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José Ramón Bas’s photos look at boyhood in Brazzaville, the capital of Congo

“Espace 1” at Hamill Gallery of Tribal Art features 460 images of Congolese boys by José Ramón Bas.
“Espace 1” at Hamill Gallery of Tribal Art features 460 images of Congolese boys by José Ramón Bas.

The Congolese boys in José Ramón Bas’s photos and drawings throw punches, jump rope, and grin for the camera. But there are many minor chords in the chorus of faces in the Spanish photographer’s enveloping installation at Hamill Gallery of Tribal Art. One boy closes his eyes. Another coolly stares us down. A young one holds his chin in his hand, gazing downward.

These children have been orphaned or abandoned. Many have been accused of witchcraft. Bas worked with them at Espace Jarrot, a refuge for street children in Brazzaville. He connected them to a local photography collective, and they started taking their own pictures. This is a benefit exhibition; all proceeds will support education for children like these.

The installation, “Espace 1: The Invisible Children of the Invisible Continent,” features 460 images, all by Bas, papering the wall in a rough-and-tumble grid — photos, mixed-media paintings, and drawings of varied scales. A Congolese funerary sculpture, a figure with arms raised, stands before a drawing that echoes that gesture.

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Most are portraits, which the photographer prints on scrap paper and acetate. Some repeat, but in different iterations. Bas paints over and around many of the faces, obscuring or enhancing them. He surrounds the youngster with his chin in his hand with a scruffy background of milky paint, highlighting the boy’s internal focus.

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The installation’s cumulative effect is at times piercing, at times joyful. Bas photographed boys holding their own photos, toys, or boards on which they’ve written their names and other messages. These images, grouped in threes, crop out the boys’ faces, leaving what they hold in their hands to speak for them. In one group, the first boy writes, in French, “Where are my real parents?” The next holds a wooden truck he painted. The third writes, “C. Ronaldo” — name-checking a Portuguese soccer star.

Play, hero worship, and wrenching loss, all in a few snaps. Welcome to childhood on the streets of Brazzaville.

ESPACE 1: THE INVISIBLE CHILDREN OF THE INVISIBLE CONTINENT: An installation by José Ramón Bas

At Hamill Gallery of Tribal Art, 2164 Washington St., through Jan.27. 617-442-8204, www.hamillgallery.com

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.