When a painting turns a young Congolese artist into a refugee

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Marionette, 2019 Jonathan Vatunga
Marionette, 2019 Jonathan Vatunga

The acclaimed exhibition Beaute Congo staged at the Fondation Cartier in Paris in 2015 drew international attention to the buoyant Congolese artistic scene. Ever since, older artists such as Chéri Samba and Chéri Cherin have enjoyed a renewed interest in their works, while a younger generation of artists, including the likes of JP Mika (also part of the exhibition) and Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, has taken the Contemporary African Art scene by storm.

Looking back at most of the visual artworks by Congolese artists I have seen at museums and galleries over the last few years, it dawned on me that none was overtly too political or critical of the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Amnesty international had routinely criticised the then president of the DRC, Joseph Kabila, for human rights violations and censorship during his 18 years tenure. His successor, Felix Tshisekedi, was inaugurated in January 2019 after contested elections. According to various reports, the political transition was enabled through an alleged secret power-sharing deal that both men have denied. It has earned Mr. Tshisekedi the unflattering sobriquet of “puppet.”

This tumultuous political backdrop didn’t transpire through the figurative paintings of young Congolese artist, Jonathan Vatunga. At least, not at first. Freshly graduated from Kinshasa’s Academy of Fine Arts, the young painter resorted to the impasto technic to depict the faces of his subjects. He applied paint densely and in thick layers at the centre of the faces, and sparsely towards the periphery, imbuing the close-up portraitures with a sense of fragmented identities. Later, he added elements of collage to his compositions and broadened the scope of his work to broach issues of colonisation, looted African art, and violence. Then came the invitation to partake in the group show “Darkness rising” set to open in December of last year in Cape Town. The exhibition sought to step away from the “biased” vision of the DRC depicted by the media. Instead, the show intended to present the country anew, through the lived experiences and varied perspectives of nine artists.

Taking the new president’s declaration of a new era with greater freedom of expression at face value, Vatunga painted his most political work to date. Marionette (2019) features Mr. Tshisekedi as a baby puppet, held by a hand identified as that of the previous president. It is not the most striking of Vatunga’s paintings. He admitted to “hastily” shipping it to the gallery after his arrest, without finishing it the way he wanted to.

The painting verges on the satirical and lacks the combination of bold aesthetics and subtlety present in the artist’s previous paintings. But that is beside the point. Marionette is probably the reflection of Vatunga’s most fearless artistic expression, a candid personal perspective on Congolese political state of affairs.

Mode ou Moeurs, 2018, Jonathan Vatunga
Mode ou Moeurs, 2018, Jonathan Vatunga

With that painting, he unknowingly yet bluntly stepped beyond invisible boundaries that others may have purposely avoided. In a phone interview, he said, “he wanted to avoid topics other Congolese artists were most likely to address: cobalt,” and the overall miss-management and over-exploitation of their country’s natural resources.

He revealed he was promptly arrested at the police station in October upon displaying a picture of the artwork in order to gain the exit permit then required to ship an artwork abroad. A family member helped him secure his release. However, the respite was short-lived, and an official warrant for “offenses against the security of the State” was issued.

He managed to smuggle the artwork to South Africa in time for the exhibition before heading abroad to seek asylum. At 23 years old, he is assiduously navigating the administrative maze exile has pushed him into.

He is not the first – nor will he be the last – artist threatened for creating a piece of artwork deemed irreverent. Freemuse, in their annual report, “The state of artistic Freedom,” documented 673 cases of infringement on artistic freedom throughout the world in 2018. The report encompasses a wide range of creative expressions from visual art to literature, filmmaking, and music. Specifically, in Africa, the data highlights eleven cases of imprisonment: eight in Egypt alone and one in Malawi, Somalia, and Tunisia, respectively.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is not mentioned in the report, which is not utterly surprising. Considering the sensitive nature of the cases involved, and the threats they entail, it is highly possible that not all instances of infringements on artistic freedom can be duly reported. Vatunga’s case came to my attention because he is a young artist I follow on Instagram.

To take the real measure of the boundaries placed on artistic expression not only by politicians but also by the harsh realities of daily life in Kinshasa, we must turn to the newly released documentary “System K” by filmmaker Renaud Barret. The 90-minute long program gives a raw account of the hectic lives of some artists in Kinshasa. They have spontaneously taken to the streets of Kinshasa to perform, demonstrating a seemingly irrepressible desire to make visible the plights of their society and hold to account those in positions of power. In the documentary, one artist is heard saying, “There is no free press in Kinshasa. Our role is to say these things.” The price to pay becomes evident later when a young man is shown, hauled in a pickup marked “police” surrounded by men in uniforms.

For the time being, Vatunga is safe abroad. He is cautious on the phone, but he recounts his ordeal in a matter of fact tone devoid of self-pity. However, he does admit to having regrets over the painting. “Every second,” he emphatically responds when I ask the question. At the time, he didn’t realise the consequences would be so severe that he would have to face the impossible choice of “either a forced exile or a serious threat of being sentenced to jail.”

Uprooted and miles away from his native country, Jonathan Vatunga is starting all over again. He is facing an uncertain future, and a series of other challenges few will have to deal with in their lifetimes, let alone at 23 years of age. His words poignantly reminded me of the poem “Home” by British-Somali author Warsan Shire. It concludes with these haunting words,

“no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here”.

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