Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, connecting the dots between the past and the present.

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Fragile1 , Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, 2018,
Fragile 1 , Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, 2018, Courtesy of October Gallery

By the time artist Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga’s second solo show “Fragile Responsibility” opened at the October Gallery on Wednesday 9th May, it was nearly sold out. Two years after a group show at the Armory Show and a first solo exhibition in London, the enthusiasm of the art world for his work, has shown no signs of abating. It culminated with a new record at Sotheby’s’ last African Art Auction in March when Mangbetu, one of his 2014 paintings, sold for £65,000, over five times the highest estimate.

In a style that is uniquely his, he creates large-scale figurative paintings depicting characters in striking poses with circuit board like skin texture, draped in flamboyant African print fabric. On closer inspection of the artworks, the extreme precision of the patterns, the impressive volume in the folds of the drapes, obtained with oil paint applied specifically in those areas, (he otherwise uses acrylic for the remaining part of the painting) are all the more remarkable.

It is impossible not to be drawn to these superb and aesthetically pleasing paintings. Having seen Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga’s remarkable first series of work, Mangbetu, in 2016, I knew his work encapsulated layer upon layer of meaning. So I met him at the October Gallery a few days after the preview, to unlock the keys to this latest series of paintings.

Painting Fragile 3, Eddy Kamuanga Illunga, 2018.
Fragile 3, Eddy Kamuanga Illunga, 2018. Courtesy of October Gallery

The eight paintings of “Fragile Responsibility” are a visual deconstruction of the past dominant narratives of the slave trade in the artist’s native Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He depicts vividly what is left behind: sheer human devastation. The project has been in the making for about a year and a half and started with a shocking discovery: the use of Toby Jugs and porcelain exhibited at the Turveren museum (in Belgium), as a form of currency during the slave trade. While he knew that other objects such as beads were used, he was shocked to find out that porcelain, thus far, an innocuous identifier of certain social status, had played such a pivotal role in the slave trade; that only highlighted how little is still known of the history of slavery. His research took him to the village of Mbutu Ki Niati in the Kongo Central Province where he won over some people and convinced them to share their knowledge of these dark pages of history.

After some traditional rituals to ask for their ancestors’ blessing, one of the villagers, Papa Kumbulasa August, who was interviewed in the exhibition’s accompanying film, explained how the Kings and local chiefs were tricked to believe that the porcelain and jugs were effectively receptacles of power. They were meant to enable the Kings to combine their ancestral power with that of “the white men.” The film goes on to uncover the hidden layers of spirituality and beliefs that have been used devastatingly to enable the slave trade.

The period porcelain and Toby Jugs have made the circular trip from DRC back to England where some were originally made. Others were made in Belgium. And it is poignant to see these objects imbued with so much history, displayed alongside the paintings. While it seems gullible in contemporary secular England to believe that an object can have a certain mystical power, back then, in African traditional societies, objects had frequently been used as a medium between the two worlds: the material one and the invisible one. That an object could be a vessel of power would not have been inconceivable in that context. And the Kings and local chiefs, in a quest for higher power, traded in slaves for porcelain and Toby Jugs.

In the interview “Papa Kumbulasa August” also spoke of the forced enrollment at churches that demonized their traditional belief systems and set forth the forced march towards modernisation. From one painting to the next, the characters that inhabit “Fragile Responsibility” have embraced modernity. It has perniciously invaded all aspects of their lives and turned their skin into the surface of a microchip. From the nail polish to the hats, from the beautiful clothing to the nice decor, they are stylishly dressed, but all they exude is sorrow.

Quote by Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga

None of the paintings of “Fragile Responsibility” has been exhibited in DRC yet. Considering their historical dimension and the way in which the paintings pay homage to the victims of the slave trade, the artist would like to show them not only in his native country but also in “South America, Brazil, Argentina, and Haiti.”

Kamuanga Ilunga’s words reminded me of the way the American Novelist James Balwin defined an artist: “a sort of emotional or spiritual historian.” So I asked him about the role of artists today. Artists, He said, “are very important for a society, a country and generally speaking for humanity.” What he loves about art is “its ability to encompass other fields and subjects” such as science for example. For now, he appears to bear witness to the wrongdoings of the past. His work is unearthing buried stories of the past; a past that he represents in various shades of grey background in his paintings to express how confused and unclear it remains. “I am simply looking at the past, a past that has been written about with a lot of lies, a past that I cannot fully grasp, a past that is grey to me.”

The myth of the savages being rescued and civilised is one that the artist is subtly tackling through the series. It features a broad stripe of ideograms that runs through all the eight paintings. The ideograms represent the system of knowledge and communication that was prevalent in the pre-colonial society in DRC. They are thought to include rules regulating various aspects of social and political life, from “justice” to “reconciliation” and to “development.” Beyond DRC, in other parts of Africa, there were other traditional, well-structured societies with their distinctive and elaborate communication codes. Nigerian Artist Victor Ekpuk references extensively, ancient Nsibidi symbols in his work. But contrary to Nigeria where a restrictive number of people, initiated into a secret society, still understand part of the ideograms, in DRC, everything has been wiped out by slavery and colonisation.

Painting Oubliez le passé et vous perdez les deux yeux, Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, 2016
Oubliez le passé et vous perdez les deux yeux, Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, 2016

Cultural cleansing is a theme that Kamuanga Ilunga explored in-depth in the 2014 series Mangbetu. The Mangbetu were a tribe of proud warriors who emigrated from current day Sudan to Congo around the 15th century. They were renowned for their elaborated craftsmanship and their sense of artistry. They resisted colonisation the most and were ruthlessly crushed, with their unique cultural practices prohibited. The wrapping of newborn’s heads that mold them into the tribes’ distinguishing elongated shapes was banned. As they were portrayed as backward and faded into cultural irrelevance, their name emerged as a modern-day insult.

The new cultural order was underpinned by relentless economic exploitation. The Mangbetu were displaced, their land confiscated and turned into cotton fields; the raw materials for what will later be called the wax prints. The colourful African prints, ironically so viscerally attached to African identity today, have been a powerful industrial tool in the continent’s subjugation. Their presence on the paintings alludes to the role that textile and other industries played as cogs in an overall system of oppression.

What both series point to is the way in which, the drastic loss of identity that formed the basis of an amnesiac society, still reverberates in the country today. It has turned the black body into a metaphorical territory of exploitation; an exploitation that continues today with Asian countries. What is increasingly looking like the second wave of “The scramble for Africa,” has left ordinary Congolese worse off.

The paintings are sublime, yet the stories they convey are harrowing, with despair almost palpable. I wonder about that duality and how and why he chose to wrap so much heartache in beauty and make them coexist in the space of artwork. He says he doesn’t like “using shock tactics” and he doesn’t like “abrupt approaches.” Instead, he resorts to deliberate composition and thoughtful and delicate aesthetic options to make people feel comfortable. He wants ultimately to appeal to their “moral responsibility” and leave them “the choice to think,” ponder and act accordingly. That duality, he says, is also a reflection of the life he lives in Kinshasa; “a city that can be very joyful,” “full of life” and simultaneously “chaotic and brutal.”

As to how he preserves his sensitivity and creative drive after a dive into the dark recesses of humanity or rather lack of humanity, he says that following the shock of the discovery, it is the very creative process that “heals” him and allows him to transcend the pain. And in a way, he hopes people who engage with his work experience the same too.

Painting Fragile 8, Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, 2018, Courtesy of October Gallery
Fragile 8, Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, 2018, Courtesy of October Gallery

Fragility 8, the last of the series, features a somewhat different scene than the others. A woman is being offered one of these pieces of porcelain that she unequivocally rejects. She embodies the resilience and the resistance that part of the society showed to their subjugation. In a way, it closes the series that pays homage to the victims of slavery, on a note of hope and resilience.

It seems too early, while the veil has barely been lifted on this new body of work, to talk about the next project. But I couldn’t resist. Kamuanga Ilunga says He doesn’t know yet and also doesn’t like planning all aspects of his work, as he wants to make room for some spontaneity. He remains on his quest to make sense of the past and mentioned other discoveries that may well weave their way onto his canvas next. First, the way the need for sugar that was “almost as precious as diamonds” fuelled the Atlantic trade. Also, he found out that before going to Congo, the Flemish were taught some basic Lingala. (one of the local languages). All the words they were taught fall into two categories: insults and orders. It will be interesting to see how his paintings transcend these binary worlds of humiliation and domination.

In a country “cut off from its roots and its story,” with restricted access to libraries, artists, have a more pre-eminent role to play than ever. Kamuanga Ilunga doesn’t take the role of a preacher, but he certainly seems to embrace that of a torchbearer who is uncompromisingly shining a light on the dark pages of a history that most would rather ignore. His willingness to grapple with difficult subjects, in his singular style, has set him apart at the young age of 27, as a formidable visual storyteller.

Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga has been off the beaten track for a while. He came into contact with the art world at around 5 or 6 years of age when he saw, on the way back from school, a group of local Artists replicating American movie posters. He became fascinated, and it didn’t take long before he started experimenting at home, and drawing everywhere, much to his parents’ chagrin. He enrolled at the Academie of Beaux Arts in Kinshasa but would later drop out as he found the curriculum too “stifling”. He opted instead for the freedom to experiment and hone his own artistic voice. With like-minded young artists, he founded the Mpongo Foundation. While the structure is still in its infancy, one of their objectives is to develop an outreach program that would make art more accessible especially to young children and those living in the most popular areas of Kinshasa. Having grown up himself shielded from the knowledge of the historical events he highlights in his work, this initiative could help turn the tide on the general historical amnesia that is prevalent in the Congo.

One step at a time, one superb painting at a time Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga is connecting his country back to its past in an attempt to exorcise its ghosts and make better sense of the present. I am already looking forward to what he creates next. In the meantime, do not miss the exhibition “Fragile Responsibility.”

Fragile responsibility” at the October Gallery until June 16.

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