Austria’s Kunsthaus Graz presents “Congo Stars”, a comprehensive group show featuring 70 Congolese artists.
Curated by Sammy Baloji, Bambi Ceuppens, Fiston Mwanza Mujila, Günther Holler-Schuster and Barbara Steiner, “Congo Stars” draws inspiration from literature, spirituality and the DRC’s bustling city life.
In the book Tram 83, Lumbumbashi-born and Graz-based author Fiston Mwanza Mujila writes:
Literature deserves pride of place in the shaping of history. It is by way of literature that I can reestablish the truth. I intend to piece together the memory of a country that exists only on paper. To fantasise about the City-State and the Back-Country with a view to exploring collective memory.
Tram 83, Mujila’s debut novel, is a riotous look at the underbelly of life rarely featured in sub-Saharan African literature. Set in a bar in an unnamed Congolese mining town, the book follows poet Lucien and his escapades with a group of writers, drunkards, drug dealers and daydreamers. As they gallivant throughout the city and frequent the notorious club Tram 83, readers get a glimpse at the myriad forms of exploitation and neocolonialism that occur throughout Africa, not only in the author’s native Congo.
Mujila’s work serves as the conceptual starting point for “Congo Stars”, the ongoing exhibition at Kunsthaus Graz Universalmuseum Joanneum in Austria. While based on the (harsh) social reality of Congolese cities, the book describes an imaginary place that could in fact be almost anywhere. Inspired by the book’s location, the exhibition is divided into six segments: “street”, “bar”, “home”, “stars”, “spirituality” and “exploitation”. In each, real and imaginary places and spaces that function as generators of community and identity are entangled and fictionalised.
Featuring 70 artists living between Paris, Brussels, Kinshasa and Lubumbashi, the exhibition’s individual chapters are not separate from one another, but rather form a continuous narrative, being interconnected and consolidated through recurring motifs and themes. Alongside each work of art, a timeline provides information on the history of key events and contextualises the works on display. The accumulation of diverse mediums, namely painting, video, sculpture and installation, are used to create an almost overwhelming density, reminiscent of that in a populous Congolese city.
Running until 27 January 2019, “Congo Stars” features popular artwork produced between the 1960s and today in cooperation with the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Kunsthalle Tübingen, Iwalewahaus and Picha in Lubumbashi. The collaborative effort to host the exhibition at Kunsthaus Graz stems from the sometimes-surprising historical and current relations between Austria and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The press release states that the “connections and interdependencies are multifaceted” and extend from educational programmes in the 1960s to the decades of teaching by two Austrian professors at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Kinshasa. “Congo Stars” thus features important modern and contemporary Congolese artists who exhibited in Graz in the 1990s, amongst the work from three important Austrian collections: The Ethno-Medicine collection, Weltmuseum Vienna, the Horvath Collection for Political Art and the Linz and the Peter Weihs collection, Kukmirn.
The curatorial team emphasises the notion that “Congo Stars” is not a “national exhibition” or even a showcase for the DRC. Like Mujila’s ambiguous novel setting, the group show is a “projection screen” reflecting the imagination and resilience of a dysfunctional state and contested territory in equal measure. It alludes to a series of changing political systems and regimes, not only in regard to the country’s changing names and identities in recent history.
The exhibition’s title, however, is a bit more conclusive, conjuring images of the star in DRC’s flag, despite its fluctuations in design and state doctrine. The title also refers to popular culture, to local and international stars and heroes, and beyond that, to the act of “literally reaching for the stars”. Zaire, the state’s name between 1971 and 1997, was able to afford an ambitious space research programme, sparking many utopian, futuristic-looking representations by artists longing for a “social space that is positively occupied, both territorially and temporally, in an ‘outside’ space”.
Following the chronological narrative in “Congo Stars”, visitors encounter the work of Kinshasa-born photographer Gosette Lubondo, her series An Imaginary Trip (2016) being a particularly breathtaking component in the ambitious exhibition. The piece displays three staged ‘commuters’ (all of which are the artist) inside a dilapidated train car. Staring out of the windows and reading the newspaper, they wait to arrive at a destination that will never be found. Lubondo notes that she finds inspiration in her daily surroundings, in the spatial and individual remnants that make up the place she calls home. She works at the intersection between past and present, old and new, interrogating the memory of “aging sites”. In this series, she offers representations that question mobility from a structural and emotional perspective where rust, old inscriptions, ruins, waiting and silence play central and equal roles. An Imaginary Trip is a testimony to a city’s degradation, its unfurling histories and the “continuous evolution” of human life in transit.
Chéri Samba’s paintings reveal his perception of the social, political, economic and cultural realities of Zaire, exposing all facets of everyday life in Kinshasa. His canvases offer a running commentary on popular customs, sexuality, AIDS and other illnesses, social inequalities and corruption. From the late 1980s on, he, like Lubondo, has became the main subject of his work. For Samba, this is not an act of narcissism, but, rather, like a news anchor, he places himself in his work to report on what it means to be a successful African artist on the world stage.
On view in “Congo Stars” is Samba’s La Marche de soutien pour la campagne contre le SIDA [Support March for the Campaign against AIDS] (2006). As solidarity protesters march with signs stating “AIDS is always here” and “AIDS will only be curable in 10 or 20 years”, Samba calls on his viewers to take preventive measures. The colourful figurative painting, like many in his previous series, combines elements of humour, advertising imagery and famed moral fables in a work that is simultaneously pedagogical and emotional.
Aptly described as a ‘painter reporter’ of city life, Moke was among the leading artists of the school of painting that sprung up in Kinshasa in the first decade of Congo’s independence. He joins the Kunsthaus Graz exhibition with Nganda Moke (1992), another energetic painting detailing the bustling night life of Kinshasa. Packed together in an open-air bar, his figures are at ease, dancing and smiling beneath the colourful hanging lights. More than a painting, the scene emits the boisterous sounds of music, clinking bottles and laughter to the gallery. Street scenes, bars, the local dandies or ‘Sapeurs’ as well as the powerful female Miziki are common motifs in his canvases, bringing to life the vibrantly diverse postcolonial reality described in Mujila’s Tram 83:
Inadvertent musicians and elderly prostitutes and prestidigitators and Pentecostal preachers and students resembling mechanics and doctors conducting diagnoses in nightclubs and young journalists already retired and transvestites and second-foot shoe peddlers and porn film fans and highwaymen and pimps and disbarred lawyers and casual laborers and former transsexuals and polka dancers and pirates of the high seas and seekers of political asylum and organised fraudsters and archeologists…
Like an improvisational jazz solo, the list of characters goes on for another page, describing a place that resembles “the Lascaux Caves” in its darkness, and that was overrun by “all sorts of tribes”. Most important, and weaving throughout “Congo Stars” is the depiction of individuals who are hungry for change and courageous enough to etch out a new future for themselves.
“Congo Stars” is on view from 22 September 2018 to 27 January 2019 at Kunsthaus Graz Universalmuseum Joanneum, Lendkai 1, 8020 Graz, Austria.