Prisca Tankwey : The cliché box
Performance/Installation, Kinshasa 2020
Prisca Tankwey takes a look at the African continent, which is made up of diverse cultures
and yet is often imagined by some to be one country. The artist addresses the various viewpoints and distorted projections of this continent. Until now, Africa has been the object of exotic fantasies fueled by a colonial past, anthropological studies and clichés that persist. The artist also focuses on the ways in which Africans themselves contribute to the reproduction of these clichés.

Peter Miyalu: “Mutilation”
Video, Kinshasa 2020

This intimate universe, which imposes a look centred on the body to be purified, is in fact a metaphorical call for collective mutilation. This act is personified by the artist in the figure of the leader of his fellow citizens. Here represented by the act of shaving, this mutilation would concern the brains of Congolese people, haunted by the ghosts of colonisation which control their thoughts in daily life.
Paulvi Ngimbi: “Ekuluzu” (Cross)
Installation, Kinshasa 2020

The cross, a religious element charged with symbolism, already used by missionaries in the Congo during the first expeditions to enslave and colonise, is taken here in its concrete and abstract sense. The artist Paulvi Ngimbi goes back, looking over its hold on Kinshasa and Congolese society. A symbol of religion, holiness and sacredness, it is also a symbol of wealth. The artist sees it as the new “fetish” of his Congolese contemporaries. This latter approach may have prompted the artist to sublimate the cross and present it as described above. 

Elisabeth Bakambamba Tambwe: “The barbie chicken”
Video/photography, sound, 3’ 25’’, 2009

The term standardisation, or making things uniform, usually applies to manufactured objects, both in the industrial and military fields. However, standardisation is not only about material objects, but can also be applied to language, practices, institutions, thoughts and behaviour. Precisely to the extent that, in order to rationalise and regulate itself, society seeks to construct itself like a machine.

Emerging from the dark night

Landry Mbassi

If we consider that Africa has reached a turning point in its history in this post-colonial phase, a critical moment preceded by timid democratic experiments – practised without democratic thought (see below Elieth P. Elibiyi), we must also agree that it is, as an entity, now forced to face itself in the mirror, face its confiscated past and to regain control of itself.

As such, we cannot help but notice the relationship that certain intellectuals and artists have with crisis situations and troubled times, so much that it reminds us violently of our condition and our trajectory as “ex-colonised”, the same one that links us to one of the darkest periods of humanity. A period during which our human condition was contested, and from which we must absolutely detach ourselves, in order to free ourselves from the yoke of History that weighs down on Africa.

Colonisation and slavery on the African continent created an institutionalised negation of peoples on a global scale. The famous Berlin Conference – and all that it reminds us of – should have a more prominent place in the curricula of elementary schools on the continent, to remind Africans that “they’ve come a long way” and that something very serious but not irreversible has happened in the course of history, in such a way that future generations will not lose sight of the goal of their march towards freedom. This freedom, this saving movement for the Afrique-monde[1], is however not compatible with the political extravagances of the new masters of the continent who have made a pact with the former colonisers. This is what historian and political scientist Achille Mbembe deplores in his blunt essay Sortir de la grande nuit: Essai sur l’Afrique décolonisée (Emerging from the dark night, an essay on decolonised Africa), published in 2010.

In this quest for cultural and political sovereignty of nation-states under the slogan Chacha[2] independence, the African artist has brought his modest contribution since the mid-1960s. The artist is a producer of representations, a seeker of meaning, just as he is in his own way an archaeologist and historian. He digs deep within himself, borrowing from History, to build imaginary worlds, stories and inspire different generations. Some artistic approaches have so many historical stakes that they oscillate between fiction and documentary. This is the case of the practice of the visual artists Emkal Eyong’akpa (Cameroon) and Sammy Baloji (DR Congo), who compose metaphors inspired by archives and question the meaning of History, or at least suggest another reading and reinterpretation of it.

The writer Felwine Sarr called this kind of practice, in one of the first sessions of the doctoral school of the Ateliers de la Pensée in Dakar in 2019, the “epistemology of the sensible”, evoking the possibility for art as the seat of emotion, to constitute a field of knowledge within which a noble quest, that of the elevation of the human being, would develop in a very clear-sighted way. Indeed, the artist aspires to a better world and his works, whether we like it or not, are a reflection of it. He is certainly often utopian and ambitious, but he is nevertheless sincere, dreaming of a fantasised and idealised world, where peace, love and universal brotherhood reign.

“It doesn’t matter now if we are killed, the nights will fall one by one. » [3]

Louis Aragon

Within several communities, where it was thought that the flame of independence would light up the way, structural chaos continues to rule. The African man remains under the yoke of dominant and oppressive forces, a victim of his own ignorance, of his own social awkwardness (by which he constantly wishes to be spared); of his discomfort in the face of modernity that he has too quickly embraced and which is embracing him. All too often unaware of his prestigious pre-colonial past, where socio-cultural codes were established by himself, he behaves as if life in Africa had never existed before the arrival of the coloniser. He denies his own self almost as many times as he expires. There is even a kind of refusal on his part to really take matters in his own hand, in an act of self negation, giving up or delegating his intellectual, political, cultural or religious agency – it depends.

This is highlighted in this reading note by Elieth P. Eyebiyi, on Professor Achille Mbembe’s essay, Sortir de la grande nuit:

“Africa remains a lifeless collection of peoples, far from having reached the awaited shores of freedom and progress. The coloniser has gone but remains present everywhere and in everything, and African politicians seem to have made the best out of an ambiguous situation that handicaps their peoples. The intellectuals, for their part, have not succeeded in overcoming the chaos, contenting themselves with a mere sprinkling: democracy is put into practice without democratic thought, the idea of a radical social revolution has faded, the “negro” powers are becoming known for their senility, the desire to leave has become engrained in the hearts of most and the institutionalisation of racketeering is completing the bedrock of a systematic policy of plunder. »[4]

In the same note, Isidore Kpotufe, head of the Francophone Project of the think tank Imani Ghana, also claim that African intellectuals should play a greater role in what is hoped for democracy in Africa: that it truly liberates speech, and that it favours the emancipation of peoples; and that it ceases to be an accumulation of sophisms and hollow criticism, so that it can contribute to the broadening of the political debate, while placing itself at the service of endogenous development. It should stop being satisfied by only feeding the interests of those who say they want democracy. In this regard, he notes that:

“In the past, many African intellectuals have often, either out of ethnic affinity or for financial reasons, put themselves at the service of dictatorships. Many of them were advisors to tyrants and were the organic intellectuals of the despotic regimes of the continent. And when, they had to exercise power directly, like Laurent Gbagbo, they installed corrupt regimes that sought to eliminate freedom and proved worse than the authoritarian regimes they had fought. » [5]

Picasso stated in 1935 that “art is not only made to decorate flats”[6]. In fact, art plays an important role in the liberation of peoples and spirits, and the Laboratoire Kontempo is part of this line of thought – stemming from Kinshasa, in order to give momentum to this dynamic dear to the authors mentioned above and to encourage the renewal of African society.

Conflicts: between exoticism, partagisme[7] and pan-Africanism

The Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, is one of the most important centres of aesthetic production in the broadest sense of the term in sub-Saharan (French-speaking) Africa. With a surface area of 2.345 million km2, and its capital Kinshasa which has 9965 km2 (compared to 100 km2 for Brazzaville, its sister city on the other side of the river), it is a real geographical mastodon on the continental chessboard. “Kin la belle”, shouts the young artist Damso, who praises the city. The origin of the name Zaire derives from the name Nzadi, which, in one of the dialects of the Kongo river kingdom, means “river”. The name Nzadi was given as an answer by the natives to the Portuguese explorers, trying in the 15th century to identify the territory in which they found themselves.

The latter, not being able to pronounce Nzadi, decreed that the territory would be called Zaire[8]. The name thus derives from an error of pronunciation, an incapacity or a misunderstanding of the other’s language. It could also be seen as a refusal to adapt to this new context, which operates according to its own codes.

“The description of the world is colonial!”, claimed Mbembe during the doctoral school session of the Ateliers de la Pensée de Dakar in 2019. This anecdote reminds us how, in that distant era, a certain geographical exoticism already existed. This exoticism was reinforced by the constant desire to master everything, to name everything and to situate everything, sometimes in a clumsy way. 

All this reminds us how much Africa is indeed a colonial invention. This invention places us in an imaginary place of our own history, where we are only involved as guinea pigs. This is how crises and other deformities appeared: “Social problems were born out of colonial silences”[9], says Oxmo Puccino, whose real name is Abdoulaye Diarra, a Malian rapper living in France. This is also how misunderstandings, frustrations and all the inner resentments were born. These push the enlightened modern African into a constant revolutionary attitude. This does not necessarily please those who are irritated by Africa’s progress.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is therefore no exception to this reality or order. As Africans, we have been dispossessed of what is most dear to us: our parents, our land, our cultures, our beliefs, etc. We have been dispossessed of the things that we hold most dear. These human or material elements, now modified (like GMOs), have sometimes been used without our knowledge or against our will, to produce meaning in the interest of the other. The former Zaire is a clear example of this phenomenon, as is Cameroon. This country apparently inherited its name from a funny episode. When explorers discovered, towards the end of the 16th century, this territory and in it a river abundant in shrimp, Fernando Po, the leader of the expedition, decided to call it Camarao (shrimp in Portuguese) or Rio dos Camaroes (the shrimp river) [10]. From Rio dos Camaroes to Cameroon, the analogy was quickly established.

Today, this history repeats itself, and the English-speaking crisis in the North-West and South-West of the country revive urban legends where Cameroon is presented as a shrimp dish served to France, for example. These metaphors question the interdependence and subalternity that govern relations between states. Coloniality has not said its last words.

[1] Ateliers de la pensée, In Mbembe, A., & In Sarr, F. (2017). Écrire l’Afrique-monde: Ateliers de la pensée, Dakar and Saint-Louis, Senegal, 2016.

[2] Popular song of the 60s, interpreted by the Congolese artist Grand Kallé, accompanied by his group African Jazz.

[3] Aragon, L. (1956). “Je chante pour passer le temps”. In Le Roman inachevé. Paris: Gallimard.

[4] Eyebiyi E. (2010). “Achille Mbembe, Sortir de la grande nuit. Essai sur l’Afrique décolonisée”. In Lectures, Reviews.

[5] Kpotufe I. (2014). “Quel rôle pour les intellectuels dans la démocratie en Afrique?”. In Contrepoints.

[6] Féchuret M. (2016). “La peinture est un instrument de guerre offensive et défensive”. In Gazette Debout.

[7] Partagisme is an artistic current in Kinshasa in which artists create collective works.

[8] Dridjo. (2007). “The origin of words: Zaire”. In Espace Dridjo.

[9] Puccino Oxmo. (2019). “Le droit de chanter”. In the album La nuit du réveil.

[10] “L’histoire du Cameroun”. In Imago Mundi.

Landry Mbassi
Landry Mbassi

Landry Mbassi is a curator and art critic. He has temporarily put his artistic practice (photography, video installation, documentary film) aside to devote himself fully to writing and curating.
His curatorial research focuses on identity, memory, the question of aesthetics in contemporary art on the continent, urbanity, the relationship between art and the market, migratory movements, and the question of Black diasporas (among others). He has been the artistic director of RAVY (Rencontres d’Arts Visuels de Yaoundé) since 2018 and has been the general curator of the same event since 2014. He is also the Artistic Director of Douala Art Fair, the first ever contemporary art and design fair in Douala, whose first edition was held in June 2018, and he was then chosen to curate the first edition of the Ruinart Festiv’art in October 2019. The same year, he was the guest curator of the 8th edition of the RIAC (Rencontre internationale d’art contemporain) in Brazzaville. As an art critic, Landry has written for IAM – Intense Art Magazine, Afrikadaa, SWAG and was a visual arts columnist for Mosaïques, Cameroon’s arts and culture magazine. He lives between Yaoundé and elsewhere.