Exhibit | Beauté Congo – 1926-2015 – Congo Kitoko

Since 1987, André Magnin, chief curator at Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris, has had a passion for the Congo which stirred his soul to travel the country and experience the people and their arts firsthand. In response to his thirty-year journey, he has organized Beauté Congo – 1926-2015 – Congo Kitoko, a survey of paintings, photographs, sculpture, comics, music, and films now on view at Fondation Cartier, Paris, through November 15, 2015.

Organized chronologically, the exhibition begins in the 1920s, at the birth of modern painting in the Congo, when the nation was still a colony of Belgium. Having just survived the genocidal regime of King Leopold II, under which 10 million Congolese lost their lives, the art of this era had been in the shadows. Magnin obsessively search for work, drawing together pieces that reveal the way of life in the village, the natural world, the dreams and legends of the times.

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Djilatendo, Sans titre, c. 1930, Gouache and ink on paper, 24.5 x 18 cm, Musée royal de l’Afrique centrale, Tervuren, HO.0.1.3371
© Djilatendo/Photo © MRAC Tervuren

The exhibition follows through mid-century, when photography was introduced, and became a way of reaffirming one’s social status. Included are works by Jean Depara, a native of Angola who moved to Leopoldville in 1951, who documented the city’s nightlife, bars, and clubs before opening his own studio five years later, as well as works by Oscar Memba Freitas, who made his name photographing the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974: the fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.

The exhibition also features a group of young artists from the 1970s, who defined themselves as “popular painters.” Most had worked as sign painters, and some had made comics before opening their studios in Kinshasa, exhibiting their paintings on walls of their buildings to attract street traffic. The first generation of popular painters including Moke, Pierre Bodo, Chéri Chérin, and Chéri Samba, who stole the spotlight from the artists of the Académie by refusing to imitate European styles as was the academic tradition. Drawing inspiration from daily life, their brightly colored, candid paintings often incorporated humorous texts, reinforcing their critical message, become a voice for the common man and woman.

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JP Mika, Kiese na kiese, 2014, Oil and acrylic on fabric, 168.5 x 119 cm, Pas-Chaudoir Collection, Belgique
© JP Mika/Photo © Antoine de Roux

As Magnin recalls in the exhibition catalogue, “I was struck by the freedom, variety, humor and beauty of the paintings that were passing before my eyes. In Africa, only the Congo could inspire such exciting sensuality and radicalism. I was at the heart of an art form that required no theorizing or explanation, revealing a whole new cultural lifestyle by evoking political and social moments, whether tiny or overwhelming….

“In displaying this large number of works, I have strived to invite people on a journey, to prompt an experience of being faced with something they do not know, to fill them with wonder and create a bond that fuses after the initial surprise of these works has passed, or through the shock of that surprise.”

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Chéri Samba, Oui, il faut réfléchir, 2014, Acrylic and glitters on canvas, 135 x 200 cm, Collection of the artist
© Chéri Samba/Photo © André Morin

That surprise might be best summed up in the words of Eliki M’Bokolo, who writes in the exhibition catalogue, “The other Congo, beyond the colonial propaganda? Yes, of course it existed!”

Beauté Congo – 1926-2015 – Congo Kitoko is now on view at Fondation Cartier, Paris, through November 15, 2015.
Header: Ambroise Ngaimoko, Euphorie de deux jeunes gens qui se retrouvent, 1972, Gelatin silver print, 27 x 27 cm, Collection of the artist © Ambroise Ngaimoko/Photo © André Morin

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.