A man in a silver suit and a silver helmet bucket walks down a busy dirt street in a ghetto in Kinshasa.
That’s just an ordinary day in the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and its most populous city of 17 million people, a Congo astronaut, with his suits covered in digital debris made of minerals mined in Congo, has become a regular, almost ritualistic sight. It’s a show organized by a group of artists founded by Kinshasa-based duo Michel Ikeba Eléonore Hellio whose goal is to overcome the postcolonial chaos that defines the city’s urban landscape by highlighting the forces that shaped it: capitalism, climate change and geopolitics. “Art is everywhere, and Kinshasa is a show,” Freddy Tsimba, one of the up-and-coming artists in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, told Artnet News.
As the art world deepens its attachment to art from Africa and its diaspora, other creative hubs on the continent – namely the West African nations of Ghana and Nigeria – continue to attract regional and international interest, and the emerging art scene in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and its states. United Artists and Voice Artists are gaining traction as the next major art hub on the continent.
However, the Congo has always been poorly represented, and until recently, it was never seen as a center of art. Often seen as one of the world’s last and most challenging frontier economies, when one thinks of the Congo, what might come to mind is Joseph Conrad’s novel heart of darkness (1899) Criticizes European colonial rule in Africa, or the film blood diamond (2006) tells the story of diamonds mined in war zones. Now its artists, patrons, and collectors are striving to give the country a new identity and the international art scene is watching and realizing its potential.
“Everything you hear about Congo in the media is bad news and what we are trying to do is show the Congo in a different light,” Baraka Rumba, a Congolese entrepreneur, real estate investor and founder of Yetu Management, an organization that promotes Congolese art, told Artnet News. “Art is better public relations than is currently the case in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”
Increasing demand for Congolese artists
While prices for contemporary Congolese artists have steadily risen in value since major auction houses began selling modern and African contemporary art in 2009, they rarely break the three-figure range enjoyed by some of their West African counterparts. Exceptions include dear Samba – still the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s best-known artist whose work has auctioned up to $140,000 – and Eddie Ilunga Kamwanga, whose paintings first appeared on the secondary market in 2017 for £11,000, now fetch over £100,000 ($135,000), according to the Artnet price database.
The increased value and interest in contemporary art from the Democratic Republic of the Congo reflects a growing scene. In October 2018, Bonhams introduced a 22-piece block at its regular African sale in London entitled “Bienvenue au Congo”, including works by Freddy Tsimba, Aime Mpane and Patrick Bongo, with 70 percent of the pieces selling for an average price of Rs. £5000 – £8000.
““There is no doubt that a similar sale in the market today would average more than £15,000 ($20,000),” Giles Pepyat, director of South Africa and African Modern and Contemporary Art at Bonhams, told Artnet News. In fact, Aime Mpane’s work fetched $18,825 at a Bonhams New York auction in 2019.
Other emerging markets include the late multimedia artist Bodese Issyk Kingelis, known for his dazzling architectural sculptures that he referred to as the “extreme machines” representing dreams and imagined cities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kingelez was a theme Solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art 2018. His works began auctioning around 2015 with prices ranging from £6000 to £10,000. “In 2020 and 2021, this business regularly brings in 30,000 to 50,000 pounds ($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 has had a huge center in Europe and not in the Congo itself for a long time, and now you’re seeing this slowly transition to where the national market is growing,” Adriana Lyme, Sotheby’s specialist in modern and contemporary art told Artnet News. “In our sales we have other Europeans, Americans and Africans now interested in Congolese art which is a positive sign.”
La Lime said the reason why Congolese artists don’t see the same prices as their counterparts in Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa, “is due to a lack of local sponsorship and support in the form of galleries, institutions and collectors. This is the big challenge facing the art scene in Congo now.”
Searching for a structure
There are no commercial art galleries in the DRC, very few museums, and no government support for the arts. “Art and culture are not their priority,” artist and curator Vichos Muyalambwe Bondo told Artnet News. Bondo created Kin ArtStudio in 2011, which includes an art residency in Kinshasa for Congolese and international artists, and the Congo Biennale, which will organize its second edition in Kinshasa from September 16 to October 23, 2022. Bondo said he receives private funding to support running his initiatives.
For Congolese wishing to study art, there is one school in Kinshasa: the Académie des Beaux-Arts, which followed a strict style from the 19th century The official form since its establishment in the colonial era in 1943. Eddie Ilunga Kamwanga gave up his studies there in 2011. “I rebelled against the classicism of the school, European by nature in approach,” Kamwanga told Artnet News. “I wanted to express myself in other ways.” After leaving Kamuanga, he founded the group M’Pongo with other young Congolese artists.
For the past fifteen years, artists like Bondo have hoped to boost the country’s artistic image by holding exhibitions every two years. These include the Lubumbashi Biennale and the Kinshasa Biennale. The latter, founded by Congolese photographer Kiribati Katembo Sekou, only launched one edition in 2014. Its mission was to change the perception of Congo from a poor, corrupt, and war-torn country.
The first center, established in 2008, is also run by an artist, created by Lubumbashi-based Atelier Bisha – which means “image” in Swahili – an art center co-founded by artists and cultural producers, including artist Sami Baloji and Gabriel Salmi Jan Kattambay. The upcoming Lubumbashi Biennale in the fall will be devoted to the idea of toxicity as a condition of existence, and its effects on different societies.
In terms of museums, in 2019 the country opened its National Museum of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MNRDC) in Kinshasa — although the $22 million foundation was funded by the South Korean International Cooperation Agency, a state-run aid organization in She said the hope to preserve cultural artifacts to encourage the Congolese to do so Create a sense of national unity. It is dedicated to the cultural history and different ethnic groups of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There is also a file Controversial White Cube Dutch artist Renzo Martins has been in the middle of a Congolese palm oil plantation in Luzanga since 2017 with the aim of stimulating the start-up of the local economy through art.
On the cusp of change
Contemporary artists in the Democratic Republic of the Congo today are making art with a message. Like Congo Astronaut, he is a social and political advocacy art that aims to change the African and Congolese narrative. What is missing from this great potential landscape is structure. But the Democratic Republic of the Congo appears to be at a technical turning point. Businessman Rumba confirms that he intends to open a trade fair in Kinshasa next year through YTO management. Whispers can be heard of other galleries that have opened in Kinshasa – reminiscent of talk that could have been heard only a few years ago in West African scenes that have recently exploded.
“We are underrepresented in the African and global art scene,” Alain Davies, a Congolese art collector and investor, told Artnet News. He recently bought several works from “Breaking the Mold”, an exhibition in October 2021 to display the work of 12 emerging artists from the Democratic Republic of the Congo at 198 Gallery in London. “People mention Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and Morocco, but few mention Congo,” we’ve always had creativity. If we can replicate the success we have had in music in contemporary art where we immerse the entire continent with our creativity, look at the potential we can have.”
For artists like Kamuanga who are pushing the scene forward with determination, the hope is that the international art world will soon take notice.
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