Mukenge/Schellhammer: “Au-delà de la pitié”
Video/Animation, Kinshasa 2020
“Beyond pity” is a reflection on the imaginations of foreigners towards Kinshasa and its inhabitants. They take a stand against certain existing norms of representation of pity and poverty, towards artists in third world countries. The construction of otherness reflects a hierarchical position: far from apprehending the other, the construction of one’s otherness serves to construct oneself and to justify one’s own conceptions of the world. On the other hand, when we look at emerging artists or artists coming from third world countries, a feeling of pity is automatically constructed. In this video, the duo goes beyond pity and takes a stand: pity is based on a kind of arrogance that is not found in compassion. Compassion implies a feeling of shared humanity, beyond any social consideration, and is therefore morally superior to pity.
Mukenge/Schellhammer: “Your exoticism is my daily bread”
Video/urban intervention, Kinshasa 2020
The word exotic refers to that which is foreign or external to the subject, and therefore touches on the image of the other, the imagination, stereotypes and standards of representation. Many thinkers have wondered about images of the other, stereotypes, and norms, which are ways of denying reality. The construction of otherness reflects a hierarchical position: far from apprehending the other, the construction of someone’s otherness serves to construct one’s self and to justify one’s own conceptions of the world. Through a reversal of points of view, this series of photos and videos is inspired by hijacking strategies of stereotyped images, to deconstruct the dynamics of power and hierarchies resulting from the Western imaginary construct of an elsewhere
Mega Mingiedi Tunga : “Post-Postcolonial” Drawing on paper papier, 80 x 100 cm, Kinshasa 2020
In a future-oriented logic, Mega Mingiedi offers a vision that goes ahead in time. He skips the concept that is currently widely used, that of the postcolonial, to speak of the “post-postcolonial”. His vision stems from a need to render obsolete this notion which haunts almost all current discourse on the African continent and its diaspora. Within this theoretical and acrobatic intellectual framework, the artist has taken the Congolese civil servant as a model in order to have a glimpse of his future in this post-postcolonial logic. He therefore imagines a civil servant freed from the colonial and postcolonial weight, and rather focused on a decolonised and ‘de-post-colonised’ future.
From laboratory to Laboratory
“Laboratoire Kontempo” (Kontempo Laboratory)
I must say that I liked the name of the project at first. Then it intrigued me and finally swallowed me up. Yes, I suddenly got sucked in by the load of ideas and representations that come with the word. “Laboratory”. It is an important term, I think, even more so in recent months. Seen from Europe, the word is perfectly suited to this period when the lexicon of everybody seems to revolve around terms such as “vaccine”, “infection”, “protection”, “immunity” or “contamination”. D. Trump and B. Johnson were surprised themselves by the virus infection, finding themselves stuck in their sanitised West. The West that considers itself to be the North and calls the rest of the world South. The West that, satisfied with its constantly renewed modernity, ”encourages” this South to follow it in its never-ending race. The West that “without wanting to be provocative” proposes to test different potions on the black bodies of the area it calls South. The West that has made a large part of the world, particularly Africa, an open-air laboratory…
A laboratory in which the first tests of the “capitalist” project were carried out on black bodies and black lands, and where the conquerors initiated a process of savagery. Conquering first the territory by objectifying and enslaving beings. Enslaving by mastering beliefs and knowledges. Becoming masters by inventing the savages. Because carrying a savage side in themselves alone was unbearable. Savagery had to be extracted to be seen artificially in these people, reduced to objects and working tools. Was there a kind of projection? Was this the only way to bear the heavy and dark weight of the necessity of violence for the enterprises of slavery and colonialism?
“And I say that between colonization and civilization there is an infinite distance.(…) Colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism (…) poison has been distilled into the veins of Europe and, slowly but surely, the continent proceeds toward savagery. ” Aimé Césaire (Discourses on Colonialism)
The laboratory did not disappear with the end of colonisation. It became even more inventive and ingenious. Indeed, it was necessary to test the new potions and the other formulas which in post-colonial times are as profitable as during colonial times. So what would be the way to maintain this famous South-North flow? How can the North then keep on accumulating until it suffocates and reaches disgust? The tools of debt and aid seem to be the right ones: in order to make the “ex-colonised” people believe, with the complicity of a local bourgeois class, that they should aim towards a Western road of modernity, which is a rocky one.
In an underdeveloped country an authentic national middle class ought to consider as its bounden duty to betray the calling fate has marked out for it, and to put itself to school with the people: in other words to put at the people’s disposal the intellectual and technical capital that it has snatched when going through the colonial universities. But unhappily we shall see that very often the national middle class does not follow this heroic, positive, fruitful, and just path; rather, it disappears with its soul set at peace into the shocking ways—shocking because anti-national of a traditional bourgeoisie, of a bourgeoisie which is stupidly, contemptibly, cynically bourgeois. “Frantz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth).
Mega Mingiedi, in his work entitled “New Civil Servant”, makes us enter into the crazy and amazed gaze of a character traversed by the imaginary cartography of Kinshasa. Caught up in the world of administration, this civil servant drawn in pencil, prays for reform and imagines it in a coded language invented by the artist. For even in a world as regulated as that of public administration, governed by a bourgeoisie stupidly bourgeois, only imagination can save this system, which crushes lives and hope. Imagination is nourished by the soil of traditional Kuba motifs and by the urban architecture inherited from colonisation which, despite its symbolic and physical presence, is transformed daily by the city’s inhabitants. This complex interweaving of colonial heritage and of local constructions forms the landscape from which this civil servant invents the utopia of an administration at the service of its population and whose workers would be properly treated in exchange for their good and loyal services. It doesn’t really sound like a utopia. Or at least, it is the kind of utopia which, even if it has its roots in reality, could take us to places of the imagination never before imagined. In fact, it is as if the utopia of this civil servant was boiling in his brain and driving him mad, partly because it mirrors a reality, which too often, imposes itself in the imagination of the ex-colonised: the Western reality.
Let’s not even talk about Western reality any more and let’s rather use the term Western fantasy. The more than ever unbalanced North-South relations also find refuge in the imagination of the “ex-colonised” but also in the one of the “ex-colonisers”. Caught up in the shock of the “encounter”, just like political relations, the relations between the individuals of the two groups are marked by the flow and circulation of interests and supposedly good intentions.
“Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go send your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child”
Rudyard Kipling (The White Man’s Burden)
In the film “Your exoticism is my daily bread”, artists Lydia Schellhammer and Christ Mukenge highlight one of the ways in which Western aid to the African continent shapes the interpersonal relationships of individuals. Indeed, the intimate sphere is not spared by Western fantasy that wants the white man to help black people. The fact that white men support black people seems to be a truth that many still believe. This truth is undermined in an intimate scene of a conversation between a hairdresser from Kinshasa and his client, in which the client admits often pretending that the help offered is indispensable to her well-being, in order to get what she wants. Dealing with what some might call manipulation in this artistic context is an interesting twist. Indeed, it reminds us how the administration of the Belgian Congo made an effort to penetrate the intimacy of Congolese people, who desired a better life and were forced to imitate the coloniser, hoping to receive the famous title of evolved, and thus gain access to what seemed to represent a dignified life. This link between intimacy and power relations is solid, and persists even today in a context where the fantasy of aid lives in the imagination.
The laboratory is also the one of the people of Kinshasa. Kinshasa, a megalopolis constantly reinventing itself, and with an incredible plasticity where artists (and even non-artists) integrate utopia directly into reality. Utopia is defined as “a creation of the imagination that feeds off reality”. The result of the project by artist Sinzo Aanza, which mixes photography and collage, is in my opinion a tribute to what the inhabitants of Kinshasa are capable of creating, to the point of cohabiting with utopia. The distance between the real and the imaginary shrinks until they both merge. Thus, in the photographs he took of four important crossroads in the city of Kinshasa, he integrated elements of the late sculptor Bodys Isek Kingelez’s models. In an interview given in 1995 to the Fondation Cartier on the occasion of his solo exhibition, Kingelez expressed his absolute and irrepressible need to carve and create within matter. This need is extended to the attention paid to the tiniest details and to the complexity of his structures, architectural structures inspired by the Belgian art deco tradition, as well as the ambitious Congolese architecture of the post-independence period. By integrating fragments of works by Bodys Isek Kingelez in his photographs of the city, Sinzo Aanza gives us the opportunity to think of the city as a breeding ground from which utopia can arise. It also allows us to imagine the urban territory as part of utopia, and utopia as part of the urban territory, and thus indicates a certain way of becoming one with it. In addition to that, his photographs, with their particular perspective, give an impression of infinity to the urban landscape. It is as if, despite the density of the city, there is still space to move forward, as if nothing ends, as if everything is going on. In a discussion, he indeed refers to languages such as Lingala, Swahili or Kinande, which are languages that never fall and which seem to integrate more of a three dot punctuation in their rhythm, rather than final and decisive points…
“The thought of errantry is not the thought of dispersion, but the thought of our rallying, by which we migrate from the absolutes of Being to the variables of Relation, where the being is revealed, the indistinction of essence and substance, of immoderation and movement. Errantry is not a colonial exploration or abandonment to wanderings. It knows how to be immobile, and how to carry away. With the thought of errantry, we refuse the unique roots that kill around them: the thought of errantry is one of solidary uprooting and rhizome-like roots. Against the diseases of the single root identity, it is the infinite conductor of identity in relation. Errantry is the place of repetition, arranging the infinite variations that each time distinguish this same repetition as a moment of knowledge. “Edouard Glissant (Philosophy of Relation)
It is important when talking about the artistic laboratory of Kinshasa to evoke performance art. Like the artistic works previously mentioned, the performance in its intention and execution in Kinshasa makes us reflect on how to become one with utopia starting from elements of reality. Whether in the sculptures of Kingelez or in the costumes made by the performers of Kinshasa collectives such as Eza Possible or Kongo Astronaute – creation and imagination take root in the realities, sometimes dark and challenging, that the country and the world as a whole have to offer. But they are anchored in life and impose themselves in the public space, reminding us that everything is mobile and that nothing is definitive. In a time when monuments that bear witness to the history of colonisation and slavery are threatened to be unmounted, making a monument out the performers movement and of the artists utopia could constitute the care these spaces need .
Let us perhaps finish this paper by conceding that art and artists are no different from others because they are in Africa. Toma Muteba Luntumbue expressed this idea in part in an interview with Africultures on the occasion of the “Transfers” exhibition shown at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 2003: “Art is not a space that should remain untouched, it is not an immaculate terrain free of waste. It is a human territory, where transfers take place just as in other fields, except that it gives the possibility to ask questions. The luxury of art is not to sell, it is to be able to bring questions to a society that no longer wants to ask itself questions. Art in general is therefore not a space empty of interactions (positive or negative) with the rest of the world, nor is the artistic activity practiced on the African continent.”