????Lukanga, sans titre, nn daté, Huile sur papier, 30 x 41.5 cm, Collection Pierre Loos, Bruxelles, © Lukanga.

When Ghana achieved its independence from Britain in 1957, I was in my stamp-collecting phase, and for me the most important consequence of that momentous event was the issue of garishly multi-colored stamps by the newly independent country to celebrate it. Until then, the stamps of the Gold Coast (as Ghana had been known) were typical of those of all British colonies: a little oval in the right-hand corner with the reigning monarch’s portrait, accompanied by an engraved scene of the territory’s daily life—cocoa-farming, fishing, basket-weaving—or of its flora and fauna. They were either monochrome or, at the most, of two colors, and were objects of a restrained finesse.

I was reminded of all this at the exhibition “Beauté Congo 1926–2015”at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris.1 If the exhibits were representative (and, being totally ignorant of the domain, I have no means of knowing whether they were), independence brought about an immediate change in the aesthetic sensibility of the Congolese who painted, a change analogous to the philatelic change wrought by the independence of Ghana. Before independence Congolese coloration was restrained, after it exuberant; of instinctively good taste before, of instinctively bad afterwards. By good taste I mean, of course, that which coincides with my own.

Before independence, Congolese art owed a great deal to two remarkable and far-sighted men, Georges Thiry, a Belgian colonial official, and Pierre Romain-Desfossés, a former Free French officer and amateur painter who founded an atelier for promising artists known as “le Hangar” in Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi).

In the 1920s, Thiry, an aficionado of modern art as well as an official (a combination difficult to imagine nowadays), noticed the beauty and refined taste with which the exteriors of Congolese houses were often decorated—as did I in my travels in Africa more than half a century later—and wanted to preserve the work from the ravages of time. He provided the decorators with paper and watercolors and set them to work, without in the least prescribing what they should paint.

Djilatendo, Sans titre (c. 1930), Gouache and ink on paper, 24.5 x 18 cm, Musée royal de l’Afrique centrale, Tervuren, HO.0.1.3371, © Djilatendo, Photo © MRAC Tervuren.
Their work had a considerable impact when exhibited in Brussels in the 1920s and 1930s; indeed, Djilatendo’s work was exhibited alongside Magritte’s and Delvaux’s. But they were soon forgotten, and nothing illustrates better the oblivion into which they fell than their biographies in the exhibition catalogue: Ngoma, born about 1900 at Kampene, in the province of Maniema; Paul Mampinda, born about 1895. Compared with this, Keats’s name was writ not in water, but carved in stone of Egyptian-pyramidal proportions.
The artists whom Thiry encouraged had remarkable taste and an exquisite eye for design, form, and color. Naïve art their work might be considered, but it has a transcendent beauty and radiates (and transmits) a love and tenderness for the world it depicts. The stylized forms of the birds, beasts, trees, and insects are the fruit of an intense and loving observation; the creatures share the world with the painters, a world infused with meaning in which everything is mythical and real at the same time. Every color—pastel, never primary—seems just right, as if it could be no other, as in a great poem no word is superfluous and no other word than the one used would be right.

Pierre Romain-Defossés founded his atelier in 1946, encouraging many artists whose work still reflected a pre-urban sensibility dominated by the natural world (less than a fifth of the population of the Congo lived at the time in towns). The jungle, not the urban jungle, was the natural subject of their art, and again the colors are subdued, for though the jungle is vivid it is also dark, or at least not brightly lit. Primary colors are actually secondary, at least in the sociological sense: they emerge with the exponential post-independence urbanization. There are now about as many children living in the streets of Kinshasa, the capital, as there were inhabitants in 1930.

If the exhibition is a true reflection of art in the Congo, there seems to have been a hiatus of ten or fifteen years between independence and the emergence of an art with a completely urban sensibility. Now the colors are brash and bright enough to hurt the eyes, nature has been forgotten, expelled from the mind by the excitements of the city, and the aesthetic is entirely that of popular culture of the 1970s, which was that of platform shoes, bell-bottomed trousers, gaudy shirts, and mirrored sunglasses. It is the aesthetic not of kitsch alone, but of kitsch militant, a programmatic kitsch that brooks no refinement and no competition, in which Las Vegas is taken as the height of human aesthetic accomplishment. The artists proudly proclaim that their art is “of the people,” popular, which effectively puts it beyond the reach of criticism, for nothing that is of the people or popular can be criticized adversely, any such criticism being inherently anti-democratic in spirit. The artists are no longer directing themselves to a couple of old colonials, however enlightened or sympathetic they might have been; they are directing themselves to the people. But as their level of technical accomplishment increases, so the kitschiness, the loss of restraint, the crudity of the palette of their work, becomes more painful to the eye, or at least to my eye.

The triumph of the primary color over the pastel shade, of the bright over the subdued, of kitsch over taste, is not Congolese alone, of course. A small manifestation of this triumph, and perhaps a minor cause of it also, is the universal replacement of E. H. Shepherd’s illustrations of Winnie-the-Pooh by the crude and brightly colored Disney cartoon figures that prepare children permanently to be attracted by the color schemes of McDonald’s restaurants and Toys“R”Us. I have heard it urged in favor of the Disney version of Pooh that it is more immediately attractive to children, as bright things are to magpies, than Shepherd’s: the thought that this is precisely a reason for preferring Shepherd’s is too subversive to be entertained, for children have a right from birth to the vote in all things.

Kiripi Katembo, Tenir, Un regard series (2011), Lightjet, 60 x 90 cm, Collection of the artist, © Kiripi Katembo.
But all is not lost, at least in the Congo. A subsequent generation of artists there has returned to greater subtlety, not by an anachronistic return to a pre-urban world, but by a more oblique approach to their reality. The gouaches of Kura Shomali are impressive in their composition and content. His Général major devant sa troupe, representational but not literal, encapsulates in a single powerful image the ruthlessness and corruption of the war in Central Africa that has cost millions of lives. And a photographer called Kiripi Katembo, who died, alas, earlier this year at the age of thirty-six, had the brilliant idea, in a series of photographs called Un regard, of photographing Kinshasa as reflected in the puddles in the potholes of its muddy and stony roads. The resulting images are strange and disturbing but aesthetically pleasing (because cleverly composed), as well as a profound commentary on the Congolese condition.
By inverting the relationship between the reflection and the reality it reflects, so that the reflection is dominant, the reality being but the reflection of the reflection, as it were, the artist is telling us that the broken-down-ness of the city is what dominates peoples’ lives there, what determines their whole way of life—true, as any visitor to Kinshasa will confirm. And this leads, naturally enough, to reflection, if I may so put it, on the reasons for this state of affairs: none of them at the sacrifice of purely aesthetic considerations.
Not long ago I went to the exhibition of the prize-winning students of the best, or at least most prestigious, art school in France. To say that the exhibition was a pile of rubbish would be to traduce rubbish; I came away angry that the corrupt, and no doubt themselves corrupted, judges had flattered and rewarded such trivial productions, such worthless detritus: accompanied, of course, by texts of grotesque pretentiousness. If pretension were an artistic virtue, ours would be a golden age indeed.

As it is, we have turned ourselves into provincials, and left real work to our former colonies.

1 “Beauté Congo 1926–2015” opened at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, on July 11, 2015 and remains on view through January 10, 2016.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 3, on page 45
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