“It’s the first time that Bozar presents Congolese art, and the link between Congo and Belgium. It impresses me a lot.”—Saidou, museum guard
Like Saidou, this exhibit and its presentation in such a large venue as Bozar impressed me. Let me tell you why.
Outpacing school history lessons
A few days before the inauguration of the exhibit, Le Soir published an article that stirred my curiosity and sparked controversy online. It spoke of the lack of colonial and post-colonial lessons in Belgian education and, most importantly, the impact this has on African diasporas in Belgium and also, the “belgo-belges”. The rich and complex Belgo-Congolese history itself hasn’t squeezed its way into schools yet, generating taboos and discomfort within Congolese or Belgo-Congolese communities in Belgium.
In my view, the exhibit outpaced school texts. Through the eyes of Congolese artists, we see what they experienced and perceived of their country’s history. Even though the paintings are colorful, playful and, sometimes, look carefree, they are also symbol-laden. From an idealized rural life to graphic images of the colony’s economic system, religious metaphors and important political events, the painters depict the country’s collective memory for Bozar’s visitors to see.
And yes, the allegedly simplicity of the paintings can be misleading. So misleading in fact that a second-time visitor and art curator confessed her perplexity to me: “I got confused with the painting eras: were they contemporary or painted in retrospective?” Actually, you’ll find that these art works date from 1968 to 2012 and simultaneously portray the artists’ perception of the country’s past and current realities, which is not always clearly contextualized in the visit.
From the people to the people
The down-to-earth nature of the paintings is the second striking aspect of the exhibit. In Brussels, you will find plentiful art galleries and antique stores showing glossy African art, such as impressive 2-foot-long masks and sophisticated statuettes. Here, we take another perspective.
“We could see popular painting, meaning paintings from the people to regular people. And I could instantly recognize everyday scenes and atmospheres from Congo,” – Elozi, founder of the association Des livres sur les pirogues, tells me.
The painters are not constrained by academic codes and rules; they express raw vision, feelings and humor, on the material they could use at that time. It’s why you’ll see comic strip formats, colorful scenes and large busy paintings with a multitude of characters that people can quickly grasp.
Chéri Samba, who invented the term popular painting, puts it best:
We make so-called popular paintings. This word, popular, I was the one who wanted it. When they spoke of us, people used to call us naïve, a word that didn’t suit me. By “popular,” I mean something that we picked up, that has not been studied, within anyone’s reach, commonplace. When thinking of “popular,” I mean that it is something from people to people, because they can understand it.
Leaving the exhibit, I felt relieved. Relieved knowing that art opens doors to dialogue and breaks taboos in our society. Relieved that regular people, with modest tools, can showcase their art to a wide audience. Also, relieved seeing a variety of visitors at the museum: families, curators, teens, of all shapes and sizes. Art truly contains a federative power.
The exhibit is a foretaste of the renovation at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, who owns the collection. The museum was heavily criticized for maintaining an old-fashioned and paternalistic narrative on Belgo-Congolese history. With artist Sammy Bajoli and anthropologist Bambi Ceuppens as curators, the narrative has begun to change. Soon enough, we’ll see a more nuanced Belgo-Congolese story in art and education, that will give rise to a collective unconscious 2.0.
And you, what are your views? Let’s start the dialogue.
Where: Bozar/Center for fine arts rue Ravensteinstraat 23. The ticket counter is on the other side of the street.
Until when: 22 January 2017
Fee: €10, €8 for under 26, €2 on Wednesdays.
ENG: Explanatory texts throughout the exhibit are available in English, French, Dutch
Featured photo: Fight of Mobutu, Chéri Chérin, 2004