“It is a site of dreams, where dreams encounter each other and become a single body. However, on the level of our own experience of that urban environment, once one plunges into the life of the city and participates in it, it inevitably diversifies and becomes multiple.”
– Extract from an interview with Vincent Lombume Kalimasi (February, 2004). Source: Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City (2004: 260)
When Congolese writer Vincent Lombume Kalimasi said these words more than a decade ago he was celebrating the creative vibrancy of city life with specific reference to his place of birth, Kinshasa – a ‘site of dreams’ that has grown in significance over several decades to become one of the most important centres for contemporary visual arts on the African continent, as regularly illustrated in the futuristic cityscapes of Congolese sculptor and installationist Bodys Isek Kingelez.
My awareness and appreciation of Kinshasa’s importance as a hub for creativity and innovation was initially sparked as a result of travelling to Paris in the summer of 2005 to see Simon Njami’s survey exhibition of contemporary African art – Africa Remix. L’art contemporain d’un continent (Centre Georges Pompidou, 2005) – where I noticed that more than 10% of the artists displaying work in Paris at that time had connections (either by birth, family or residence) to the DRC’s capital city.
The most high-profile of the Kinois men and women selected by Njami to present work at the Pompidou that year included the afore-mentioned Bodys Isek Kingelez (shown left), pop artist Chéri Samba (see here) and his fellow visual satirist Joseph Kinkonda (known internationally as Chéri-Cherin).
In addition to these established figures, some emerging new talents from a more recent generation of Kinshasa-born contemporary artists were also given an opportunity to make their mark on this global stage – specifically, the conceptual artist Francis Pume (shown below) and the video installationist, photographer and performance artist Michèle Magema (shown right).
Across the generations, Bodys Isek Kingelez and Francis Pume have both broken through into the mainstream of international contemporary visual arts to become renowned for creating futuristic, hypermodern artworks inspired by their experiences of life in Kinshasa. In the case of Kingelez, his scaled-down model cityscapes often symbolise simultaneously utopian and dystopian visions of Kinshasa’s future, whereas Francis Pume’s work regularly combines photographic self-portraiture with abstract installations of found objects to explore apocalyptic and theological themes arising from his experience of the precarity and chaos of Kinshasa city life.
De Boeck and Plissart’s book, Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City (2004) combines written and photographic narratives that offer some useful explanations as to why these two (and several other) important Kinois artists concentrate so heavily on the recurring theme of urban utopian futures. Their characterisation of Kinshasa (often expressed in Deleuzian terms) as an African city comprising a complex entanglement of modern and traditional “rhizomatic trajectories” paints Kinshasa as a simultaneously functional and dysfunctional (‘schizophrenic’) urban space, suggesting that:
“The immaterial, corporeal infrastructure, the architecture of the urban imagination, which makes the city, and makes it work, is at the same time also, inevitably, the infrastructure of its madness in the confrontation with the material lack and absence that punctuate the urbanites’ daily life and discipline their bodies into misery.” (De Boeck and Plissart, 2004: 250)
For De Boeck and Plissart, the decrepit state of the city’s material infrastructure and its challenging socio-economic environment serve as powerful creative catalysts for artists – and, indeed, for many other Kinois from all walks of everyday life – to resort to using the body, rather than the physical public realm, as the core focus for expressive artistic creativity. In consequence, the body – and not (say,for example) the construction of architecturally beautiful municipal buildings, landscaped parks, ornate public squares, and other purpose-built structures – becomes the space for perfecting physical appearance and displaying one’s creative identity. This focus on personal grooming, high fashion and flamboyant styling ultimately transforms into a strategic tool for overcoming the material hardships and infrastructural chaos of the surrounding environment:
“For Kinois men and women, the body is the basic tool in the cultural realization of self, and in the creation of the city’s private and public spheres.” (De Boeck and Plissart, 2004: 239)
In the case of an artist like Francis Pume – or an entire cultural movement like The Congolese Sapeurs of Kinshasa and Congo-Brazzaville (see my earlier blog on ‘Sapologie’ here) – a tremendous amount of energy is invested in not only surviving and keeping one’s body in shape, by eating well and trying to stay healthy, but also in crafting the body into a state of beauty and perfection – something Achille Mbembe refers to as a kind of “fetishization of power” seen in and through the body (Mbembe, 2001: 111). This type of contemporary cultural commentary on “the body as a space” also suggests that, in Kinshasa, the main infrastructural unit or building block is the human body – an observation that also evokes Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophical concept of bodies as “machinic assemblages” (Deleuze and Guattari, 2004: 79)
Almost a decade on from Africa Remix it is encouraging to see that all the above-mentioned Kinois artists are still having tremendous influence on contemporary visual arts practices world-wide – particularly Francis Pume, whose most recent solo exhibition in Europe « Pourquoi pas Bylex?» [“Why not Bylex?”] PUME at La Maison de la Revue Noire, Paris (May 22-October 6, 2012) was extremely well received by the art media and a wide constituency of visual arts audiences.
More positive still is the increasing presence of Kinois women artists blazing a trail for contemporary visual arts on the African continent, as well as internationally – especially the afore-mentioned Michèle Magema, whose innovative installations have been shown at prestigious photography and film exhibitions in Nantes, Brussels and Barcelona, and whose video installation Oyé Oyé (2002) received the Grand Prix Leopold Sedar Senghor [ le Prix du Président de la République Sénégalaise] at the 2004 DAK’ART Biennale –see http://www.magema.net/. Another up-coming female artist to watch out for is Kinshasa’s Julie Djikey, whose conceptual performance artwork is regularly described as subversive “urban scenography” that powerfully addresses themes relating to environmental protection, conservation and sustainability agendas (click here to view a clip of Djikey’s artwork ,“3éme Ruelle” (2013)).
DE BOECK, F. & PLISSART, M-F. 2004. Kinshasa: tales of the invisible city, [Ghent], Ludion.
DELEUZE, G. & GUATTARI, F. L. 2004. A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia, London, Continuum.
NJAMI, S. & BERNADAC, M-L. 2005. Africa Remix: l’art contemporain d’un continent. [Africa Remix: contemporary art of a continent]. Exposition, Centre national d’art et de culture Georges Pompidou, Paris, 28 mai-8 août 2005. Exhibition Catalogue. Paris: Éditions du Centre Pompidou.
– See also associated texts on the impacts and legacies of Africa Remix (2005) [Available online] http://www.memoireonline.com/10/12/6188/Quel-avenir-pour-lart-contemporain-en-Afrique-apres-lexposition-Africa-Remix.html
MBEMBE, A. 2001. On the postcolony, Berkeley ; London, University of California Press.
ROBINSON, J. 2010. Living in dystopia: past, present and future in contemporary African cities. In: PRAKASH, G. (ed.) Noir urbanisms: dystopic images of the modern city. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.