A look back at the Beauté Congo exhibition in Paris

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Hangar School, Beauté Congo
Hangar School, Beauté Congo

Contemporary African Art is booming and 2015 was a year to remember. From the successful second edition of  1:54 Art fair in London to the “Kongo, Power and Majesty” exhibition in New York, it was clear that Contemporary African Art had burst onto the International scene and was gaining an overdue recognition.

One of the most successful African Art exhibitions last year was “Beauté Congo 1926 – 1915” at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. Its success was a testament to the global interest for this artistic style at the time when Auction houses had recorded the highest level of activity to date, for African Art.

It would be misleading however to put the success of this exhibition solely down to a newfound love for African Art for this, was a landmark exhibition. It was a discovery journey of the creative works by the Congolese artists of the last century; and the numbers were staggering: over 350 artworks by 41 artists over 90 years.

This vast retrospective was curated by Andre Magnin, a seasoned African Art dealer, who is among a select few, knowledgeable enough, to gather these various paintings and art works that were mostly, part of private collections and had not been seen before.

Travelling down the Congolese Art history lane, I wanted to start this journey at the beginning: with the early works of the couple Albert and Antoinette Lubaki and the painter Djilatendo. There were faded pictures of the houses they used to paint, before the Belgian administrator Georges Thiry, provided them with the Art paper and other materials that made their art accessible to others.

The next eminent painters to emerge in the mid forties were Bela Sara, Pilipili Mulongoy and Mwenze Kibwanga. Each one of them had developed a very distinctive style while attending The Hangar Studio funded by Pierre Romain-Desfossés, a French Painter.

Untitled Painting by Pilipili Mulongoy
Untitled, 1955 by Pilipili Mulongoy

By the sixties, the independence wind has been blowing all over the African Continent. The freedom and excitement in Congo was palpable in the pictures and the paintings of that period; from the lovers kissing to the precursors of the sapeurs showing off their dance moves or the painting of a busy nightlife in Kinshasa.

2011 Painting by Chéri Chérin

Over time, the artists through their pictures, paintings and music became witnesses, depicting not only the joy of independence, but also the woes facing their young country: corruption, immigration and their dreams for the future.

The contemporary painters like Chéri Chéri, Chéri Chérin and JP Mika developed the distinctive and flamboyant “Popular Style”. Their intention was always clear, making sure that other witnesses, people looking at their paintings, would connect with them and understand their message, and would also challenge their perception of the world.

Beauté Congo, JP Mika
Beauté Congo, JP Mika

Beauty is not necessarily a word you often associate with Congo, a country located in the heart of Africa, which made the headlines for all the wrong reasons in the last decades. Yet, throughout the exhibition, beauty was what connected each artistic section to the next one: from the precursors to the contemporary Popular Artists and those following in their footsteps like Steve Bandoma.

The exhibition unveiled a vibrant art scene in Congo that few knew existed. It challenged the old perception of African Art. It made African Art accessible to a larger number of people who can all now bear witness to the beauty of the African artistic scene. Ultimately, the exhibition offered a fragment of African Art History Lesson that will stay with us for a long time to come.

Team Obatala

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