Beauté Congo

The exhibition at Fondation Cartier in Paris, on one century of Congo’s art, has been a great audience-puller not only for André Magnin’s intelligent curatorial idea but also for the quality of the fringe initiatives including a music programme and website.

Beautè Congo, Chérie Samba
Exhibitions rarely earn themselves a two month extension in the Parisian exhibition system, where the forced turnover means calendars and events are set in stone.
“Beauté Congo 1926–2015 Congo Kitoko” which opened at the Fondation Cartier last July has been a great audience-puller. Not only does this bear out André Magnin’s intelligent curatorial idea, it also speaks volumes about the quality of the fringe initiatives including an excellent music programme, with a pan-African radio studio set up in the exhibition spaces for a few days and a busy Internet site, well informed and packed with material and interviews with the artists.
Beauté Congo, Albert Lubaki
Top: Chéri Samba, Oui, il faut réfléchir, 2014, acrylic and glitter on canvas, 135 x 200 cm. Collection of the artist © Chéri Samba Photo © André Morin. Above: Albert Lubaki, Untitled, 1927, ink on paper, 52 × 66 cm. Private collection, Paris © Albert Lubaki

Since the times of the memorable dig made by his seminal contribution to the “Magiciens de la Terre” exhibition – become legendary as regards the origins of the global art phenomenon – the curator has always seen African art as a sensitive and constantly changing artistic terrain.

“Congo Kitoko” centres on the vibrant contemporary-art scene in the DR Congo and not only analyses its roots, firmly planted in the 1920s, but also shifts the focus to recent developments.

Beauté Congo, Antoinette Lubaki
Antoinette Lubaki, Untitled, c.1929, watercolor on paper, 55 x 73 cm. Collction Pierre Loos, Bruxelles © Antoinette Lubaki Photo © Michael De Plaen

Works by a new generation of popular artists such as JP Mika and Rigobert Nimi and the perspicacity of collectives such as EZA Possibles have accelerated the approach to the issue, redirected street craft practices – popular culture versus élite art – and boosted the desire for a well-defined African identity.

It accurately puts into perspective the progressive shift of this local and, of course, highly politicised reality, in constant communication with its community of creators and artist collectives which, actually, focus not only on rethinking the works but, more specifically, on developing structures as an alternative to the void of African political power. The artistic work is radically critical and expresses its impatience with the status quo at skin level. The source of inspiration behind most of the works blends tradition and modernity and takes major steps towards marvellously constructing non-élite art that erupts into the visibility of the contemporary circuit.

Beauté Congo, Mwenze Kibwanga
Mwenze Kibwanga, Untitled, 1954, oil on Unalit board, 39.5 x 48.5 cm. Colllection Pierre Loos, Bruxelles © Mwenze Kibwanga Photo © Michael De Plaen
For some of the protagonists exhibited, now also superstars outside their own countries, such as Chéri Samba and Bodys Isek Kingelez, it offers an opportunity to verify the endurance and historic repositioning of their work, since their involvement with the Fondation Cartier production structures, with solo exhibitions and important collectives, dates from the very early 1990s. What is certain is that the interpretation and contents of the works are inextricably linked to market recognition and African art lacks the stability of other areas on the global scene, suffice to think of China, India and South America. A fitting example of this is given by Bodys Isek Kingelez’s models which, although wonderfully recognisable, seem victims of basic prejudice. They resemble the geophysical reality of an entire continent constantly exploited for its resources but with a poor return in terms of production structures and local development.
Beauté Congo, Jean Depara
Jean Depara, Untitled, c. 1955-65, gelatin silver print, 77 x 113 cm. Collection Revue Noire, Paris © Jean Depara Photo Courtesy Revue Noire
The exhibition route shifts the interpretation of the embryonic events in Congolese art to the colonial ateliers and the colonisers’ infatuation with the force of an ethnic art brought into the open by the Belgian colonial government; fortunately, this provides horizontal access to marvellous material tinged with a documentary and strongly anthropological feel.
Beauté Congo, Ambroise Ngaimoko
Ambroise Ngaimoko, Euphorie de deux jeunes gens qui se retrouvent, 1972, gelatin silver print, 27 x 27 cm. Collection of the artists. © Ambroise Ngaimoko Photo © André Morin
There is a play of symmetries between works by the young generation of artists such as Kiripi Katembo, who sadly died last August. His splendid photographs displayed make us rue what might have been but they compare favourably with the hybrid figuration of other great figures who died after legendary debuts, such as Albert and Antoinette Lubaki. Specificity and contextualisation seem the secret to the beauty of works that are anti-intellectual but also strongly critical, like a layer of pop- art fused with civil poetry.
Beauté Congo, Monsengo Shula
Monsengo Shula, Ata Ndele Mokili Ekobaluka (Tôt ou tard le monde changera), 2014, acrylic and glitters on canvas, 130 x 200 cm. Private Collection. © Monsengo Shula Photo © Florian Kleinefen
The honesty of the exhibition lies in its narration and presentation of the finest atelier products such as those of the Hangar that French painter Pierre Romain-Desfossés founded in Elisabethville in 1946; or in its return to the intuitions of certain Belgian colonial governors such as Georges Thiry and high functionaries (e.g. Gaston–Denys Périer) who, in the 1930s, exhibited artists such as Albert Lubaki and Djilatendo in nascent modern-art museums and avant-garde European galleries, alongside such figures as Delvaux and René Magritte. A production come from outside flanks traditional motifs. Whenever these treasures surface, they cast new light on this continent’s multifaceted cultural heritage. African art continues its historic battle for the affirmation of its indelible and highly coloured mark on contemporary culture.
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