A man in a silver suit and a silver bucket as a helmet walks down a busy dirt street in a Kinshasa ghetto.
It’s just an ordinary day in the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the most populous city of 17 million people, and astronaut Kongo, with his suit covered in digital debris made from minerals mined in the Congo, has become an ordinary, almost ritualistic sighting. This is a performance organized by a collective of artists founded by the Kinshasa duo Michel Ekeba and Eléonore Hellio which aims to overcome the postcolonial chaos that defines the city’s urban landscape by highlighting the forces that have shaped it: capitalism, climate change and geopolitics. “Art is everywhere and Kinshasa is a performance,” Freddy Tsimba, one of DRC’s emerging artists, told Artnet News.
As the art world deepens its fixation on art from Africa and its diasporas, and other creative hubs on the continent, namely the West African nations of Ghana and Nigeria, continue to attract regional and international attention, the emerging art scene in the DRC and its provocative and vocal artists are gaining popularity as the next major art hub on the continent.
Yet the Congo has long had a bad reputation and, until recently, it was never seen as an art hub. Often considered one of the last and toughest frontier economies in the world, when you think of the Congo, you think of Joseph Conrad’s novel heart of darkness (1899) criticizing European colonial rule in Africa, or the film blood diamond (2006) telling the story of diamonds mined in war zones. Today, its artists, patrons and collectors strive to give the country a new identity and the international art scene observes and recognizes its potential.
“Everything you hear about Congo in the media is bad news and what we try to do is show Congo in a different light,” said Baraka Rumamba, a Congolese entrepreneur, real estate investor and founder. of Yetu Management, an organization that promotes Congolese art, says Artnet News. “The art acts as a better PR than currently exists for the DRC.”
Growing demand for Congolese artists
While prices for contemporary Congolese artists have risen steadily since major auction houses began selling contemporary modern and African art in 2009, they rarely cross the three-point range. figures enjoyed by some of their West African counterparts. Exceptions include Dear Samba, who remains the DRC’s best-known artist and whose works have fetched up to $140,000 at auction, and Eddy Ilunga Kamuanga, whose paintings first appeared on the secondary market in 2017 for 11 £000, and now fetch over £100,000 ($135,000), according to artnet’s price database.
The growing value and interest in contemporary art from the DRC reflects a growing scene. In October 2018, Bonhams featured a 22-lot section in its regular London Africa sale titled “Welcome to Congo”, featuring works by Freddy Tsimba, Aime Mpane and Patrick Bongo, with 70% of the lots selling at an average price. of £5,000 to £8,000.
“There is no doubt that a similar sale in today’s market would average over £15,000 ($20,000),” said Giles Peppiatt, Director of Modern and Contemporary South African and African Art. at Bonhams, at Artnet News. Indeed, a work by Aime Mpane went for $18,825 at a Bonhams New York sale in 2019.
Other rising markets include that of the late multimedia artist Bodys Isek Kingelez, known for his dazzling architectural sculptures which he described as “extreme models” representative of the dreams and imaginary cities of the DRC. Kingelez has been the subject of a solo exhibition at MoMA in 2018. His work began to be auctioned around 2015 with prices reaching around £6,000-10,000. “In 2020 and 2021, these works regularly fetch between £30,000 and £50,000 ($40,000-$67,000),” Peppiatt said.
Sotheby’s has also seen a rise in the value of Congolese art since its inaugural sale in 2017. “The Congolese art market for a long time had a huge hub in Europe and not in Congo itself and now you are slowly seeing this transition into a growing domestic market,” said Adriana La Lime, specialist at Sotheby’s of modern and contemporary African art. art told Artnet News. “In our sales we have other Europeans, Americans and other Africans who are now interested in Congolese art, which is a positive sign.”
The reason Congolese artists are not yet seeing the same prices as their counterparts in Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa, La Lime said, “is down to a lack of local patronage and support in the form of galleries. , institutions and collectors. This is the big challenge facing the Congolese art scene at the moment.
Search for structures
In the DRC, there are no commercial art galleries, very few museums and no government support for the arts. “Art and culture is not a priority for them,” artist and curator Vitshois Mwilambwe Bondo told Artnet News. Bondo established the Kin ArtStudio in 2011, which includes an artist residency in Kinshasa for Congolese and international artists, and the Biennale du Congo, which will hold its second edition in Kinshasa from September 16 to October 23, 2022. support to carry out his initiatives well.
For Congolese wishing to study art, there is a school in Kinshasa: the Academy of Fine Arts, which followed a strict 19th century style formal figuration since its founding in colonial times in 1943. Eddy Ilunga Kamuanga left his studies there in 2011. “I revolted against the classicism of the school, intrinsically European in its approach”, Kamuanga told Artnet News. “I wanted to express myself differently.” After Kamuanga’s departure, he founded the M’Pongo group with other young Congolese artists.
Over the past 15 years, artists like Bondo have hoped to boost the country’s artistic profile by creating biennial exhibitions. These include the Biennale of Lubumbashi and the Biennale of Kinsasha. The latter, founded by Congolese photographer Kiripi Katembo Siku, organized only one edition in 2014. Its mission was to change the perception of Congo as a poor, corrupt and war-torn country.
The first, founded in 2008, is also directed by artists, set up by the Atelier Picha of Lubumbashi – which means “image” in Swahili – an art center co-founded by artists and cultural producers, including the artist Sammy Baloji, Gabriele Salmi and John Katambayi. The next Lubumbashi Biennale in the fall will be devoted to the idea of toxicity as a condition of existence and its effects on various societies.
In terms of museums, in 2019 the country inaugurated its National Museum of the Democratic Republic of Congo (MNRDC) in Kinshasa, although the $22 million institution was funded by the South Korean International Cooperation Agency. , a public aid organization in Kinshasa. the hope, he says, of preserving cultural artefacts to encourage the Congolese to forge a sense of national unity. It is devoted to the cultural history and the various ethnic groups of the DRC. There is also the Controversial White Cube by Dutch artist Renzo Martens located in the middle of a Congolese oil palm plantation in Lusanga since 2017 with a mission to revive the local economy through art.
At the dawn of change
Contemporary artists in the DRC today create art with a mission. Like Astronaut Kongo, it is an art of socio-political advocacy and which aims to change the African and Congolese narrative. What this scene with great potential lacks is structure. But it seems that the DRC is at an artistic turning point. Entrepreneur Rumamba confirms his intention to open a commercial gallery in Kinshasa next year via Yetu Management. Whispers can be heard about more galleries opening in Kinshasa – and the talk is reminiscent of one that could be heard just a few years ago in the recently booming West African scenes.
“We are underrepresented on the African and international art scene,” Congolese art collector and investor Alain Defise told Artnet News. He recently purchased several works from “Breaking the Mould”, an exhibition which took place in October 2021 featuring the work of 12 emerging artists from the DRC at the 198 Gallery in London. “People mention Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and Morocco, but very few mention Congo. “We have always had creativity. If we could replicate in contemporary art the success we have had in music where we flood the whole continent with our creativity, look at the potential we could have.
For artists like Kamuanga who resolutely push the scene forward, the hope is that the international art world will soon take notice.
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