Reviews of Beaute Congo – Congolese Paintings 1926-2015 at Fondation Cartier Paris

This is a historic exhibition of Congo artists from 1926 – 2015 at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. The core art collection of African Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is from the Congo. The Congo was a colony of Belgium from the last decade of the 19th century until at least 1960, when its president was assassinated.

Vincent Johnson


Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain

Beauté Congo – 1926–2015 – Congo Kitoko

July 11–November 15, 2015

Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain
261, boulevard Raspail
75014 Paris
Hours: Wednesday–Sunday 11am–8pm,
Tuesday 11am–10pm

T +33 (0) 1 42 18 56 50

A place of extraordinary cultural vitality, the creative spirit of the Democratic Republic of the Congo will be honored in the Beauté Congo–1926–2015–Congo Kitoko exhibition presented at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain with André Magnin, Chief Curator.

Taking as its point of departure the birth of modern painting in the Congo in the 1920s, this ambitious exhibition will trace almost a century of the country’s artistic production. While specifically focusing on painting, it will also include music, sculpture, photography, and comics, providing the public with the unique opportunity to discover the diverse and vibrant art scene of the region.
Metro: Raspail or Denfert-Rochereau (lines 4 and 6)
Bus: 38, 68, 88, 91 RER: Denfert-Rochereau (line B)
Vélib’ and disabled parking at 2, rue Victor Schoelcher

Nomadic Nights
Information and reservations every day from 11am to 8pm (except Mondays) / T +33 (0) 1 42 18 56 72


Paris hosts first ever retrospective of art from Democratic Republic of the Congo

With more eyes than ever on African art, Fondation Cartier’s expansive Beauté Congo exhibition showcases earliest paintings to today’s vibrant, political works

La Vraie Carte du Monde, by Chéri Samba, 2011.
La Vraie Carte du Monde, by Chéri Samba, 2011. Photograph: Chéri Samba/Fondation Cartier

There is a tradition in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that artists hang their paintings on the outsides of their studios, for the whole world walking by to look at.

Some paintings reflect the very streets where they hang – bars filled with music and dancing, streets overcrowded with rusting cars and elegant sapeurs strutting down the pavements, bejewelled and bedecked in flamboyant outfits. Others depict a utopia, a vision of the DRC that has left behind the conflict, poverty and corruption of the past century. Almost all are steeped in politics.

It is these paintings, and other artworks stretching back 90 years, that are to form the first ever retrospective of art from the DRC. Opening on Saturday at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, the expansive show incorporates 350 paintings, photographs, sculptures and comic books from 41 different artists.

Most of these works have never been displayed internationally, having sat among private collections in Belgium, France and Switzerland, while others were dug out from colonial archives in Brussels and a few brought over from Kinshasa, direct from the artists themselves.

The exhibition may have taken just one year for the curator, André Magnin, to put together but it has been his passion for almost 30 years, having travelled back and forth to the DRC meeting and championing many of the artists now displayed. With more eyes than ever turned to the African art world, and the recent rise in African art fairs in cities such as New York, London and Paris, Magnin, who is the world’s foremost expert on African art, said the time felt right to finally work with the Fondation Cartier to realise his vision.

Amour & Pastèque, by Chéri Samba, 1984

Amour & Pastèque, by Chéri Samba, 1984. Photograph: Chéri Samba/Fondation Cartier

“People see the DRC as just this country of war and death and suffering but look around – these are such beautiful works filled with such colour and humour and sensuality,” said Magnin, standing before the Popular-style paintings of Pierre Bodo. “I want this exhibition to widen people’s perceptions of the country, show not only how beautiful but also how diverse and how political the art has been over those many decades. I have been wanting to do this show since 1987 but it is only now that the time felt right.”

The exhibition itself works backwards, beginning with the contemporary work of some of the younger artists painting in the capital today and ending on a series of “precursor” paintings: primitive watercolours dating back to 1926 that had lain forgotten in the depths of the Library of Brussels archive, until they were recently rediscovered by Magnin.

Untitled, by Antoinette Lubaki, c.1929

Untitled, by Antoinette Lubaki, c.1929. Photograph: Antoinette Lubaki/Fondation Cartier

Among the newer works are a collection of photographs by Kiripi Katembo that depict the city of Kinshasa reflected in the dirty water that covers the streets, offering a certain poetry to the chaotic and polluted streets of the capital. Another series, by Sammy Baloji, superimposes photos of Congolese tribes taken on a Belgian expedition in the late 1800s on to watercolours of the country, painted by a Belgian artist during colonial times – a pointed comment on the legacy of colonisation.

Also on display are comic books of Papa Mfumu’eto, who between 1990 and 2000 produced the most popular bande dessinée (comic strips) in Kinshasa. Though they were fictional, they drew from everyday life and the corrupt politics of the Mobutu dictatorship and at their peak were more popular than the daily newspaper.

La Nostalgie, by JP Mika, 2014

La Nostalgie, by JP Mika, 2014. Photograph: JP Mika/Fondation Cartier

An elusive figure, Mfumu’eto made his first public appearance in seven years to visit the retrospective in Paris. Speaking to the Guardian, he explained how he had become drawn to the medium of comic strips. He said: “My five older sisters died before turning five and then I came along and my mother was incredibly protective of me.

“I wasn’t really able to play with other kids because my mother was afraid of losing me like she lost my sisters. I felt very isolated and anonymous in terms of the world around me and the comics came to me as a way of escaping that. The comics brought people to me – they followed the stories and wanted to know what I would create next.”

His first comic, which depicted Mobutu as a boa constrictor who swallowed things and threw them up again as money – still the most popular comic ever sold in Kinshasa – can be seen in the exhibition, alongside numerous others produced over the decade. Mfumu’eto often responded to the wishes of his readers, and when Mobutu died in exile in Morocco in 1997, the artist illustrated him impregnating a woman in hell and having to burn there forever.

However, making critical statements on politics in the DRC, even in the format of art, can often be a dangerous occupation. Mfumu’eto said he had been threatened by the authorities about his comics, while Bodo, another “Popular” artist and evangelical pastor whose paintings feature in the exhibition, died last September under allegedly suspicious circumstances.

Most artists, however, have continued regardless. One of the most internationally renowned Congolese artists in the exhibition is Chéri Samba, 58, whose works have been shown at the Pompidou in Paris as well as at MoMA in New York and at the 2007 Venice Biennale. Having begun life as a billboard painter in the 1970s, he went on to pioneer the Popular style of art – bright, eye-catching works that focused on everyday life and often incorporated text.

La Nostalgie, by JP Mika, 2014

Untitled, by Pili Pili Mulongoy. Photograph: Pili Pili Mulongoy/Fondation Cartier

“With my paintings I want to captivate people and I want the messages of my paintings to be direct,” Samba said. “I direct my work at the leaders and I want to use my paintings to talk about subjects they may have forgotten but are important to the people. My paintings inspired by daily life and for me, the meaning of Popular art is where people of all milieux can recognise the themes, the topics, the subjects that I am treating. This was created as art for the people.

Untitled (Match Ali-Foreman, Kinshasa), by Moke, 1974

Untitled (Match Ali-Foreman, Kinshasa), by Moke, 1974. Photograph: Moke/Fondation Cartier

“I believe everyone in earth has a mission and I believe that God gave me the tools to paint and speak my messages through my paintings.”

Figures from Nelson Mandela to Barack Obama crop up in his paintings, though one of the most powerful works on display in the retrospective is a piece called Little Kadogo, I am For Peace, That is Why I Like Weapons. It is a portrait of his son dressed as a Congolese child soldier, palms up in surrender and looking directly out at the viewer.

“I can’t separate my works from politics and I don’t think I ever could,” said Samba. “Yes, my work has got me into difficulty, I have been stopped by the authorities, but it has never gone any further than that and I don’t care. It will never stop me from painting.”

Oui, il faut réfléchir, by Chéri Samba, 2014

Oui, il faut réfléchir, by Chéri Samba, 2014. Photograph: Chéri Samba/Fondation Cartier

Art, said Samba, was everywhere in Kinshasa, from the posters on the streets to the facades of people’s houses. Now, more than ever, the art scene in the city was thriving, he said. He was heartened that a new generation had taken on the mantle of Popular art and that it was now being seen beyond the city and country’s borders.

Indeed, Samba said he would continue to paint as he had always done. “For 40 years I’ve always been doing the same thing in my paintings, particularly in terms of the message,” he said. “The only thing that has changed is the grey hair in my beard.”



A Vibrant Display of Congolese Art at Fondation Cartier

‘Beaute Congo,’ a sparkling new exhibition at Paris’s Fondation Cartier showcases 90 years of modern and contemporary art.

J.P. Mika, ‘Kiese na Kiese,’ 2014. ENLARGE
J.P. Mika, ‘Kiese na Kiese,’ 2014. Photo: JP Mika / Photo: Antoine de Roux

THERE IS ONLY the most fleeting sense of a Conradian heart of darkness in “Beauté Congo—1926-2015—Congo Kitoko,” the Fondation Cartier’s sparkling new show of modern and contemporary Congolese art. The exhibition, which opens in Paris tomorrow and runs through Nov. 15, is a showcase of popular art, neither stiffly academic nor fashioned by European tradition—one that reflects the buoyant resilience of the Congolese character, which refuses to dwell on a grisly colonial past.

Curated by Frenchman André Magnin—who for the past 30 years has been instrumental in introducing contemporary African artists to European audiences—the show’s scope is ambitious, spanning 90 years and featuring 350 paintings, photographs, and sculptures from around 40 Congolese artists.

Pilipili Mulongoy, ‘Untitled,’ c. 1950.
Pilipili Mulongoy, ‘Untitled,’ c. 1950. Photo: Pilipili Mulongoy / Photo: Andr

“I wanted to tell the story of 90 years of Congolese art, which has always been described partially, and was visually familiar but only fragmentarily until now,” explains Mr. Magnin.

The show, laid out in reverse chronological order, begins on the ground floor with work by newer artists such as the EZA POSSIBLES collective, established in 2003 in Kinshasa, and J.P. Mika.

Mr. Mika, who was born in Kinshasa in 1980, is part of a new generation of artists whose narrative, figurative paintings are inspired by the colorful exuberance and dandyish demeanor of Congolese street life. His recent paintings, on patterned fabrics, take their inspiration from the dynamic composition of African photographic studio portraits of the 1960s.

The artist, a graduate of Kinshasa’s Académie des Beaux-Arts, which has existed in various guises since 1943, received additional training from Chéri Chérin. Along with Chéri Samba, Mr. Chérin is one of the leading lights of the self-avowed generation of “popular painters” who began to develop their politically aware cartoonish style, mixing text and images, in the 1980s.

Both artists, who started out making commercial billboards, have several paintings on display, including a denunciative portrait by Mr. Samba of one of his sons dressed as a boy soldier, hands held high in the air.

Chéri Samba, ‘Oui, il faut réfléchir,’ 2014.
Chéri Samba, ‘Oui, il faut réfléchir,’ 2014. Photo: Chéri Samba / Photo: André Mor

In the basement is a series of black and white photographs by Jean Depara, who was born in Angola but went into exile in what was then the Belgian Congo in 1948. Mr. Depara, who died in 1997, left behind an extraordinary collection of photo-reportage depicting Kinshasa before and after independence. Particularly striking are his images of the “Bills,” young Congolese hoodlums from working-class neighborhoods who, in the 1950s, dressed in the style of their American Western heroes.

In the same room is a remarkably intricate construction of a cardboard city by Bodys Isek Kingelez, who became famous for his cardboard models of imaginary buildings. From 1992 until his death this year, he conjured up entire cities based on the kind of utopian designs he dreamt of being built.

It is something of a shock to stumble on the geometric paintings by Congolese artist Djilatendo from the 1920s to ’30s and realize how thoroughly modern they still are


But perhaps the greatest discovery of this entrancing exhibition is to be made in the next-door room, where vibrant Congolese paintings from the first half of the 20th century are on display. It is something of a shock to stumble on the geometric paintings by Congolese artist Djilatendo from the 1920s to ’30s and realize how thoroughly modern they still are.

Very little is known about Mr. Djilatendo’s life and work other than that he was a tailor by profession and was inspired by the work of local carpet weavers to produce his geometric panels. He and Albert Lubaki, another early artist on display, were encouraged by a Belgian administrator, Georges Thiry, who supplied them with paints and paper to produce figurative work of animals and village life.

The simple lines and bold use of color in an untitled snake painting from 1931 by Djilatendo call to mind the red fish paintings Matisse did in Morocco from 1911 to ’12. Mr. Magnin, however, is keen to stress that any similarities are coincidental, as it is highly unlikely that Djilatendo had ever come across Matisse’s art before. The comfort is knowing that, without the need for any introductions, the innate elegance of one artist later found its echo in another.



Paris’s love affair with Congolese Modernism continues

Moke, Untitled (undated). © Moke

In 1946, a French soldier and painter named Pierre Romain-Desfossés moved to the African city of Élisabethville (now called Lubumbashi) in the Belgian Congo and set up an art studio called Atelier du Hangar. For nine years, until his death in 1954, Desfossés worked with local artists, such as Mwenze Kibwanga and Pili Pili Mulongoy and helped them get their work into galleries in Paris, London and Rome.

Their work was even exhibited in venues as far away as the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Hangar was later integrated into Lubumbashi’s art school, but an independent streak cut through all the art the atelier produced. As Desfossés once said: “We must speak forthrightly against all attempts to abolish the personality in favour of a uniform aesthetic according to the standards of white masters.”

This is just one episode in the history of art from what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo that will be explored in a landmark exhibition opening at the Fondation Cartier in Paris in July. The show surveys 90 years of art from the African nation and includes nearly 300 pieces (mostly painting, but also photography, comics and music) by more than 40 artists. “There is a vitality to all of the work, even if there is not much continuity between the first painters included and those who came after the Second World War,” says Leanne Sacramone, a curator at the foundation who worked with the show’s chief organiser, André Magnin.

The earliest work included comes from the 1920s, when Congolese artists were encouraged by Belgian colonial officials such as Georges Thiry to make art on paper. The show then follows through the “popular artists” of the late 1970s and ends with work from the past 15 years. The exhibition is sponsored by the museum and will include a programme of events, such as dance performances.

Beauté Congo, 1926-2015, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, 11 July-15 November


Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art to Exhibit a Century of Congolese Art

Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art to Exhibit a Century of Congolese Art
Chéri Samba, “Oui, il faut réfléchir” (2014); JP Mika, “Kiese na kiese (Le Bonheur et la Joie)” (2014)
(Copyright Chéri Samba; JP Mika/ Courtesy Fondation Cartier)

In a show of support for the African contemporary art scene, the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris will stage “Beauté Congo – 1926-2015 – Congo Kitoko” this summer to trace a century of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s artistic production, from the figurative and geometric works representing village life in the 1920s, to the unconventional collages exploring a better collective future.

Running from July 11 through November 15 at the Fondation Cartier, “Congo Kitoko” follows a series of other projects held at the Fondation featuring Congolese artists including the solo shows Bodys Isek Kingelez (1999) and J’aime Chéri Samba (2004) and the collective exhibitions Un Art Populaire (2001).

Over the years, Congolese artists learned to let their imaginations run free to create colorful works in their own highly inventive and distinctive styles. Some, such as Chéri Samba, Chéri Chérin, and Moke, found themselves inspired by daily, political, or social events that were easily recognizable by their fellow citizens, while others, like Pathy Tshindele and Kura Shomali, approached art crticially with unconventional collages and paintings. And sculptors like Bodys Isek Kingelez and Rigobert Nimi also made a name for themselves with intricate architectural models of utopian cities or robotized factories to explore the question of social cohesion.

The exhibition goes hand in hand with the French jeweler’s commitment to eradicate the conflict gold trade in Congo, where the extraction and smuggling of gold has served as an important means of funding for armed groups and army commanders in the deadliest conflict since World War II. Advocacy group Enough recently released a report that found companies including Tiffany & Co., Signet Jewelers, Cartier, JC Penney, and Target had taken proactive steps to set up requirements for their suppliers to source only from conflict-free gold refiners, contribute to solutions on the ground in Congo, and support the communities affected by mining and violence in the country.

“Congo Kitoko” will also include sculpture, photography, and comics in an effort to showcase the vibrancy and diversity of the art scene in Sub-Saharan Africa. Music also plays a significant role, as jazz, soul, and rap will be played throughout the exhibition, in conjunction with the artworks, while a never-before seen documentary by Vincent Kenis of Crammed Discs, in collaboration with Césarine Bolya, will feature a series of spontaneous interviews of people who participated in Kinshasa’s 1960’s music scene.

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