If I had to be quizzed about artists from the Democratic Republic of Congo a few months ago, I would have to admit that I would not have been able to list many off the top of my head. On a wider level, the lack of exposure of arists from the African continent in terms of international exhibitions and collection displays is an issue that must be acknowledged and confronted. Nevertheless the tide is changing in the art market, with a significant amount of African art fairs and opportunities for artists from Africa emerging which still need to make their way to museums and exhibition spaces. This is precisely Fondation Cartier’s aim with Beauté Congo Kitoko, the first and long-overdue presentation of a selection of Congolese art from 1926 to 2015.
The display starts at the ground level of the Fondation Cartier, with its luminous glass walls allowing full appreciation of some of the iconic painters of Congolese art from the 90s onwards, such as Chéri Samba, the leader in popular painting and the first to incorporate text in his works as well as his own image, like a succession of surrealist and omnipresent self-portraits. This smooth, realistic and colourful paintings are comments on society and politics, somewhere between a mural and a comic – appropriate for the traditional custom in Kinasha to display paintings outside the artist’s studio, open to the street. Cheik Ledy addresses the issues behind immigration, malaria and contemporary art, while Pierre Bodo uses a fantastical, festive style to describe “La Sape”, the iconic and showy fashion of the young Congolese scene. Meanwhile, Chérin Chérin calls out political corruption and Monsengo Shula imagines an utopian space. Political opinions and severe criticism on a country recovering from its colonial past seems to go hand in hand with bright colours and an optimistic vision of the future…however it is a brightness that does not sugarcoat the issues at hand, instead portraying the hopes and aspirations of a country with the complexity and ambiguity they deserve.
The liveliness of the works is all the more striking since they are not accompanied by quiet contemplation. Indeed, this exhibition ‘s main strength and particularity was the incorporation within its display of something I am extremely enthusiastic about: music to go along with the works. Even better, rather than a single; looping playlist for the entire display, these are different playlists of Congolese music for every single part of the exhibition, which relate closely to the works in terms of subject-matter, style or simply inspiration. Placed to the side, under a small acoustic roof, this allows you to sit down and listen more closely, also viewing lyrics and the particular context or curatorial intent behind a song, or to walk around the display with a music which seems to give contemplation a particular life and rythm. The selection and correspondence between image and sound was perfect and only strengthened the vibrant and diverse works present. I discovered not only new artists but also new musicians! However, quite frustratingly, there was no CD compiling all this music on sale, due to copyright issues…as though to remedy to this, Fondation Cartier invited the pan-African news station Chimurenga to install their web radio Pan African Space Station to take control of the exhibition space with interventions, concerts and performances in September.
Veering into the second ground floor room the visitor is greeted with a selection of contemporary photographs, works on paper and comics – a hugely important part of the cultural scene and nowhere than in France, huge lover of the bande dessinnée, could they be more appreciated. However this time, most of the text on the comics covers is in Congolese rather than French and although that in itself seems pretty obvious, it was surprising not to have any translations provided, or some way of leafing through a facsimile. However Fondation Cartier has provided a creative way of allowing its visitors to read through a story, by collaborating with Papa Mfumu’eto 1er, who frequently releases a new comic on the Facebook page introducing us to everyday life in Congo from his perspective.
Descending to the underground level opens up a far wider, opens space which reveals the futuristic structures of Bodys Isek Kingelez and Robert Nimi, made from a variety of materials and meant to be proposals for a bright, exciting future of expansion and urban wonder. They are surrounded with earlier examples of artist’s relation to new urban spaces and people, such as Moke’s depictions of boxers and nightlife, creating the ideal counterpart to Jean Depara’s black and white photographs from the 50s and 60s capturing people in snapshots that are sometimes spontaneous, sometimes theatrical and often a mix of both, with a diversity of humor, sharpness and social insight.
It is only after arriving at the end of this vast panorama that the visitor is invited to move even further back into time, through small, quieter corridors which explore 1920s artists and their use of abstraction, patterns and expressionism merging with a relentlessly figurative way of depicting the world. The delicacy of Antoinette Lubaki’s watercolours, the intricacy of Pilipili Mulongoy’s animals in gouache, oil and pastel works on paper and Mwenze Kibwanga’s enigmatic figures in oil on paper and many others, all in usually small formats using paper or panel, create a Congolese avant-garde whose creativity in technique and figurative art will create a strong precedent for all the works we have seen before. Even though the chronology may seem bizarre and slightly confusing at time, slowly unfurling this Congolese contemporary and modern art history in all its diversity is worth it.
It is rare to emerge from an exhibition where I hardly knew a single artist or anything about the country’s cultural background and feel so utterly convinced and enthralled by what I have found out. The exhibition was obviously curated with a passionate drive and intelligence which allowed it to draw in its visitor and keep a good rythm and interest going within a relatively short display. André Magnin, the exhibition curator, has been championing artists from the Democratic Republic of Congo for decades now, and it shows through in the best way possible – a vision of the country’s artistic heritage which pushes the visitor to leave and discover more. Furthermore, the Fondation Cartier is good at creating additional events and documentation around its exhibitions which only further enrich the experience for visitors and allows to “follow” the exhibition right until the end. The best news in all of this is that the dedication in showing works almost completely unknown to the French general public paid off: the exhibition is such a success that it has been extended until the 10th of January. Hopefully, museums cautious about exhibiting exhibitions exclusively devoted to artists from African countries shall take note.