Writing Art History Since 2002

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A new exhibition, ‘Modern Congo’, presented at Galerie MAGNIN-A, focuses on the two distinct periods of the modern artists (1927-1932) and the so-called “Hangar artists” (1946-1954), forerunners of contemporary painting in Central Africa.

Pilipili Mulongoy, Untitled, Circa 1950. Oil on paper, 34.5 x 50.5cm. Signed. Courtesy Galerie MAGNIN-A, Paris. © Studio Louis Delbaere

The Beauté Congo exhibition at the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain took place in 2015. We unveiled a collection of works by modern and contemporary artists. Written freely, this story covers almost a century of creation. It was the result of both chance and necessity. The chance of contact between men, Congolese and European, separated by their roots and culture, and the need to follow the thread to present what the artists had produced: a sum of masterful works testifying to the artistic zeal of the Congo.

Amazed by the modernity of the paintings adorning hut walls, Belgian Georges Thiry, then based in Congo, spotted Albert and Antoinette Lubaki in the village of Bukama in Ka-tanga in 1926, then Tshyela Ntendu [Djilatendo] in Kasai in 1927. He supplied colours and paper to these “hut decorators”, who began painting village life, the bush, wildlife and pure, abstract, superbly coloured geometric compositions. Exhibitions and a genuine fascination followed this first European look at modern Congolese art. Lubaki exhibited for the first time in 1929 at the inauguration of the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, then at the Musée d’Ethnographie in Geneva and, under the aegis of Jazz magazine, at the Charles-Auguste Girard gallery in Paris in 1931. Tshyela Ntendu [Djilatendo] participated in the 1931 colonial exhibition in Vincennes and Rome. The same year, the Galerie du Centaure in Brussels exhibited his work alongside that of Permeke, Delvaux and Magritte. But it all ended when Thiry and his superior, Gaston-Denys Périer, a modern art lover in Brussels, fell out.

The subsequent encounter between Europe and Congo occurred just after the war, when French sailor Pierre Romain-Desfossés, a painter in his spare time, gave up everything in France and moved to Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi). Convinced that this immense, rich country had a fundamentally different aesthetic, he founded the “Hangar” workshop in 1946, bringing together a number of artists to whom he gave complete freedom and urged them “to let their inventive genius blossom to express their perception of reality”.

A dozen artists have made a name for themselves: Pilipili Mulongoy, Mwenze, Kibwanga, Bela, Ilunga, Kayembe, Kaballa, and N’Kulu. Each has their own style. They capture their environment, traditions, and everything that makes up their daily lives: animals, fish, and villagers – the nature to which they are united. They saturate their paintings with colours and signs; there is no such thing as a void. They transcend reality with an intense poetic gesture. Birds swim, fish fly and the bush comes alive; the nature and fauna they represent are less those they see than those they experience. They are a bridge between the tangible and the intangible. For anyone familiar with the art of the Congo, the Hangar’s works bear the blood and ardour of this vast country, from which they spring with unprecedented creativity. There is no connection between them and the Lubaki and Djilatendo periods. They just happened. At the beginning of the 1950s, numerous exhibitions presented their work in Belgium, Paris, Rome, London, at MoMA in New York and South Africa. Since then, most of their work has been “forgotten” until the Beauté Congo exhibition at the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain in 2015.

Ninety years after the Palais des Beaux-Arts and Galerie Centaure in Brussels, 70 years after MoMA, the ‘Modern Congo’ exhibition at Galerie MAGNIN-A focuses exclusively on some of the most exceptional and rare modern works from 1930-1960, catalogued to date. It brings together fifty works from the vibrant Congo, whose energies range from the quietest to the most volcanic. There are no instructions for viewing these works other than to be open-minded enough to make them your own, each in their way.

The exhibition will be on view from the 14th of October until the 23rd of December, 2023. For more information, please visit MAGNIN-A.

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