« In an African society, art is life.
It is not a performance.
It is not necessarily a profession.
It is life. »
- Okot p’Bitek (1931-1982)
Today, African art continues to rise and to achieve new heights of recognition with prestigious exhibitions, as well as biennials and auctions setting records by living artists. All around the globe, notable curators, scholars and gal- leries regularly show their collections in exhibitions and publications. Even though, only a few African nations have historically enjoyed a substantial global exposure, mainly due to economic imbalances, more recently a few artists, from emerging countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, joined them on the international scene.
In 2015, the visibility of Congolese artists was greatly enhanced by the exhibition, Beauté Congo 1926-2015 Congo Kitoko at Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris. This ambitious project, curated by André Magnin, reunited more than 350 artworks produced by 41 artists over the last 90 years. The exhibition quickly became a reference and was attended by more than 130 000 people. This successful venture generated a second collaboration between André Magnin and Foundation Cartier which took shape of the exhibition titled Malik Sidibé-Mali Twist. Moreover, the 2017 edition of the Art Paris Art Fair hosted Africa as its guest of honor. As a part of the event, numerous African galleries exhibited the talented new generation of artists. The same year, renowned collector Jean Pigozzi joined forces with the Louis Vuitton Foundation by showcasing his collection of contemporary African art in the famous art space designed by Frank Gehry. Also, in 2017, Art Basel’s talk program was inspired by the growing interest in African Art. For the first time, a panel discussion was included both in Hong Kong and Basel talks. Following this trend, Sotheby’s London dedicated a new yearly sale to the “Modern & Contemporary African Art” and Christie’s consecrated their magazine April’s 2017 issue to Zimbabwean emerging artists. In 2018, two major shows put Africa on the spotlight: African Metropolis in Italian Museo Nationale Delle Arti del XXI Secolo (MAXXI, Rome, Italy) and Congo Stars organised by Kunsthalle Graz and Universalmuseum Joanneum (Graz, Austria). Besides all those exhibitions, the African contemporary art fever is taking off with new events such as the 1:54 Fair and AKAA (Also known as Africa) which are solely dedicated to showing and promoting African arts not only in Europe and America but also, since recently, in Africa.
Thanks to this multitude of venues, the artists from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have come up the ranks and achieved global recognition. The DRC has always been known for its traditional crafts and culture, preserved despite the pressure brought by colonialism and the struggle for independence in the period from 1885 to 1960. Many customs and crafts largely dominated by the Luba and Lunda kingdoms survived thanks to motivated individuals. However, the Congolese artists managed to merge some of westerns techniques and mediums in their art. The comic books, such as Tintin introduced by Belgian colonists, are good example of the European aesthetics adopted by the Congolese post-war artists. This mix of traditional and colonial features resulted in multi-vocal creations linked directly with the complex reality. These works of art were delivered by a new generation of African artists and writers, not satisfied with representation only but, above all, with cross-cultural dialogue.
In DRC, these desire of dialogue inspired the establishment of the school of Popular Painting, a pictorial movement founded in the mid-1970s in Kinshasa, by Chéri Samba (°1956), Moké (1950-2001), Chéri Chérin (°1955), Pierre Bodo (1953-2015) and Cheik Ledy (°1962). These painters are considered the first generation of popular African artists.They have had a crucial role engaging with issues regarding the local political landscape, the culture and the inter- national interference within domestic affairs. By painting Kinshasa everyday life scenes and exploring all aspects, the artists connect directly with the local communities. Each artist has become a reporter specializing in “Kin the Beautiful”.
This first generation of popular artists were largely self taught. They inspired and took part in the training of their successors: Monsengo Shula (°1959), Moke Fils (°1968), Bodo Fils (°1974) or Amani Bodo (°1988), the first three taking part in Visionaries exhibition. The affiliation of the second generation to their elders can be noticed directly by the artist’s pseudonyms. By highlighting their familial heritage, Shula, Moke Fils and Bobo Fils, emphasise the importance of the social, economic and cultural reality of the Congo reflecting the key concerns of all the artists. The popular painters from both generations use diverse artistic expressions. Some of them, like Moké and Moke Fils draw inspiration from comics and advertising banners. Playing with these popular forms, they often develop dialogue between images and writings. Shula, creates surreal worlds where traditional symbols, like wooden statues and masks, coexist with modern technologies. Finally, Bodo Fils and Mulala Landry focus on the inhabitants of Kinshasa themselves. By creating series of portraits, they stress the frequency of both realities and dreams of young Congolese people. Among those sources of inspiration, we find members of the Society’s of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People mouvement, better known as the “Sapeurs”. This subculture was revived in the 1970s by the world famous musician Papa Wemba. It placed a strong emphasis on the “chic” dress code for all Congolese men regardless of their social status and as a form of rebellion towards the harsh dictatorship of Marshal Mobutu. From the beginning of its existence, “La SAPE” attracted painters such us Pierre Bodo, Chéri Chérin (°1955), and photographers like Jean Depara (1928-1997).
The Visionaries exhibition, gives us a glimpse of modern day DRC from many perspectives. All the artworks presented were personally gathered together by Michael Piette. As a Belgian, based in Hong Kong, Michael has developed a unique relationship with each artist. The result, is an experience which reflects a collection of Congolese memories and specifically new visions of its future.