Céléstin Badibanga has a scientific background and also studied politics, sociology and economics at the University of Kinshasa. In conjunction with Clémentine Nzuzi Fayik and Isidore Ndaywel, he set up the « Congo pléiade », an association for interdisciplinary criticism. Then came the television programme, « Coin des artistes », renamed « Culture et arts » in 1974, which is still running on Téléstar. He chairs the AICA, the Congolese branch of the international association for art critics. From 1978 to 1998 he taught at the National art institute and is responsible for the modern art section at the Institut des Musées nationaux.
What trends are currently identifiable, what is being researched?
The most common trend is the academic school taught at the Académie des Beaux Arts. This consists in academic representation. However, once trained, students evolve into other schools while retaining a relatively conventional style.
There is also « popular painting », which is a major trend in contemporary art in Congo. Young styles and talents have also been emerging over the past 5-6 years. These artists are called the « libristes » and use recycled materials. This trend is appearing throughout Africa, and is being experimented elsewhere. Of course, the artists stay within the context of their biosphere. There is also a trend inspired by our traditions that I call « neonegrisme » the artists take inspiration from tradition to enrich their present experiences.
Could we talk about emulation or blockage, given that Congolese society isn’t very open to the outside world?
Competition with the outside world isn’t very strong. Nevertheless, for some years now Congolese artists have been making contact with other artists French, Belgian through events such as creative and theoretical workshops.
From time to time, artists travel and participate in events around Africa, such as the Biennale of Bantou art. These provide opportunities for meeting other artists, for exchanging ideas. It’s also practical because the artists can measure themselves against each other, which obviously has to be mutually stimulating. The Dakar Biennale is still the main platform for the betterment of African artists through exchange and contact. These are the two most important events in Africa which create a link with local organisations the Halle de la Gombe (CCF) and the Centre Wallonie-Bruxelles in Kinshasa.
Could you give us a run-down on the various Congolese schools?
In DRC, modern art at least starting with the first school arose from the work of artists in touch with certain colonial administrators who simply provided materials for the artists without actually teaching them to execute modern representations. These artists used their experience of their own land. The first « aquarionistes », who started working in 1926 (Lubaki, Tshelandende, etc.), are an example of this. They were originally traditional sculptors and « fescistes » and started out by decorating huts. Initially, their decorations were geometrical, as everywhere else, but they subsequently moved onto narrative scenes. These were more or less objective because they portrayed, on the walls of the huts, scenes from their daily lives, both locally and in their contacts with the West. When they were given watercolour materials by Westerners, they began to transpose the scenes onto this support. Unfortunately, we do not have any concrete evidence or examples of these works, however there is some at the Cabinet des Estampes in Belgium, in the Musée Royal de Central in Tervuren and in private collections. Their naivety was not intellectual because these people were not at all intellectually naive. Their gaze was descriptive, even critical.
Next came the Kinshasa school, where the current Académie des Beaux Arts originated. The academy was created by a Belgian monk from the congregation of the Frères des Ecoles Chrétiennes who copied the entire set-up off the Belgian school of fine arts. However, he initially wanted to provide Africans with an opportunity for expressing themselves within a modern framework that also respected tradition. Thus the Saint-Luc school, as it was called at the time, featured furniture, traditional motifs, a cupboard in the shape of a traditional drum, and so on.
However, as it evolved, particularly since its founder was originally from Saint-Luc himself and was therefore a trained artist, he returned to his old loves and started teaching our artists the standards and Greek academic models that form the basis of the Académie des Beaux Arts to this day.
It was only after this that the artists began to explore their own styles. I think that this teaching method is good but doesn’t always encourage artists to blossom individually since it remains essentially academic!
From the 1970s onwards, a spirit of controversy developed within the artistic community, with the arrival of the AICA (International Association of Art Critics). The association challenged artists to reflect on their creations and integrate tradition into their work. Under the AICA’s influence, the « avant-gardistes zaïrois », in 1974 were the first artists to take ideas from tradition, instigating a new trend called « neonegrisme » that spread as other artists brought their own style to the movement. In this climate of self-questioning, certain artists, such as Kamba Lossa, delved into the roots of cave paintings, creating what I call « neorupestrisme« .
Then came the Botembe artists who also evolved from « neonegrisme« , to which they added a new symbolic dimension. While their predecessors were more interested in aesthetical issues, the Botembe artists added semantic and semiological elements to the traditional aesthetic. From 1997 onwards, « librisme » gained ground. These artists were interested in recycled materials. Within each group, individual artists had their own style, such as Francis Mampuya, Katembwé, etc., the universal thread being their deliberate break with academism.
Which artists most stand out?
Let’s take a look at contemporary artists from each school.
In academic painting, artists such as Liyolo, Lema Kussa, Mavinga or even Ndanvu who passed away a few years ago, stand out.
In « neonegrism », Botembe and his disciples, Dikisongelé and Matemo, Mavinga and Bamba, etc. are moving in this direction.
The standard bearers for the libriste movement include Katembwé and Francis Mampuya, who held a joint exhibition at the Halle de la Gombé (French cultural centre in Kinshasa) as part of the Emergences festival organised by the Espace Akhenaton. Francis is the inventor of the movement and the group was created after discussions with Eddy and Germain. They work independently from each other. Some very interesting experiments are brought together in their exhibitions. They all work with recycled materials, some in a highly intelligent manner, other with impressive geometry.
The popular movement, which is one of the major trends in our contemporary art, is lead by artists like Chéri Samba, chéri Chrin, Sim Simaro, Bodo, M’fumueto the first, Chéri Benga, Lusavuvu, Boluka, etc. There is definitely effervescence in their creativity.
What kind of subjects are these artists interested in?
Since the 1990s, they are most interested in the problems of society at the heart of all creation in Kinshasa. M’fumueto’s comic book heroes, and his painting, are marked either by politics or musicians and the debate that revolves around them, the preachers and social issues that are so flagrant in some of Kinshasa’s neighbourhoods. Francis Mampuya’s installations and painting portray his observations of the city, featuring transport problems and the expressions of the faces of the city’s inhabitants during the 1990s, etc.
Figurative or abstract art? How does the public perceive all this?
Figurative art dominates, with its numerous dimensions and variants, especially since it’s not all academic. Abstract art isn’t very common!
As for the public, there are several types…
There is a Western audience that is interested in all new creative movements. This group therefore collects « libriste » and popular paintings. Academic art is most of interest to the « bourgeois », that is, those who like nice art that they can hang in their living room rather than thinking, questioning art.
As for the general masses, they’re very open to popular painting, which is displayed beside the main roads, so they don’t even have to make the effort to go to galleries. These artists live « out in the open air », among the masses, from which they take inspiration!
Academic art and other movements such as « librisme » and « neonegrisme » are to an extent exclusive, however this doesn’t mean that the general population doesn’t have access to this art – in my opinion, in any case. I tested this theory by organising exhibitions in cultural centres. So I don’t think that culture isn’t meant for the masses or that art is the exclusive food of intellectuals. It’s simply a question of an aesthetical and artistic education that needs to be transmitted appropriately. In fact, that’s why the Espace Akhenaton was created in 1989. Popular artistic education is systematically performed through seminars where people of all ages visit various art venues such as museums, the Academy, workshops, etc.
Do local artists have the means to show their works in Kinshasa?
There are two types of exhibition here permanent and temporary. Permanent exhibitions are held in venues like the Académie des Beaux Arts or the gallery at the Boboto college. These are the most well-know venues. A select clientele of mostly ex-pats frequents these venues. Temporary exhibitions are often organised in cultural centres in countries interested in working with local artists. This is what the Espace Akhenaton has been doing since 1989. The Emergences festival that we have been working on for the past year with the Halle de la Gombé is along these lines. There are also other exhibitions like the Carrefour de peinture populaire held in 1994. This festival had artists express themselves on a specific subject, although they were free to choose their form of expression.
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