBL, I’ve joined some experiments measuring biofilm formation on some bacterial strains. In this essay, a red dye is added to the agar plate, which binds to biofilm components: if a bacterial colony makes it, it turns red. Surprisingly, the name of the dye is Congo red, named by the German company Bayer in the heat of the colonization in Africa (perhaps it’s time to use another name in publications?). Looking at the agar plate doesn’t help but think about the work of Richard Mosse, and how strange this connections are.