Showcasing Congolese Art ; in Paris, 'Beaute Congo' Features 90 Years of Work Rarely Seen outside Africa

By Donadio, Rachel | International New York Times, July 28, 2015 | Go to article overview

Showcasing Congolese Art ; in Paris, 'Beaute Congo' Features 90 Years of Work Rarely Seen outside Africa


Donadio, Rachel, International New York Times


The Fondation Cartier in Paris presents "Beaute Congo," a survey of work from 1926 to 2015 that offers a window into a dynamic artistic scene not often showcased in Western museums.

The art practically leaps off the walls. A striking painting of President Obama, Nelson Mandela and Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese leader who was assassinated in 1961. Luscious black-and-white photographs of 1950s night life in Leopoldville, now Kinshasa. Whimsical watercolors from the 1930s.

These are among 350 works by 41 artists in "Beaute Congo," an electric, eye-opening survey of art from Congo from 1926 to 2015 at the Cartier Foundation here that offers a window into a dynamic art scene not often showcased in Western museums.

"We wanted to create a narrative that reintroduces these exceptional artists into the history of art," said Andre Magnin, a boisterous Frenchman who curated the show. He has traveled to Congo for decades, cultivating relationships with some of the artists featured as well as buying work on behalf of a major collector. "We wanted to show the broader public exceptional works from a continent where the television only presents dark, disastrous images of war and illness," he added.

Mr. Magnin said the survey was intended as a "political and historical" gesture that sought to disprove the common misconception that art in Africa had skipped several generations from the traditional works of the past to those made after many African countries became independent of their European colonizers. (Belgian colonial rule in Congo ended in 1960.) Although much of this show is dedicated to contemporary artists like Cheri Samba, who painted the image of world leaders, the earliest works here have rarely been shown in such numbers, and the exhibition makes a strong case for the continuity of rich artistic production over the last century.

"Beaute Congo," which runs through Nov. 15, begins in the 1920s, when the husband-and-wife painters Albert and Antoinette Lubaki and the artist known as Djilatendo moved from decorating traditional huts to creating works on paper at the request of a Belgian colonial administrator. The Lubakis' watercolors, often of animals or leaves, fall somewhere between realism and fantasy, while Djilatendo's geometric patterns hover between traditionalism and modernism. The show fills all of the exhibition space at the foundation, which is housed in a glass box designed by Jean Nouvel.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, work by the Lubakis was shown in important museums and galleries in Europe. Djilatendo was represented in an exhibition in Brussels along with Magritte. But after 1935 and a fight between curators, they stopped producing and were eventually lost to history. Mr. Magnin said he went in search of their work after learning about it in a book he stumbled upon in 1989 in Zaire, as the country was then called. (It is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.)

"Beaute Congo" also showcases the artists who participated between 1946 and 1954 in an academy "for popular indigenous art," as the catalog puts it, started by a former French Navy officer and artist, Pierre Romain-Desfosses. They include vibrant, naturalistic underwater scenes of fish and of birds in trees from the 1950s by the artist known as Bela, who worked as a night guard for Romain- Desfosses before taking up painting, which he did with his fingertips, without a brush.

In the 1950s, the photographer Jean Depara, born in 1928, captured a moment in Leopoldville, where rumba was all the rage and ladies of the night wore cocktail dresses. His images, in rich silver gelatin prints, recall those by the Malian photographers Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe, but unlike Mali, Congo isn't a Muslim country, and its night life is racier.

Various works in the show are dedicated to the "Rumble in the Jungle," the politically charged 1974 boxing match in Kinshasa in which Muhammad Ali defeated George Foreman, a moment of black pride in a newly liberated country. …

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