The sculptures of Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez (1948-2015) offer a vision of a future modernity that is beautiful, harmonious, and functional. This essay traces the artist’s career from his early history in the village of Kimbembele-Ihunga to the elaborate “extreme maquettes” he began making during his long residence in Kinshasa. Kingelez’s work collapses boundaries between mediums and seems to exist without art historical precedent, perhaps one reason that it has not received extensive art historical attention until now.
The exhibition Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams was on view at The Museum of Modern Art through January 1, 2019. This essay by Sarah Suzuki was originally published in the exhibition catalog Bodys Isek Kingelez, available in the MoMA bookstore.
The words and commentaries that I write express the vision that inhabited me even before I started the piece. First comes the name (the title) of the piece; secondly I wait for the vision to come; then I make it real. I never make preliminary drawings. The vision gives me all I need, even the shape and the colors. . . . I am a designer, an architect, a sculptor, engineer, artist.—Bodys Isek Kingelez
Bodys Isek Kingelez is one of the unsung visionary creators of the twentieth century. A lifelong resident of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kingelez developed a notably individualistic style that is beholden to no obvious artistic precedents. Beginning in 1978 with his very first artwork, the result of a feverish session with “some scissors, a Gillette razor, and some glue and paper,”1Kingelez, “Artist’s Statement,” 5. his oeuvre took a unique form, in sculptures of mixed paper and other ephemeral materials that suggest miniature architectural structures. Dazzling in color and decoration, the works grew in scale and complexity over time, from models of individual buildings to intricate cities complete with roadways, billboards, and public monuments.
Kingelez was a formidable figure. Remarkably self-assured, he believed of his work that “since time immemorial, no one has had a vision like this,”2Kingelez in the film Kingelez: Kinshasa, une ville repensée, directed by Dirk Dumon (Brussels: Piksa, 2004), 5:16 min. and he aimed to be a force for good in the world, hoping, he said, that “architects and builders worldwide can try to learn from my perceptions so as to help the forthcoming generations. I’m dreaming cities of peace. I’d like to help the Earth above all.”3Kingelez, quoted in Robert Draper, “Kinshasa: Urban Pulse of the Congo,” National Geographic 224, no. 3 (September 2013): 118. He was a complicated person, at turns outgoing and reserved, and the making of his work was all-consuming; to some, he seemed most comfortable in the fantastical world of his own creation. Beauty was a paramount concern, not only in his art but also in his dress, and while he didn’t go to the theatrical lengths of Kinshasa’s famous dandies—the label-loving sapeurs—his personal style reflected the perfection he aimed for in his sculptures: “The shirt, jacket, and shoes need to be harmonious,” he declared.4Ibid., 123. Sapeurs are members of a regional urban subculture of nattily dressed adherents of “La Sape,” an abbreviation for the Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, or “Society of tastemakers and elegant people.” This holistic attitude and desire for harmony aligned with his aspiration to make the world a better and more beautiful place through his work.
Kingelez’s practice, though unquestionably appealing to curators, critics, and art historians, has presented them a maddening challenge. In collapsing the boundaries between sculpture, architecture, and design, it eludes the categorization and classification on which institutional collections rely, and in its lack of known art historical precedents, it evades the genealogy that we love to document and trace.5Traditionally, art in the region often took the form of wooden sculpture with figurative references. Later, in the contemporary period, peinture populaire, or “popular painting,” would become a dominant idiom. As a result, although Kingelez has been included in some of the most important visual art exhibitions of the last forty years—the groundbreaking Magiciens de la terre in Paris in 1989; The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994, a paradigm-shifting show that opened in Munich in 2001; the acclaimed documenta 11 in 2002; and biennials in Johannesburg, Dakar, and São Paulo, among others—very little has been written about him and his work. This study is an initial step in correcting the dearth of literature on Kingelez, and it is my hope that it will lay the groundwork for future efforts.
As an American curator delving into the work of a contemporary African artist, I have referred to the scholarship of important cultural thinkers of the last decades. Okwui Enwezor and Chika Okeke-Agulu have set forth a number of considerations for the conceptual framing of the term “contemporary African art.” They argue that the connective tissue of this “malleable” category is composed of the political and economic events that have shaped the continent, emphasizing the impossibility of considering aesthetic or conceptual strategies without taking into account postcolonial realities.6Okwui Enwezor and Chika Okeke-Agulu, “Situating Contemporary African Art: Introduction,” in Contemporary African Art since 1980 (Bologna: Damiani, 2009), 12. Enwezor has reiterated the importance of historical context in understanding the work of such artists: “In speaking of Africa today we need to ask how the struggles of independence, the problems of the national sovereign state, the expanding definition of national culture, citizenship, and cosmopolitanism (which are partially linked to economic malaise, social obsolescence, and political destabilization) define subjectivity.”7Enwezor, “Between Localism and Worldliness,” Art Journal 57, no. 4 (Winter 1998): 32–33. In thinking through his approach to an art historical study of the black diaspora, Stuart Hall likewise has asserted the importance of working in a way that is “‘historical’—that is, with proper attention to chains of causation and conditions of existence, to questions of periodization and conjecture—not just celebratory of a general and undifferentiated ‘black presence.’ I have been concerned to give it specificity; but also to read it both in its connection with, and difference from, other histories.” He underscores the importance of attempting to “make connections between works of art and wider social histories without collapsing the former or displacing the latter.”8Stuart Hall, “Black Diaspora Artists in Britain: Three ‘Moments’ in Postwar History,” History Workshop Journal61, no. 1 (2006): 23. In his review of the various strategies taken in analyses of African contemporary art, John Picton has suggested that the more successful approaches have focused on artists rather than attempting to identify or construct silos into which they might fit.9John Picton, “In Vogue, or the Flavor of the Month: The New Way to Wear Black,” in Reading the Contemporary: African Art from Theory to the Marketplace, ed. Olu Oguibe and Enwezor (London: Institute of International Visual Arts, 1999), 120. I take these to be calls for contextualization and specificity, so I will begin with the artist himself and explore his moment and milieu with an eye toward some of the histories, events, ideas, and experiences that likely shaped his practice. My aim is to inform the reader about who Kingelez was, how and in what context he made his work, what that work consists of, and how it has been received.
From Kimbembele-Ihunga to Kinshasa
Kingelez was born on August 27, 1948, in the village of Kimbembele-Ihunga, approximately 370 miles southeast of the city of Léopoldville (now Kinshasa), the eldest of the nine children of agricultural laborers Maluba Abraham Kingelez (1908– 1968) and Isek Mabo Bendele (born 1931).10Though the exact date of his birth is rarely cited, it can be found concealed in at least one of his midcareer works, Pacific Art of 1989 (now in a private collection, Paris). There, amid looping graphite lines that equally suggest gravel paths circumscribing the central structure and automatic writing, is nestled a stylized “Bodys 27 8 1948.” Kingelez dedicated a 2000 sculpture to his mother; titled Maman Isek Mabo Bendele, the work is in the collection of the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain, Paris. He was baptized Jean-Baptiste, though as an artist he would primarily use “Bodys Isek Kingelez” when signing his works, styling the name in myriad ways, sometimes eliding letters, introducing hyphens, and playing with capitalization. This name honors the artist’s ancestry: Bodys was his grandfather’s name, and Isek descended from the matrilineal side.11Kingelez relates this information in unpublished video footage by Marco di Castri and Gianfranco Barberi, shot during preparation for the exhibition Magiciens de la terre, Paris, May 1989. His surname has deep and meaningful roots in the region. In the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, the small kingdom of Kakongo, on the Atlantic coast, was an important commercial center for the slave trade and for trade in resources such as ivory and copper, frequented by the Portuguese, English, French, and Dutch, among others. Kakongo’s capital city was Kinguele, a homonym for Kingelez.12Marc Leo Felix and C. C. Lu Henry, Kongo Kingdom Art: From Ritual to Cutting Edge (Taipei: National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, 2004), 249.
Kimbembele-Ihunga was and would remain a potent influence on Kingelez, who later acknowledged the importance of his birthplace, saying, “Every artist on earth achieves self-expression through the most deep-rooted origins of their nature.”13Kingelez, “The Essential Framework of the Structures Making Up the Town of Kimbembele-Ihunga (Kimbéville),” in this volume, 50. It was the subject of several sculptures—including the luminous Kimbembele Ihunga, his first work to accumulate a mass of buildings into a large, elaborate cityscape— and it remained a beacon of his past and an emblem of his hope for the future. “The town of Kimbéville flourishes,” he wrote in a remarkable text that conflates the real village with his own fantastical simulations of its past, present, and future. “People flock here because the wind blows in off the sea and the mountains, refreshing its complex beauty in which all the heightened colors join forces constantly to create an environment where everyone can feel at home.”14Ibid., 51.
Taught in his village by the Belgian Catholic missionaries who almost exclusively oversaw the local schools until 1960, Kingelez was a top student, and he later credited his early education with establishing a critical skill: “I learned calligraphy, which is so useful today in my work, from the Belgian fathers.”15Kingelez, quoted in Guy Duplat, “Le maître des maquettes,” La libre belgique, October 23, 2001. Trans. by the author. For the role of Belgian missionaries in the education system, see Barbara Yates, “White Views of Black Minds: Schooling in King Leopold’s Congo,” History of Education Quarterly 20, no. 1 (Spring 1980): 27. Many of his sculptures feature hand-lettering in a variety of styles, and his unique penmanship, both in all-caps printing and in tight, looping cursive, is a distinctive feature of his manuscript texts. The priests who taught him hoped that he would follow in their footsteps and join the clergy, and though that didn’t come to pass, religion played an important role in his life.16Kingelez, “Artist’s Statement,” 2.
Church architecture is a recurring motif in his practice, as evidenced, for example, in a small, early untitled work that soars upward in three peaked tiers. Topped with a shining silver star, its facade is marked by multiple crosses in silver and gold, and its eaves are adorned with tiny foil bells. Kingelez often cited a divine inspiration for his practice—“No one could beat the strength of God that worked in me,” he said17Ibid.—and, with a typical lack of modesty, he classed his own occupation in relation to the glory of Creation: “God has shown us that He himself is an artist. He painted the mountains, he painted the plains. . . . It is our duty to follow in his example. He who follows His example, he who paints as He does, will be blessed. And that’s why I am a small god.”18Kingelez in the film Kingelez: Kinshasa, une ville repensée, 14:44 min. In 1970, after receiving his high school diploma, Kingelez left his bustling village for the booming metropolis of Kinshasa. He was twenty-two years old.
Authenticité and a Civic Imagination
Already, at this young age, Kingelez had experienced an era of tremendous change. Enwezor has pointed to decolonization as one of the principal events of the twentieth century, and Kingelez found himself directly in the middle of this incredibly complex moment, straddling the colonial and postcolonial periods.19Enwezor, “A Conversation with Okwui Enwezor,” interview by Carol Becker, Art Journal 61, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 12. The territory that is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo had been settled for nearly ninety thousand years when the European explorer Henry Morton Stanley arrived in the 1870s, under the aegis of King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold claimed the land as private property, ushering in a horrific period of violent domination of the land and its people—including forced labor, widespread disease, and punitive mutilation—that did not cease upon the territory’s annexation as a Belgian colony in 1908. After decades of struggle, the independent Republic of the Congo was declared on June 30, 1960, by Patrice Lumumba, the country’s first democratically elected prime minister. Fatefully for the young nation, Lumumba was arrested and then murdered just a few months later by a band of political rivals headed by Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, the chief of staff of the Armée Nationale Congolaise. With support from Western governments, including that of the United States, Mobutu seized power in 1965; he would remain the president and self- declared “Father of the Nation,” eventually enjoying despotic, near-divine status, until his military dictatorship was overthrown in 1997.
In the late 1960s, Mobutu instituted a series of new policies designed to promote nationalism and cultural “authenticity” (a doctrine officially termed authenticité in 1971). He required that his fellow countrymen and -women adopt Bantu names, and he himself became Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga, usually shortened to Mobutu Sese Seko, a moniker often translated as “the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake.”20See, for example, Howard W. French, “Mobutu Sese Seko, Zairian Ruler, Is Dead in Exile in Morocco at 66,”New York Times, September 8, 1997. A commonly used colloquial interpretation of his name is “The rooster that leaves no hen intact.” Ghislaine C. Kabwit, “Zaïre: The Roots of the Continuing Crisis,” Journal of Modern African Studies 17, no. 3 (September 1979): 382. Léopoldville, Congo’s capital city, was renamed Kinshasa in 1966, and in 1971 Mobutu renamed the country and its major river Zaire. Covering a range of traditional African leadership roles, he identified himself as both king and chief, statuses he underscored through his customary accessories: an elaborately carved walking stick and a leopard-skin cap. He developed a new style of national dress known as abacos (a shortening ofà bas le costume—essentially, “down with Western dress”)21Kabwit, “Zaïre: The Roots of the Continuing Crisis,” 390.—and promoted economic and political independence as symbols of national pride and identity. In the words of Zaire’s former Commissioner of National Orientation, Sakombi Inongo, these doctrines should be understood not “as a reaction against the old colonizers and even less a vengeance, but as a positive affirmation of ourselves.”22Sakombi Inongo, quoted in Kenneth Lee Adelman, “The Recourse to Authenticity and Negritude in Zaire,”Journal of Modern African Studies 13, no. 1 (March 1975): 137. Mobutu also emphasized self-affirmation: “Authenticité has made us discover our personality by reaching into the depths of our past for the rich cultural heritage which was left to us by our ancestors. We have no intention of blindly returning to all ancestral customs; rather, we would like to choose those which adapt themselves well to modern life, those which encourage progress, and those which create a way of life and thought which are essentially ours.”23Mobutu Sese Seko, quoted in Kabwit, “Zaïre: The Roots of the Continuing Crisis,” 389. It was in an atmosphere of pride in Zaire and hope for its future that Kingelez arrived in the newly renamed capital.
An extraordinary early sculpture, 1980’s Kinshasa: Cité du 24 Novembre de l’Authenticité Africaine, exemplifies the way in which Kingelez’s work was shaped by post-Independence politics, suggesting the young artist’s excitement about the nation’s direction. A tableau of multiple structures, including a church and an elaborate, multistory building with several wings, the sculpture is certainly the precursor to his later cities.24The work is now in the collection of the Institut des Musées Nationaux du Congo, Kinshasa. The date named in the title—the day on which Mobutu seized power in 1965, an occasion of celebration throughout his reign—is hand-lettered on a sign that soars above the rooftops. Closer to ground level, but still elevated, is a small, black-and-white photograph of Mobutu in military garb mounted on a wreathlike placard above a banner reading “La République du Zaïre.” A medallion celebrates the iconic torch-bearing fist of the Zairean national flag, alongside a reference to Mobutu’s political party, the Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution (MPR). Circling the medallion is the phrase “Zaïre Alinga Mosala,” a traditional saying that, roughly translated, means “Zaire loves to work.25Johannes Fabian, Remembering the Present: Painting and Popular History in Zaire (Berkeley and Los Angeles:University of California Press, 1996), 157.It was connected to salongo, a policy introduced by Mobutu that mandated civic participation and productivity in the name of “hard work and national self- reliance.”26Kabwit, “Zaïre: The Roots of the Continuing Crisis,” 390. A group of four small hangars to the right of this signage, designated the “Artist’s Village,” points to another facet of authenticité, the desire for “the return of traditional art objects to Zaire so as to inspire contemporary artists.”27Adelman, “The Recourse to Authenticity and Negritude in Zaire,” 135. All together, this complex small sculpture suggests an enthusiasm for Mobutu and his efforts in shaping Zaire. It was an endorsement of authenticité and salongo from an artist who believed strongly in civic responsibility—always orienting his own work to the collective rather than the individual (one never finds a private residence among his projects)—and who, in his own words, “devotes his daily life to excellence.”28Kingelez, “The Essential Framework,” 51. No other work would make such explicit reference to Mobutu’s regime, though Kingelez’s political engagement continued to manifest itself in sculptures that imagined a world untainted by corruption, greed, and economic disparity.
Kingelez would go on to make numerous works whose titles suggest the administrative, political, or governmental functions necessary for a successful democratic state. The handsome trapezoidal form of 1992’s Reveillon Fédéralevokes a kind of temple to democracy, with at least eight doorways marked in multiple languages, offering many ways to enter, and adornments referring to local fauna: a leaping zebra (reclaimed from a box of matches) and a horned impala. Kingelez wrote of this work in lofty terms, explaining his choice of palette: “The red and yellow symbolizes victory and absolutely reminds us of ‘the Martyrs’ blood’ that ran through the meanders of this fight for pure freedom.”29Kingelez, “Maquettes of Post-Modes Art,” Bodys Isek Kingelez (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2018), 49.
The symbolic meaning of color was as carefully considered by Kingelez as it had been by Mobutu. The first iteration of the president’s flag was blue with a yellow star and a red diagonal stripe, with red symbolizing the blood of the people’s sacrifice; yellow, prosperity; blue, hope; and the star, unity. Following the adoption of authenticité in 1971, a new Constitution of Zaire was issued in 1974. Article 4 decreed: “The emblem of the Republic is a light green flag, ornamented in the centre with a yellow circle in which a right hand is holding a torch with a red flame.” Hope was embodied by light green; unity by the circle, whose color represented Zaire’s extensive natural resources; and the nation’s revolutionary spirit by the torch-bearing arm, its red flames an honor to its martyrs. This approach to color and the use of the flag as a potent symbol of nationhood and pride were practices Kingelez would turn to throughout his career.
Air Force, made in 1991, recalls Zaire’s military, the group from which Mobutu rose, and specifically the Force Aérienne Zaïroise, which had been active since about 1961. Though sober in coloration, seen from above the work is a riot of black, red, and white stripes; it is topped with a sign bearing an icon that recalls the Belgian flag. The structure’s handsome facade is marked by a tidy grid of round windows and four-pointed stars set in relief. Of the star, one of the most prevalent motifs in his work, Kingelez wrote, “It’s . . . the ultimate symbol of wisdom which has a double origin. The first, the spiritual origin, in the form of a star, represents humanity. The star is born as displayed in the sky. It’s a magisterial symbol for which All Powerful God The Creator communicated to His people on earth. The second is the material origin of the star. It’s the representation of equilibrium on earth.”30Kingelez, quoted in Marion Laval-Jeantet, Benoît Mangin, and Anaïd Demir, Veilleurs du monde: Gbêdji kpontolè(Paris: CQFD, 1998), 128.
Medical infrastructure was also a key element of Kingelez’s civic necessities. Suggesting the campus of a sophisticated medical center and marked with signs calling for silence, The Scientific Center of Hospitalisation the SIDA, also of 1991, was constructed in part of reused paper packaging from a malaria medication. Epidemiological history suggests that 1970s Kinshasa was the epicenter of the first epidemic of HIV/AIDS (SIDA in French); by the mid-1980s, when Mobutu banned the subject in the press, six to eight percent of the population was believed to be infected. Around the time Kingelez made the work, the World Bank committed resources to Zaire’s newly established National AIDS Control Program, which brought condoms, screening kits, and a testing laboratory to Kinshasa, the only such facility successfully established by the program.31National AIDS Control Program Assistance Project (Credit 1953-ZR), Project Completion Report: Zaire (Report No. 14743) (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, June 27, 1995), http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/135821468025758933/pdf/multi0page.pdf.
Kingelez and Kinshasa: 1970s and ’80s
Before conceiving of a career as an artist, Kingelez struggled to define his professional aspirations, considering various vocations inclined toward civic engagement. He had the idea of being a magistrate, but dismissed the notion because, he said, “I realized I was too strict and impartial to judge people suitably.”32Kingelez, “Artist’s Statement,” 5. He also thought of becoming a member of the government, one of the “university-trained technocrats and senior civil servants” with whom Mobutu staffed his government, “to help build a better world.”33Kingelez, quoted in Christine Salvadé, “Le zaïrois Kingelez n’a jamais voulu être artiste,” Le nouveau quotidien, no. 1051 (July 4, 1995): 19. Trans. by the author. For the “university-trained technocrats,” see Kabwit, “Zaïre: The Roots of the Continuing Crisis,” 386. In Kinshasa, he attended the University of Lovanium, where he focused on economics but took classes in a wide range of subjects, including, he later reported, “business, French correspondence, industrial and business accounting, [and] industrial design.”34Kingelez lists these areas of study in his “Artist’s Statement,” 4–5. He mentions his focus on economics in the video interview “Exposition de Bodys Isek Kingelez à la Fondation Cartier–Entretien avec l’artiste–1995,” 34:02 min., posted on YouTube by Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, April 28, 2014. The University of Lovanium was later absorbed into the Université Nationale du Zaïre (UNAZA). Its former campus is now the University of Kinshasa. In time, he would put all of these skills to excellent use: his French in the drafting of the extraordinary, poetic texts that often accompany his works; the accounting skills in running a tremendously successful sole proprietorship; and his knowledge of design principles in the construction techniques that underlie his sculptures.
Kingelez has often been described as a self-taught artist or an autodidact, even though he was a university graduate with a background in industrial design, and spoke five languages.35It is noted in an exploratory 1985 UNESCO study for a possible Musée National de Kinshasa that Kingelez speaks French, English, Kikongo, Lingala, and Swahili. See Alpha Oumar Konaré and Patrick O’Byrne, Création du Musée national de Kinshasa (Paris: Organisation des Nations Unies pour l’Éducation, la Science et la Culture and Programme des Nations Unies pour le Développement, 1985), n.p. It is true that he did not attend art school or a formal artist’s training program; such opportunities were limited, even though, as the former Belgian colonial capital, Kinshasa had long been one of the country’s centers of cultural production.36The other major centers were (and are) Lubumbashi and Kisangani. A rise in Christian missionary activity in the 1930s had resulted in increased Western-style educational opportunities for colonial subjects in Congo, including, in some cases, the creation of art schools or experimental art workshops.37For this history, see Joseph Ibongo, “First Chapter: Genèse et Développement,” in La peinture populaire et publicitaire de Kinshasa (République démocratique du Congo): Éléments d’histoire culturelle de la ville et analyse iconologique des œuvres représentatives (Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium: Université Catholique de Louvain, 1999), 14–27, and Grace Stanislaus, “Contemporary African Artists: Changing Tradition,” inContemporary African Artists: Changing Tradition (New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 1990), 22. The Académie d’Art Populaire Indigène, also known as “Le Hangar,” was established in 1946 by Pierre Romain-Desfossés in Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi). As its name suggests, it sought not to inculcate Western aesthetic ideas but rather offered a free workspace and access to materials, with the only guiding principles that the artists follow their own creative impulses and not repeat themselves.38Kojo Fosu, 20th Century Art of Africa (Accra, Ghana: Artists Alliance, 1993), 41. In a rather paternalistic process, Romain- Desfossés administered an entrance exam for potential new students, asking them to depict certain subjects. From the results, he determined the artist’s area of speciality, either easel painting (which was considered prestigious) or decorative painting (a marketable skill, used in hotels or for public signage).39Thomas Bayet, “Le premier atelier,” in Beauté Congo: 1926–2015: Congo kitoko, ed. Adeline Pelletier (Paris: Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain, 2015), 73. Alternately, the École Saint-Luc, established by Belgian missionary Marc Wallenda in Gombe- Matadi in 1943, offered a multiyear cycle of art instruction in sculpture, the most widely practiced art form in the region at that time, as well as drawing, casting, and other disciplines, with a focus on Western-style academic realism and naturalism. Wallenda’s school relocated to Léopoldville in 1949, where it expanded, offering courses in painting, ceramics, and architectural drawing, and eventually, in 1957, metamorphosed into the city’s Académie des Beaux-Arts40.Lema Kusa and Bamba Ndombasi, “L’enseignement des arts plastiques au Congo: Évolution et expériences,” a paper presented at the UNESCO Regional Conference on Art Education in Africa, Port Elizabeth, South Africa, 2001, 4, http://www.unesco.org/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CLT/pdf/Arts_Edu_Afr_Disp_lemakusa_en.pdf. The Académie was integrated into the Université Nationale du Zaïre (UNAZA) in 1981. These differing strategies eventually led to a seeming schism between the country’s esteemed contemporary artists: those who produced “authentic” work like the patterned, flora- and fauna-filled drawings of Pilipili Mulongoy (1914–2007) versus those who worked in a figurative, more academic style based in part on Western models, like N’damvu Tsiku-Pezo (1939–1997), whose mural commissions adorned several presidential buildings.41Fosu, 20th Century Art of Africa, 123. In the 1970s, the situation was further enriched by the rise of the peintres populaires, or “popular painters,” including Moké (1950–2001) and Chéri Samba (born 1956), many of whom had a background in commercial sign painting, and whose colorful, figurative work, inspired by daily life, created a new paradigm for contemporary Congolese art. Neither trained in nor belonging to any of these prevailing tendencies, Kingelez stood resolutely apart right from the beginning of his career.
In the mid-1970s, he took a position as a secondary-school instructor. By his own account, he was quite good: “They said I was an excellent teacher, as all my students passed the bac[calaureate exam].”42Kingelez, quoted in Duplat, “Le maître des maquettes.” Meanwhile, the city continued to grow and shift around him. The population had swelled to approximately 1.3 million, a number that would grow to 3.4 million by 1990 and 5 million ten years later. As Mobutu’s early championing of the new nation slid steadily into despotism and self-enrichment, the country entered a long period of political and economic instability, further undermined by the policies of the International Monetary Fund, which continued to provide loans to Zaire despite evidence of high-level corruption and insupportable debt, and by inflation and tax hikes that devalued wages. These failings were transforming Kinshasa into “a city where students do not study, workers do not work, ministers do not administrate,” in the words of poet and journalist Lye Mudaba Yoka, a contemporary of Kingelez’s. It was, however, a place of “great creativity and improvisation,” he said. “To the outsider, the perception is chaos. For me it is not chaos at all. We’ve developed an informal system. And within this informal system, there’s an organization.”43Lye Mudaba Yoka, quoted in Draper, “Kinshasa: Urban Pulse of the Congo,” 109. Indeed, the music scene was thriving and gaining worldwide renown, the flamboyant self-expression of the city’s sapeurs was attaining international acclaim, and the peintres populaireswould soon be included in museum exhibitions around the world.
In the rapidly changing milieu of late-1970s Kinshasa, young Kingelez found himself feeling restless and unfulfilled: “I understood that I couldn’t reach my goals as a teacher,” he later said. “I needed to stake out more brilliant options.”44Kingelez, “Artist’s Statement,” 5. In 1978 he terminated his teaching career without knowing what would come next. “I drew up a list of ideas in my little room. Then a muddled confusion set in me and lasted for more than a month. It was at this time that I became obsessed with the idea of getting my hands on some scissors, a Gillette razor, and some glue and paper. It felt like fate when I finally did procure this particular material, and things became clearer then. I put together a little house without quite understanding the meaning of it all. And this is what stopped the fatal hemorrhaging.”45Ibid. The drama of this event would be typical for Kingelez. He described the desire to make art as almost an illness, a pain that was alleviated by creation. He said of his process: “I can’t stand any sound, not even a mosquito. I’m more aggressive with my kids. It’s like I’m ill.”46Kingelez in the film Kingelez: Kinshasa, une ville repensée, 24:21 min. His family concurred. His second wife, Madeleine Mupanga, told him, “You’re awful when you’re creating a work of art. You’re agitated, you’re not happy with yourself. If your work isn’t going as planned, you’re touchy.”47Madeleine Mupanga in ibid.
Following the creation of this first sculpture, there was a quick succession of events: Kingelez made a second work, titled Musée National, which a neighbor helped him transport to City Hall, where—given its subject matter—the administrator suggested that he take it to the Institut des Musées Nationaux du Zaïre (IMNZ, now the Institut des Musées Nationaux du Congo). The institute had been established jointly as a cooperative enterprise (in name, if not in practice) by the Belgian and Zairean governments in 1969–70; it was launched with enthusiastic support from Mobutu, who viewed the traditional art of the region—the institute’s focus—as powerful and persuasive cultural capital. The director general, Frère Joseph-Aurélien Cornet (1919–2004), a Belgian missionary and art historian who spent nearly thirty years in the country, was the person to whom Kingelez hoped to present the work, but before reaching Cornet, he was subjected to a gauntlet of interrogation.48During his tenure, Cornet organized and participated in numerous field-research trips in Zaire, not only acquiring objects for the museum but making copious notes about regional customs, traditions, and languages. Today Cornet’s cahiers are housed at the Special Collections & Archives, J. Edgar and Louise S. Monroe Library, Loyola University, New Orleans. One after another, a series of museum staffers suggested that the work, with its remarkable level of invention and accomplishment, could not be his, and that he had surely stolen it. In a misguided attempt to prove Kingelez a liar, they challenged him to make another work on-site, while they watched. Kingelez produced the sculpture Commissariat Atomique under these conditions, and the staff, so impressed by his artistic skills and the dexterity with which he manipulated his materials (and chagrined, perhaps, at their gross error), offered him a job as a “technicien restaurateur,” repairing works in the museum’s collection.49This is Kingelez’s job title as listed in Konaré and O’Byrne, Création du Musée national de Kinshasa, n.p. Kingelez tells the story of this period in his “Artist’s Statement,” 5–6, and in the video interview “Exposition de Bodys Isek Kingelez à la Fondation Cartier–Entretien avec l’artiste–1995” (see note. 35 above). The current locations of both Musée National and Commissariat Atomique are unknown.
By the time Kingelez started his new job, the collection of the IMNZ was estimated at between thirty thousand and thirty-eight thousand objects, built by modest transfers of works from the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, along with an extensive program of local expeditions and acquisitions.50Sarah van Beurden, “Exhibition Review: Forty Years of IMNC,” African Arts 45, no. 4 (Winter 2012): 90. Over the next six years, Kingelez worked on objects ranging from wooden sculptures to ceramic vessels. The job gave him access to supplies and materials, the opportunity to ponder what made certain artworks and artifacts worthy of collection and consideration, and, as he later noted, the chance to hone his technical ability: “These ruined statues led me to the pinnacle of my skills.”51Kingelez, quoted in André Magnin, “Bodys Isek Kingelez,” in ARS 01: Unfolding Perspectives (Helsinki: Kiasma—Museum of Contemporary Art, 2001), 121. He took characteristic pride in the excellence of his work despite his lack of formal conservation or restoration training. “My perfection,” he said, “was such that I was even mistaken for a forger. I never learned the metier but how little this mattered; I came from a traditional village where everyday I used to watch the men making masks or working at the forge. There was no need to learn, then, what I used to see all the time.”52Kingelez, “Artist’s Statement,” 6.
It was during this period that Kingelez likely experienced the first significant interest in his work. While Kinshasa did not have a strong network of commercial galleries, exhibition spaces, artist residency programs, and museums, the city’s French and Belgian cultural centers supported a number of artistic activities, and anecdotes and archival materials suggest that organizations like these were instrumental in helping Kingelez make his work more visible.53In the 1980s, the few existing galleries tended to cater to European expatriates. Apparently, Kingelez did approach at least one of these galleries and was told that his wasn’t the kind of art in which its clients were interested. Jean-Hubert Martin, conversation with the author, October 9, 2017. Around 1981 the architect Christian Girard traveled to Kinshasa in the employ of the French government for a series of urban-planning projects, and a colleague there suggested that he might be interested in meeting a man who was making what he called “strange models.”54Christian Girard, conversation with the author, October 10, 2017. Girard visited Kingelez at the IMNZ, where he recalls seeing a shelf full of sculptures in the restoration office: miniature administrative buildings, churches, and amusement parks.
What is extant of that remarkably rare early work demonstrates that even at this nascent stage of his career, Kingelez had already developed many of the hallmarks of his mature style. The palette is predominately monochrome—a function of the paperboard and cardstock varieties that were most readily available—but it is accented with brilliant bursts of color from found paper and packaging materials. An untitled sculpture from 1980 suggests that his ideas about how a work is conceived, composed, and constructed were then well established, as was his system of cataloguing the objects. The untitled sculpture immediately suggests an architectural form—a contemporary urban building. A symmetrical but dynamic rectangular prism, marked on the front face by ten rows of precisely hand-cut openings backed with white tissue, sits atop a series of flared fins cut from blazing orange cardstock. Triangular additions of gray translucent plastic protrude from its sides. The structure is topped with a skeletal sphere made of strips of black paper; its shape recalls the universal symbol for atomic energy, an icon Kingelez depicts in many works. In this, he was likely inspired by something close at hand: TRICO I, the African continent’s first nuclear reactor, had been installed in 1959 at Kingelez’s alma mater, the University of Lovanium. Established with Belgian funds in 1954 and initially overseen by Jesuit missionaries, the university aspired to be one of the continent’s premier educational institutions, and it was the first in the country to provide a course of study for doctors, architects, and civil engineers.55Brendan Gill, Jane Boutwell, and Louis P. Forster, “La République du Congo (Léopoldville),” New Yorker, June 9,1962, 22–23. In 1972 TRICO I was succeeded by TRICO II; the campus, now part of the University of Kinshasa, still hosts the research reactor and the Centre Régional d’Etudes Nucléaires de Kinshasa.56See International Atomic Energy Agency, Research Reactors in Africa (Vienna: Vienna International Center, November 2011), https://www.iaea.org/OurWork/ST/NE/NEFW/Technical-Areas/RRS/documents/RR_in_ The country also contains the world’s richest uranium mine, the source of the material used to produce the atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
This untitled sculpture includes an early example of the system Kingelez used to number his works throughout his career. In this instance, a round paper medallion, positioned prominently on the base of the object, bears the hand-lettered information “BODYS-KIS J. 58-27-11-80,” signifying a work, number 58, made on November 27, 1980. Kingelez numbered every work he made, and he claimed that he made over three thousand.57Kingelez, “Artist’s Statement,” 9. Girard noted that when he visited the artist in 1982, the sequential numbering was already over two hundred; a 1980 work numbered 58 confirms the plausibility of the system, if not the later total.58Girard’s account can be found in his article “Les extrêmes architectures de Bodys Isek Kingelez,” Art Press 136, no. 5 (1989): 47. Kingelez worked in a museum, so he knew that the cataloguing of artwork was critical. He had likely seen a lack of information confound and frustrate his colleagues as they struggled to date and attribute an object. He was also intimately familiar with the IMNZ’s methodology for numbering the works in their collection: each object bore a unique identifier, composed of the last two numbers of the year it was acquired, plus the number of the lot or series and the position of the work within the lot.59Shaje Tshiluila, “Institut des Musées Nationaux du Zaïre,” in Congo-Zaïre: Thango, de Brazza à Kin. (Paris: Éditions ADEIAO, 1991), 30. Kingelez’s use of this highly visible system of signing and numbering his sculptures ensured that the attribution of his work would never be at issue and positioned it, with both optimism and foresight, as if it were already part of an institutional collection.
Among the few published accounts of this early period of Kingelez’s career is an article written by Girard and Jacques Soulillou, a critic, art historian, and cultural attaché who spent years running French cultural centers in Cameroon and Nigeria, among other assignments. In the October 1984 issue of the journal autrement, in a brief rundown of artistic activities in African capitals—from embroidery and photography to polychrome sculpture—they refer to three of Kingelez’s early works by title (Maryland University USA, Le Ministère Belge de la Guerre, and Le Palais Modeste d’Espagne de l’Antique Marine Commerciale) and attest to the serious and substantial nature of his activities, which they describe as “architecture in paper.”60Jacques Soulillou and Girard, “Une internationale de l’art urbain,” autrement, “Les capitales de la couleur,” ed. Bruno Tilliette, special issue no. 9 (October 1984): 275–82. Trans. by the author. The current locations of Le Ministère Belge de la Guerre and Le Palais Modeste d’Espagne de l’Antique Marine Commerciale are unknown. A small black-and-white photograph of Kingelez’s Kinshasa: Cité du 24 Novembre de l’Authenticité Africaine bears a caption that erroneously identifies the work as made by “a Brazzavillois who works in an adminstrative office.”61Ibid., 278. Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, lies directly across the Congo River from Kinshasa. The authors testify to his unshakable belief in his talent and his project, noting that he “claims the title of artist with vehemence, and waits for nothing more than universal recognition.”62Ibid., 282.
Designer, Architect, Sculptor, Engineer, Artist
In a later text, Girard recalled that on first seeing Kingelez’s work, he was struck by its similarities to the architecture of Michael Graves, an American associated with postmodernism, perhaps because Kingelez’s designs, like Graves’s, embrace ornament and decidedly reject the modernist edict that form must follow function.63Girard, “Les extrêmes architectures de Bodys Isek Kingelez,” 47. Girard assumed, likely correctly, that Kingelez had had no direct contact with work by Graves or with other buildings in the postmodern style, since he didn’t travel outside Zaire until 1989. “I had never seen any other city,” the artist later said, looking back at the moment he began his artistic practice. “For me, Kinshasa was The City; I had never seen any other, not even in photos. I had never traveled before. I neither read nor looked at magazines.”64Kingelez, “Artist’s Statement,” 6. There were, however, many rich local architectural sources for him to draw on, from the Art Deco buildings of the colonial era that still lined the streets of Kinshasa, to the ambitious structures of the post-Independence period, and it is clear that the sculptures Kingelez began making feverishly in the early 1980s—which he soon dubbed “extrêmes maquettes”—had their precedent in the urban fabric around him.
Mobutu was personally invested in the power of architecture, which he harnessed to glorify his rule. In 1966 he opened the Presidential Domain of Nsele, an idealized shadow city in suburban Kinshasa built to host foreign dignitaries and international delegations interested in developing agricultural or trade programs with the country.65Muhammed Ali and George Foreman stayed in Nsele during the run-up to the famed 1974 Rumble in the Jungle boxing match. In 1975 the British writer V. S. Naipaul likened Nsele to a luxury resort, with amenities such as air conditioning and, according to one report, gold-plated bathroom fixtures.66V. S. Naipaul, “A New King for the Congo,” New York Review of Books, June 26, 1975, 24. Among the palaces Mobutu built there was a pagoda, designed and constructed by Chinese personnel already working at the site and intended to connect his reign to the splendor and power of the Chinese imperial dynasties. He also built a complex of pagoda-style buildings in his hometown, Gbadolite, deep in the country’s northern rain forest. During his reign, he completely redeveloped Gbadolite, transforming it into an outpost of opulence and luxury that has been referred to as “Versailles in the jungle.”67See, for example, James Brooke, “Mobutu’s Village Basks in His Glory,” New York Times, September 29, 1988, and Reuters, “Legacy of Corrupt and Ruthless Dictator Who Built Versailles in the Jungle,” Independent, May 4, 1997. He built an airport (with an extended runway to accommodate intercontinental jets, including theConcorde), boulevards, banks, hospitals, and a Coca-Cola bottling plant, as well as multiple presidential homes, including an undulating multistory villa with an Olympic-sized swimming pool, known as the Palais des Bambous.68For an account of these features, see Brooke, “Mobutu’s Village Basks in His Glory.”
One of the principal designers of the presidential complex at Gbadolite was the Tunisian-born French architect Olivier-Clément Cacoub (1920–2008). He was also responsible for high-profile projects in France and for the post-Independence leaders of North and sub-Saharan Africa, including palaces in Ivory Coast, Cameroon, and Tunisia. Known as the “architecte du soleil,” for his penchant for warmer climes and his loose, playful style, Cacoub approached his projects with an organic freedom—“I make architecture like I make gestures,” he said69Olivier-Clément Cacoub, quoted in “Hommage à Olivier Clément Cacoub, ‘l’architecte du soleil,’” harissa.com, January 28, 2016, http://www.harissa.com/news/article/hommage-olivier-cl%C3%A9ment-cacoub-%C2%AB- larchitecte-du-soleil-%C2%BB. Trans. by the author.—and a reformist spirit: “In effect, our era has definitively broken away from sad and somber offices with their narrow windows and their oppressive conference rooms. Light, sobriety, and functionality have made their way into our offices, our factories, our courtrooms, our laboratories.”70Cacoub, Architecture de soleil (Tunis: Ceres Productions, 1974), 21. Trans. by the author.
Cacoub’s codesigner on the Gbadolite complex was Pierre Goudiaby Atepa (born 1947), a Senegalese architect known for projects throughout the African continent but most notably in Dakar. In 1973 Goudiaby presented a thesis on the ideal African city. Its first key feature, he said, is that it must be “profoundly African. The second, that it is turned toward an assured modernity. The third, that it is a solar city.”71Pierre Goudiaby Atepa, “Pierre Goudiaby ATEPA, Bâtisseur du futur—Master-Builder of the Future,” interview by Mathieu Ropitault, part of “Pierre Goudiaby: Senegalese Architect,” Unseen Art Scene (blog), June 8, 2008, http://africanartists.blogspot.com/2008/06/pierre-goudiaby-atepa-senegalese.html. Known for buildings with improbable, sweeping contours, like his pyramidal headquarters for the Banque Centrale des États de l’Afrique de l’Ouest in Dakar, Goudiaby draws on myriad sources, from the handmade cloth his mother used to sell, to the baobab tree and the calabash, to Doric columns: “The Romans stole ideas from the Greeks, the Americans stole from the Europeans. Now it’s our turn. I use whatever I want and make it African.”72Goudiaby, quoted in David Hecht, “BBC Report—Pierre Goudiaby Atepa Making Dreams Real!,” Group Atepa, January 2, 2000, http://cristalagency.com/atepa/index.php/actualites/376-bbc-report-pierre-goudiaby-atepa- making-dreams-real.html. This attitude toward architecture, unanchored by Western conventions, is clearly reflected in Kingelez’s constructions.
Although few locals outside the upper echelons of government had the opportunity to see Cacoub’s work at Gbadolite, another of his projects was a prominent landmark in Kinshasa. The Tour de l’Échangeur (alternately known as the Monument to Patrice Lumumba, the Monument to National Heroes, and the Limete Tower) was planned to be among the tallest buildings in Africa; construction began in 1971, but it was never fully completed. Commissioned by Mobutu, the tower— four soaring columns topped by a structure designed to house observation platforms and a restaurant—was centrally located in the industrial neighborhood of Limete and visible from a great distance in all directions. Certainly Kingelez knew this futuristic monument, impractical in form but limitless in possibility, and it was evidently the model for his own skyward-thrusting work, Approche de l’Échangeur de Limete Kin of 1981.73This is one of the few instances I am aware of in which Kingelez recreated an existing built structure.
In 1972 Cacoub was commissioned to design an international trade center for Kinshasa, the Centre Commercial International du Zaïre, an effort to position the city at the center of the African business world. It was envisioned as a complex of office towers, meeting halls, a six thousand–seat conference center, and a thousand-room hotel, but only the first twenty-story tower was completed before the project was abandoned.74The building had inoperable windows, and after the air conditioning broke down, it was considered uninhabitable. The site has since been redeveloped as the Kempinski Hotel Fleuve Congo. Mwana Mbota, “Léopoldville 1960—Independence Changes the Architectural Equation,” Kinshasa Then and Now (blog), August 20, 2011, http://kosubaawate.blogspot.com/2011/08/leopoldville-1960-independence-changes.html. Cacoub’s model shows two trapezoidal buildings of different sizes, a skyscraper, a series of disc-shaped structures staggered at different heights, and an undulating, S-shaped tower set into a horizontal plane. Kingelez moved to the city shortly before the plans for the development project were announced to great fanfare; in its fantastical forms and iconoclastic layout, the model bears a striking similarity to the sculptures he would later build.
The connection between Kingelez’s work and the practice of architecture has been discussed by several writers and curators. Ismail Serageldin has placed it in a category he identifies as “architectural sculpture,” which is free, he writes, from architecture’s responsibility to “retain a social and functional role, whether built with or without architects. . . . Architectural sculpture is liberated from such restrictions and can push form, texture, and color far into the realm of the imaginary, as it does in [Kingelez’s] hands.”75Ismail Serageldin, “Cultural Continuity and Cultural Authenticity,” in Home and the World: Architectural Sculpture by Two Contemporary African Artists: Aboudramane and Bodys Isek Kingelez (New York: Museum for African Art; and Munich: Prestel, 1993), 23. Writing about Kingelez’s 2001 sculpture Köln, commissioned by Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Marjorie Jongbloed has likewise made the case for hybridity: “Kingelez’s models are architecture, painting, and sculpture in one. They are hermetically sealed and impossible to enter; they have no inner life. In this regard, they only refer to architecture.”76Marjorie Jongbloed, “Thomas Bayrle and Bodys Isek Kingelez: Architecture between Fantasy and Reality,” in Jongbloed et al., DC: Thomas Bayrle, Bodys Isek Kingelez (Cologne: Museum Ludwig, 2001), 13. As to Kingelez’s intentions, a friend of the artist commented, “Kingelez is not an architect and does not wish to be considered one. He is surprised when you ask him if he wants to see his works actually built.”77Jean-Marc Patras, “Bodys Isek Kingelez—‘Extreme Maquettes,’” in Home and the World, 58. Dan Cameron has intuited rightly that “the point is not so much that Kingelez plans someday to be able to build these structures, but rather that the act of imagining them and bringing them into existence, albeit through maquettes, represents an almost fervent idealism which over time will invariably have its impact on the types of visions that other, less poetic city planners may bring to bear on the future of other African cities.”78Dan Cameron, “Cocido y crudo,” in Cameron et al., Cocido y crudo (Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de ArteReina Sofía, 1994), 325. That is to say, Kingelez is not an architect but rather the creator of a new and hybrid form. Drawn both from airy flights of imagination and the solidity of reality, his work proposes an idealized vision for the future, one that architects, city planners, and builders may one day be inspired by.
On June 30, 1969—Zaire’s Independence Day—Mobutu, with King Baudouin of Belgium as his guest, inaugurated the first Foire Internationale de Kinshasa (FIKIN).79I am grateful to Mwana Mboka for an extraordinary blog post on this event: “Kinshasa 1969—FIKIN Puts Congoon a New Map,” Kinshasa Then and Now (blog), March 20, 2015, http://kosubaawate.blogspot.com/2015/03. Held on what would become a permanent fairground in the neighborhood of Limete, not far from Cacoub’s tower, the international trade and culture fair featured the participation of more than twenty countries and hosted nearly 600,000 people during its three-week run. The fairground’s designer was the Congo-born, Belgian-trained architect Fernand Tala-Ngai (1938–2006), who would go on to design other municipal buildings in Kinshasa in the 1970s and ’80s, including a residence for Mobutu (the Palais de Marbre, on Mount Ngaliema), the Supreme Court building, and the Hôtel de la Monnaie, with its scalloped base and brise soleil–gridded facade connected to an existing building by a bridge of four-pointed stars.80Fernand Tala-Ngai later became the minister of finance for multiple governments in the Democratic Republic ofthe Congo. According to reports, the fairground was like an ideal mini-Kinshasa, featuring amenities such as new drainage systems, paved roads, public toilets, and copious parking, along with beer gardens and cafes, copper-roofed exhibition halls, national pavilions, and demonstrations of the latest in mining technology and energy development.81Mboka, “Kinshasa 1969—FIKIN Puts Congo on a New Map.” An amusement park was added the following year, including a carousel, a roller coaster, and a tunnel of love. A photograph from the period shows dozens of flags waving in the wind over landscaped grounds, with national pavilions (and Cacoub’s tower, still under construction) visible in the distance. These pavilions, a staple of world’s fairs, created something akin to a United Nations, with each sponsoring country showcasing the resources, technologies, cultural traditions, and specific histories it contributed to the global story. Newly arrived in Kinshasa, Kingelez was likely among the hundreds of thousands of residents who visited FIKIN in its early years, and it is enticing to think that his encounter there with an array of international cultures and styles, set within a cheerful, orderly microcosm of the larger, sprawling city, influenced his later work.82By the mid-1970s, FIKIN was in decline.
Kingelez’s sculptures are filled with evocations of nationally or geographically specific architectural tropes from outside Africa, like the tiered Asian-inspired forms in Palais d’Hirochima, of 1991, which the artist described as a homage to Japanese culture and a salve for the memory of the “intolerable tragedy imposed by the Americans in 40–45.”83Kingelez, unpublished text accompanying the work Palais d’Hirochima, 1991. Trans. by the author. The Japanese city of Hiroshima is, in fact, home to an imperial palace that featured the tiered, peaked-roof style that Kingelez quotes. Built at the end of the sixteenth century, it was destroyed during the atomic bombing of that city in 1945, during the Second World War, and then reconstructed in 1958. In addition to the fairground, the marvels of Nsele, and the architectural landmarks designed by Cacoub, Kinshasa featured a diverse range of building styles. A group of buildings nicknamed the hollandaises, or “Dutch houses,” had been erected in the Gombe neighborhood around 1925 for the use of colonial functionaries temporarily based in Kinshasa;84“Lotissement de maisons dites hollandaises,” Wikinshasa.org: Atlas de l’architecture et du paysages urbains, last modified May 26, 2011. they are evoked in Kingelez’s 1991 sculpture Belle Hollandaise, with its swooping gables. Its central grid is backed with Christmas wrapping paper featuring a celestial Santa driving a train full of toys across the night sky, surrounded by gift-giving cherubs and bare- bottomed putti, evocations of the North Pole that may have been prompted by Kingelez’s experience in the chilly northern Netherlands the year it was made.85Artist Joan Rabascall recalls discussing the cold weather with Kingelez in Groningen. Rabascall, conversation with the author, October 4, 2017. The title of the work might also refer to wax hollandais textiles, the colorful, patterned wax-printed fabrics that have been designed, manufactured, and exported by the Dutch for African consumption since the mid-nineteenth century.86Robin Young, “Africa’s Fabric Is Dutch,” New York Times, November 14, 2012. Vlisco, the most prestigious producer of wax hollandais, has its flagship store in Kinshasa; it continually updates its roster of patterns, incorporating references to contemporary culture, from car brands to political figures.
With U.N., Kingelez made a direct tribute to the United Nations, whose peacekeeping presence had returned to Congo in 1999 after a long hiatus, and whose blue-helmeted personnel were a common sight in Kinshasa. He created the work for Dialogues de paix, a 1995 exhibition in Geneva that celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the United Nations and aimed to include artists from fifty countries on five continents.87“United Nations Events for U.N. Organization’s 50th Anniversary,” United Nations Press Office, Geneva,November 24, 1994. The exhibition was organized by Adelina von Fürstenberg. Kingelez, who visited Geneva to deliver his work in person, recalled, “It was at the time of the war in Yugoslavia. We stood up for peace, artists from all over the world, but I was the most famous one.”88Kingelez in the film Kingelez: Kinshasa, une ville repensée, 25:25 min. His contribution was in some ways a striking departure from his earlier sculptures, and he referred to it as “an expansion” of his work.89Ibid. U.N. has a decidedly asymmetrical overall form: a tall tower with a protruding arc and flared foot at left is paired with a fluted half-circle at right. And the tower’s surface, unusually, has been impressionistically hand-colored and overlaid with a red grid. The interior of the half-circle is lined with narrow bands of black and silver and dotted with collaged stars, and the base is punctuated at irregular intervals with conical trees. A sweeping stair rises to an elevated platform ringed with flags. “The dominant color is clearly blue, the color universally associated with the United Nations,” Kingelez wrote. “The stars are distributed around the form of the building. They represent the member countries, which I want to be equal. In this palace, peace is an indispensable tool for the democracy of nations.”90Kingelez, quoted in Salvadé, “Le zaïrois Kingelez n’a jamais voulu être artiste.” The overall effect in U.N. is freer, less attached than earlier work to rigid, regular systems. Ironically, the actual Palace of Nations, planned in the 1920s and completed in Geneva in 1936, is an imposing, harmoniously symmetrical neoclassical structure that has much in common with Kingelez’s slightly earlier work.
Kingelez in Paris: Magiciens de la terre
The 1989 exhibition Magiciens de la terre, mounted in Paris at the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Grande Halle de la Villette, was the first to bring Kingelez’s work to an international audience. It would be difficult to overstate the reverberating impact of the show, which Cameron likened several years later to the act of “toss[ing] a bomb into the village square of the international art community.”91Cameron, “Cocido y crudo,” 318. Magiciens de la terre was held May 18–August 14, 1989, at the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Grande Halle de la Villette, Paris. For more information, please see one of the several exhaustive, well-researched studies of the show, such as Lucy Steeds et al., Making Art Global (Part 2): Magiciens de la terre, 1989 (London: Afterall, 2013). Organized by curator Jean-Hubert Martin, with Mark Francis, Aline Luque, and André Magnin, Magiciens de la terre was a pioneering and controversial attempt at creating a global contemporary art exhibition. It was planned with the express and primary goal of recalibrating the inclusion of artists from the “mainstream” and the “margins” of artistic production through the development of a checklist that would include Western and non-Western artists in equal proportion. This ambition was met in art history circles with deep suspicion. A preemptive take-down by Guy Brett called into question the project’s potential for success, emphasizing the likelihood that it would end up flattening the artists’ contributions into Western art world–approved sameness: “For have not the subversive and emancipatory projects of the 20th century avant-garde—from the surrealists at one pole, with their proposals to ‘liberate desire,’ to the constructivists at the other, with their plans to transform the environment—been reduced, first by the art market and then by the wider range of lifestyle, to the same bland range of designer- commodities?”92Guy Brett, “Earth and Museum: Local and Global?,” Third Text 3, no. 6 (Spring 1989): 91. Martin has gone on to devote much of his career to attempts at dissolving the binaries of West/non-West, fine art/vernacular that plague many institutions, and in a lively, at times barbed and contentious conversation in advance of the exhibition, he seemed perfectly aware of the potential pitfalls of his project, refuting each of them in turn and asserting, “Our first concern is with exchange and dialogue, with understanding others in order to understand what we do ourselves.”93Martin, “The Whole Earth Show,” interview by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Art in America (May 1989): 150–58; 211– 13.
How was it that Kingelez, who at the time had no international profile to speak of, came to be included in the exhibition? The curators called on experts in France and abroad for suggestions and guidance as they began their exploratory research.94The team later sought advice from Chérif Khaznadar, the founding director of the Maison des Cultures du Monde, which since 1982 had been inviting keepers of “intangible cultural heritage” to Paris, for ways to help their visiting artists feel more at home. Martin, conversation with the author, October 9, 2017. One source was Jean-François Bizot, the Paris-based editor-in-chief of the culture-oriented monthly Actuel and founder of the world-music broadcaster Radio Nova, whose work occasionally took him to Kinshasa. He was friendly with Samba, the peintre populaire whom he had commissioned to do a project forActuel in 1982, and so was able to connect the exhibition organizers with him and make some suggestions about whom to see in Kinshasa. Martin himself happened upon the 1984 article by Girard and Soulillou in autrement, with its unattributed black-and-white photograph, and he put the artist on a list of figures to investigate.95Ibid. He later called on Soulillou, then stationed in Douala, Cameroon, to help locate Kingelez, which he did in 1987.96Soulillou, correspondence with the author, October 15, 2017. Magnin made a trip to Kinshasa and met the artist; upon his debrief with the curatorial team back in Paris, there seemed to be little doubt that Kingelez would be included in the exhibition.97Martin, conversation with the author, October 10, 2017. For Magnin’s first encounter with Kingelez and the long relationship between the two, see the interview with Magnin in this volume.
A photograph taken in Kinshasa in 1988 shows Kingelez sitting in a narrow, high- walled alley with three works intended for the exhibition. Allemagne An 2000 andParis Nouvel were included in the show; the third, Brasilia, was badly damaged in transport.98Kingelez in di Castri and Barberi, unpublished video footage. Kingelez had purchased some materials in Kinshasa with the money advanced by the exhibition organizers upon the commissioning of the sculptures, and while formally they are clearly connected to the earlier work of the 1980s, materially they are noticeably different. Gone are the collaged elements from reclaimed packaging and the palette dictated primarily by the discarded materials Kingelez was able to source. The new mediums include pencil, colored pencil, watercolor, colored paper and cardstock, silver reflective paper, and gold metallic paper (rolled to form tiny tubes), all of which the artist could have bought at a local stationery or hardware store. From this point forward, Kingelez used found materials less often, although he returned to them with gusto in the early 2000s. In an offhand remark, Jonathan Jones later wrote of the artist that “his delicate colourful follies are made from the unwanted detritus of city life. Kingelez incorporates any old rubbish into his architectural language—packaging of all kinds, bits of cardboard, shiny paper.”99Jonathan Jones, “Bodys Isek Kingelez: Kimbéville—City of Tomorrow,” Art & Design 11, no. 9–10 (September–October 1996): 32–35. In fact, Kingelez always selected his materials with care, and even in the earliest works he did not use stained or discolored paper, despite the challenge that might have presented. Susan Vogel has noted that, “to us [in the West], objects of cardboard and paper seem so ordinary, transitory, flimsy . . . but in Kinshasa these materials mean the opposite. They are exotic, expensive, and imported. It’s even hard to keep this stuff clean.” S100usan Vogel, “Fanciful Dreams of Africa’s Past and Future,” New York Times, August 15, 1993. Later the artist proudly declared that he had thirty thousand dollars worth of imported art materials in the front room of his house.101Draper, “Kinshasa: Urban Pulse of the Congo,” 123.
In both Paris Nouvel and Allemagne An 2000—one ebullient, the other restrained— there is a sense of equilibrium and order. The buildings are symmetrical, regular, predictable: an opening on the left is matched by an opening on the right, a structural riposte to the improvisation-dominated ethos of the city in which Kingelez lived and worked. Paris Nouvel is dominated by pristine colored cardstock and, for the first time, gold, which Kingelez would go on to use in many sculptures. The work itself is a veritable riot of color and form, with repeating horizontal bands of sky blue, dancing red diamonds, and bands of white—hewing to the French tricolore—plus snaking ladders of gold. Allemagne An 2000 is almost austere in comparison, a rational, rectangular form of black, red, and white, suggesting the colors of both the East and West German flags. Each level is adorned with the same orderly forms: three circles and a series of vertical parallel lines, along with an odd protruding shape in light green—an abstracted letter “b” that serves as a kind of monogram for the artist and a reminder to viewers that “Bodys made it.”102Kingelez in di Castri and Barberi, unpublished video footage.
Elevated on a series of tiers, the building is surrounded by lanterns made of identical pins; lengths of yarn suggest trailing, verdant vines in round and rectangular planters. The painted base reflects Kingelez’s inclination toward floral and star-shaped forms, which recur in almost every work. Both sculptures suggest a national character, early manifestations of this enduring concern.
The catalogue for Magiciens de la terre identifies each of the one hundred participating artists’ country of origin and prints their responses to the question“Qu’est-ce que l’art?” (What is art?). Kingelez answered:
“Art, the rare product of great reflexive values, accompanied by serious movements of imagination, that the author of such invention turns toward the promises of dearer sacrifices of a better and hoped-for future. Art, with all its consequences of maturity, of creativity, is a hidden wealth whose cultivation requires patience, as well as respect of the talents which are specific to the latter in order to be commensurate with this knowledge. A vital necessity, art is a progress which marks the importance of a person, of a practice, or of a city that is developing harmoniously. Art is a higher knowledge of doing well in order to, in the end, live well, as it is one of modernism’s types of individual and collective renewal.”103Kingelez in “Atlas des 100 artistes exposés,” in Mark Francis et al., Magiciens de la terre (Paris: Éditions du Centre Pompidou, 1989): 167. Trans. by Charlotte Barat.
In this, his first published text, the artist’s persona as a writer is fully developed. Lofty, high-minded, with big goals and ideals, he aspired to nothing less than a radical rethinking of the world around him. Just as he created his own visual language in his sculpture, he also began to invent new nouns and adjectives and new sentence structures to describe his philosophy and works. Kingelez had begun producing descriptive texts to accompany his sculptures in the early 1980s,104Girard, conversation with the artist, October 9, 2017. and by the late ’80s and early ’90s many of his new objects were paired with such a document. Virtually impossible to translate faithfully from the original French, the texts give another window into Kingelez’s ethos and ideas. As Marie Lemeltier and Céline Soutif have written, these manuscripts have much in common with the sculptures they accompany: “In his texts as in his extrêmes maquettes, he presents himself as the creator of a new language. The artist imagines an unedited vocabulary and a rhetoric that form what he calls his ‘langage bodysois.’ In effect, he uses fanciful words and syntax that reflect the demiurgic character of their creator. For the viewer-reader, the understanding of his texts requires abandoning all traditional or academic reference.”105Marie Lemeltier and Céline Soutif, “Bodys Isek Kingelez: ‘Un homme nouveau pour un habitat nouveau,’” in Elvan Zabunyan, Valérie Mavridorakis, and David Perreau, Fantasmapolis: La ville contemporaine et ses imaginaires (Rennes, France: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2005), 87. Trans. by the author. The extrême maquette finds its literary parallel in the artist’s personal language, in which he constructs with words rather than with paper.
Magiciens de la terre included six sculptures by Kingelez, a combination of works made in Kinshasa and Paris, as he had been commissioned by the curators on behalf of the Grande Halle de la Villette to make several sculptures on-site.106Kingelez’s work was installed in a gallery themed “Cicatrices et origines” (Scars and origins), which also included works by John Fundi, Henry Munyaradzi, Jangarh Singh Shyam, and Twins Seven Seven. The curatorial team supplied him with materials, assistants, and a studio space in the exhibition hall. Two of these works were reproduced in the catalogue. La Croix du Ciel, a sky-blue tower more than eleven (miniature) stories tall and clad in a fitting azure, takes the form of an eight-pointed star. The work is marked by no fewer than four assertions of the maker’s identity: a round emblem with a fluted border that proudly announces in penciled block letters “BODYS ISEK-INGELEZ Kinshasa ZAÏRE ARCHITECTE MAQUETTISTE”; “Bodys isek-Kingelez L’Architecte,” in red marker; and “Bodys-Isek-Ingelez” and “Bodys Isek Ingelez” in graphite. La Mitterannéenne Française, the other work reproduced in the catalogue, also reflects the artist’s concerns with symmetry, regularity, and repetition, with nesting and layering, and with verticality and elevation, as it too reaches skyward, topped by a finial bedecked with an eight-pointed star. The title of the work introduces Kingelez’s signature punning wordplay, in this case referring to François Mitterrand, then president of France. But while Mitterrand is referred to only once, the name of the maker (“Bodys,” “Bodys-Isek-Ingelez,” “Bodys-Ingelez-Isek”) appears multiple times. These repetitions suggest the central position of the work’s author. Unlike the anonymous objects Kingelez repaired at the IMNZ, these sculptures were not made by an invisible hand: the artist demands acknowledgement.
Another work Kingelez made in Paris is Mausolée de Kingelez, a sculpture of imposing scale and a horizontality new to his oeuvre. It takes the form of a multipointed, star-shaped tube, like one of his towers turned on its side and inflated. Video footage of the artist at work shows him hovering over the all-white skeleton of the unfinished work, placing and then re-placing elements with long tweezers and testing and adjusting the curve of the roof elements.107Di Castri and Barberi, unpublished video footage. Constructed primarily of white foamcore and blue cardstock and decorated with marker, the central form has open grids at its ends that suggest large divided windows. They are lined with cotton mesh (presumably a newly acquired material), suggesting a screen or scrim. Perhaps most extraordinary are the tiny plastic figurines, the kind used to populate architectural models, arrayed inside like visitors to a tourist attraction.
Kingelez’s participation in Magiciens de la terre was a turning point in his career, as it was the first significant exposure of his work to curators, scholars, and collectors. Prior to the exhibition, Kingelez had not been well known even in his hometown. A headline in the March 23, 1988, issue of the Kinshasa-based dailySalongo—“Chéri Samba à Paris”—heralds another local artist’s inclusion in the first exhibition of “artists from the whole world,” touting Samba’s singular genius and his exceptional contribution to Magiciens de la terre, as described by Magnin.108Kmbl., “Chéri Samba à Paris,” Salongo, March 23, 1988, 5. Trans. by the author. The last sentence of the article reports that “Bodis [sic] Kingelez maquettiste architecte autodidacte” would also be included. Kingelez wrote to Magnin to request that the spelling of his name be corrected in the article, which suggests that he himself did not have the necessary contact at the newspaper to do so.109He wrote, “N.B. My name is written in the manner below and not in the way that you have said in the newspaperSalongo in Zaire. Rectify this please.” Letter from Kingelez to Magnin, April 16, 1988, Centre Pompidou Archives, Paris. Emphasis in the original. Trans. by the author. Soulillou has reported that when he located Kingelez in advance of the show, “he was living far from the center. . . . He had not many prospects to earn any [money] from his work in . . . Kinshasa.”110Soulillou, correspondence with the author, October 15, 2017. A 1999 painting by Moké, Kingelez à ses débuts, depicts the young artist at work in a modest setting, slicing a sheet of colored paper. He is surrounded by sculptures (including 1981’s Approche de l’Échangeur de Limete Kin) but isolated and ignored by those around him.
In addition to the works he made for Magiciens de la terre, Kingelez produced several other sculptures during his six months in Paris, including Bel Atlas andStars Palme Bouygues.111Patras, conversation with the author, August 1, 2017. These two sculptures directly reflect the artist’s experience in Paris. Kingelez was in the city on July 14, 1989, the bicentennial of the French Revolution, when the Grande Arche de la Défense, a distinctive, massive hollow cube of a building, was inaugurated with a military parade. Part of Mitterrand’s Grands Projets program of transformative new civic buildings, the monument was designed by a Danish team and engineered and built by the France-based multinational developer Bouygues. Its inauguration likely appeared on the front page of every newspaper in the city. Kingelez completed Bel Atlas two weeks later; it features a triangular form in lieu of the cube, floating within an open three-sided frame. Stars Palme Bouygues followed shortly after; its remarkable inverted-triangle form was a tacit challenge issued to the company’s founder, Francis Bouygues, by the artist.112Ibid. Kingelez again worked with the blue, white, and red of the French flag, creating a sense of intricacy through repetition—in the open grid of the sculpture’s two wings, the checkerboard of the base, the barbershop stripes of the entry arch, and the tricolor planters, benches, and barriers. The repetition also imposes a sense of structure and control, despite the seeming illogic of the overall form. If he were envisioning this as a built site, Kingelez thought of everything, from the parking to the bar. The sculpture is celebratory and joyful but also an assertion of confidence and prowess: Anything you can do, I can do better.
The photographer, collector, and businessman Jean Pigozzi was enraptured byMagiciens de la terre, particularly the works by African artists. He later recalled, “The great shock for me was that African art wasn’t just what I had seen at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris or The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It was Samba, [Frédéric Bruly] Bouabré, Kingelez, who had been completely unknown to me. When I saw Kingelez, I thought, ‘Wow! I want to meet this guy. I want to take him to Las Vegas and help him build the most amazing casino ever!’”113Jean Pigozzi, conversation with the author, January 25, 2018. Pigozzi quickly engaged Magnin to help him create what is now an unmatched collection of art from sub-Saharan Africa: the Contemporary African Art Collection (CAAC—The Pigozzi Collection). Of the twenty-one African artists inMagiciens de la terre, ten are represented in the CAAC—some, including Kingelez, in great depth.114These ten artists are Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, Seni Camara, Jean-Jacques Efiaimbelo, John Fundi, Samuel Kane Kwei, Kingelez, Agbagli Kossi, Esther Mahlangu, Samba, and Cyprien Tokudagba. After six months in Paris, Kingelez returned to Kinshasa, and one of Magnin’s first trips as curator of the CAAC was to that city, where he reunited with the artist and began commissioning new works from him.115Magnin, conversation with the author, October 9, 2017. As a cultural attaché, Soulillou had been able to help Kingelez obtain a six-month visa. Soulillou, correspondence with the author, October 10, 2017. This relationship would last until the artist’s death, and in time the collection grew to include more than thirty of his sculptures, by far the greatest concentration of Kingelez’s work anywhere.
Extrêmes Maquettes Around the World
Since 1989, Kingelez’s work has been shown in nearly thirty countries on six continents. In the years immediately following Magiciens de la terre, he was included in numerous important exhibitions, the first of which was África hoy: Obras de la Contemporary African Art Collection, the CAAC’s initial major show, which opened in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain, in 1991, before traveling to the Groninger Museum, in the Netherlands, and Mexico City’s Centro Cultural Arte Contemporáneo. Kingelez was the subject of monographic shows in Berlin, at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in 1992, and in Paris, at the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain in 1995. He traveled extensively, often visiting the cities where his work was on view. In 1997 he participated in the second Johannesburg Biennale, his first opportunity to exhibit in Africa. Titled Trade Routes: History and Geography, the biennial was overseen by artistic director Okwui Enwezor, who in the following years would have a critical role in making Kingelez’s work visible to a broader public. The biennial addressed the general theme of historical cultural exchange; it comprised six installations, each organized by a different curator. Kingelez was part of the installation Hong Kong, etc, curated by Hou Hanru, which took the titular locale as emblematic of a postcolonial hybrid city, primed for the collision of the forces of globalization: unstable and ambiguous, on the verge of transformation, congested and soaring, bridging north, south, east, and west. Featuring a number of Asian and Asian-diaspora artists, including Huang Yong Ping and Fiona Tan, it created a framework in which the future-facing orientation of Kingelez’s work was deeply resonant.
His sculptures were presented in a specifically African context in The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994, a landmark 2001 exhibition organized by Enwezor, which examined a dynamic and politically charged half-century through the lens of liberation and art movements. Kingelez’s work was presented in a section devoted to modern and contemporary art, which included paintings and drawings by Ibrahim El-Salahi, photographs by Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, and sculpture by Yinka Shonibare. Together these works exemplified African artists’ systematization, deployment, and use of modern forms, values, and structures rather than presenting modernism as a model imposed by the West. In the twenty-fifth São Paulo biennial, Iconografias metropolitanas, curator Alfons Hug positioned Kingelez’s work not in an ethnographic or geographic framework but rather in a thematic one. It was included in a section devoted to utopia, a so-called “12th City” of focus in addition to the eleven real-world metropolises, including Caracas, Istanbul, and London, that structured the exhibition. His work appeared alongside that of artists including Carsten Höller (Germany), Los Carpinteros (Cuba), and Sarah Sze (USA).
Also in 2002, Kingelez’s inclusion in documenta 11, the landmark quinquennial exhibition in Kassel, Germany, cemented his position as an artist of international significance. Deeply informed by the conditions of postcolonialism and globalism, Enwezor, the event’s artistic director, aimed, he wrote, to create a space that rejected “normalization or uniformization of all artistic visions on their way to institutional beatification.”116Enwezor, “The Black Box,” documenta 11Platform 5: Exhibition_ (Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2002), 43. Kingelez was an ideal fit—an artist who had developed his own visual language and remained true to it, unswayed by broader currents in contemporary art, the demands of the market, or the influence of collecting and exhibiting institutions.
Toward Utopia: The Cities
In addition to the sculptures of individual buildings Kingelez made in those years, the 1990s saw him engaging at a new level with the broader urban landscape, combining multiple structures in single works as he had done much earlier inKinshasa: Cité du 24 Novembre de l’Authenticité Africaine, the earliest known example. In Magiciens de la terre, Kingelez had installed Mausolée de Kingelez on the same pedestal as several other sculptures (designated simply as “immeubles,” or buildings), which he connected with roadways and populated with tiny figurines. But those structures lacked the characteristic attention to detail, layering, and repetition present in his work at the time, and they may have been constructed quickly in situ merely to provide the suggestion of a wider landscape. In 1992 Kingelez started amalgamating buildings in Kimbembele Ihunga (Kimbembele Ville), a homage to his home village. Set on a tripartite base, the work comprises several distinct, fully realized buildings, noticeably smaller in scale than his earlier pieces. It also includes thoroughfares: the buildings are centered on the intersection of the boulevards Isek and Kingelez.
In 1993 he began another work named for his hometown, Kimbembele Ihunga, a massive sculpture that would take nearly two years to complete and that would mark a quantum leap forward in his thinking about multibuilding sculptures.117Magnin, “Kingelez et ses extrêmes maquettes,” Jeune Afrique, no. 1803 (July–August 1995): 64. Filling a platform approximately six feet wide and ten feet long, it is a complex and comprehensive vision for the future of the community. At the “Gare Meridion,” a high-speed train waits in the station beneath a roof with honeycomb cutouts. Buildings with grand, curving staircases and towers delineated with thin strips of gold metallic tape form a dizzying grid. They include a church, a grocery store, and numerous named structures: the “M’Boyo Building,” the “Wa-ta-di” restaurant, and “Kingelez Stadium,” with its soccer pitch. In his statement about the work, the artist emphasized its futuristic aspect (as well as its connection to his own legacy):
“The monument of Kimbéville belongs to a genre of art which has attained its zenith presenting what already has the potential to become or is on the way to becoming a reality. Gradually the town of Kimbembele-Ihunga, abbreviated to Kimbéville by its creator-maker, the enlightened artist of new horizons, Bodys Isek Kingelez, should glorify the times rather than exist merely to further my own success and prosperity, in view of my fame and international reputation as a highly talented artist. . . . Kimbéville with its dazzling array of forms and colors is a 21st- century environment which has fired my artistic imagination.”118Kingelez, “The Essential Framework,” 49–50.
The text goes on to state that the community he created is a “real bridge between world civilizations of the past, the present, and the future”and cites its potential, if realized, to become a tourist attraction.119Ibid., 51. It describes the town’s sectors and sections, its leading clans, and how they are connected to him. A public sculpture in front of the town hall is a tribute to Kingelez’s father; striding forward, the figure bears some resemblance to Le bouclier de la révolution (The shield of the revolution), a monumental sculpture by Alfred Liyolo (born 1943) that replaced a likeness of Henry Morton Stanley on Mont Ngaliema in 1971. Kingelez’s figure carries not a shield and spear but a book: “This statue carrying his body of knowledge in his hand, simply represents the intellectual heritage of common sense and good manners which belongs to multicultural people. This is the way my father has proudly risen above the meaning of a ceremonial life to practice art in praise of beauty and grace which will bring about a better world.”120Ibid.
Kimbembele Ihunga is replete with formal self-references, evoking the cascading waves of Stars Palme Bouygues and the open geometries and fluted trees, now inflated to skyscraper height, of Bel Atlas. It is a summary of the artist’s formal invention up to that point in his career and a kind of self-portrait: a mapping of the people and places that shaped him. Of course, there was a local precedent for such a miraculous transformation, a dusty small town turned into an international metropolis: the (temporary) metamorphosis of Gbadolite into an utterly modern center for industry and government. Over the next several years, Kingelez immersed himself in the arduous creation of large-scale cities, making around eight altogether, including Ville Fantôme and Ville de Sète 3009.
In the summer of 2000, Kingelez traveled to Sète, in southern France, for a residency at the boundary-crossing Musée International des Arts Modestes (MIAM), which was then just about to open its doors. Founded by artists Hervé Di Rosa and Bernard Belluc, the museum sought to elide distinctions between fine art, folk art, popular art, and the work of self-taught artists. MIAM commissioned a work from Kingelez, and during the weeks of his residency he created Ville de Sète 3009, a homage to his host city that he executed with an emerging formal looseness.
Traversed by canals and ringed with a blue that suggests the sea, Ville de Sète 3009 makes concrete references to the maritime city in which it was made. There are numerous references to Paul Boyé, the textile and uniform manufacturer founded in Sète in 1904; to the Hôtel Azur, where Kingelez stayed, just down the quai de Bosc from MIAM; and even to the city’s summer water-jousting tournament, a tradition since the seventeenth century. None of the buildings bear any resemblance to their prosiac real-world counterparts, however; instead, they glow with translucent hues, sparkle with dustings of glitter, flash from a sea of metallic gold stars, and twinkle with the electric lights Kingelez installed along the work’s central axis.
There is, notably, a hospital anchoring one corner of the sculpture. While a medical facility is the focus of The Scientific Center of Hospitalisation the SIDA, it is a rarer occurrence in Kingelez’s work than a bank, an office, or a stadium. It was during this period in Sète that the artist experienced the symptoms that would shortly result in a cancer diagnosis. Pigozzi arranged for Kingelez to be treated in Paris, and the radical surgery that saved his life also sapped his energy, necessitating changes in his day-to-day behavior. Even before his treatment, however, Kingelez knew that all was not lost. He positioned the hospital in Ville de Sète 3009 not far from the “baie d’Espoir,” or Bay of Hope.
Kingelez’s most productive period was now behind him, and his artistic output slowed. In October 2001 he told a visitor, “I’m so tired. It’s so hot, it’s the start of the rainy season. I just had cancer. . . . At the moment, I don’t need more work.”121Kingelez, quoted in Duplat, “Le maître des maquettes.”The following year, however, Kingelez made another ambitious project: New Manhattan (Manhattan City 3021), a response to the shattering terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers in New York on September 11, 2001. The work, a city sculpture, reflected both his sympathy for the grieving city and a proposal for amelioration: “I have an idea to replace the two towers. I want to build three towers. The third tower is a defense against bombs. The third tower is filled with water, and its cooling effect will prevent any bomb from exploding. I want to prevent the current towers from being destroyed in a cruel manner. I think it’s good. Thanks to my solution, the Americans will find an appropriate solution that will help dry their tears and heal their wounds.”122Kingelez in the film Kingelez: Kinshasa, une ville repensée, 26:59 min.
Success was double-edged for Kingelez. He achieved his dream of getting into “the realm of real estate,” as he had joked, and toward the end of his life he reportedly owned as many as thirty houses dotted across Kinshasa.Draper, “Kinshasa: Urban Pulse of the Congo,” 123. For the joke about real estate, see Kingelez, “Artist’s Statement,” 6. Although he never made his home anywhere else, he occasionally expressed frustration with the city, which he considered to be at odds with his own ambitions—the call of “Work, work, work” that “resonated like an echo” in his head.123Kingelez, “Artist’s Statement,” 5. “I stay in Kinshasa to work,” he said, “even though the climate is disastrous for my oeuvre and for me, because this is where I have the moral support of my family. But I am like a stranger in Congo, where I have never been recognized. It’s mostly foreigners who commission my work.”124Kingelez, quoted in Duplat, “Le maître des maquettes.” By many accounts, Kingelez responded to his material success by becoming more reclusive, staying at home with his extended family, his wives, and his children, venturing outside only rarely.125Kingelez himself noted that his neighbors wondered why he and his family “never went out into the streets.” Draper, “Kinshasa: Urban Pulse of the Congo,” 123. Perhaps as a result, he wasn’t as well known in his own country as Samba, for example, nor idolized internationally like the sapeur and pop star Papa Wemba, the “King of Rumba Rock,” whose death in 2016 sparked outpourings of grief and public tributes from Paris to Nairobi.126Amos Ngaire, “Plans Underway to Fly Papa Wemba’s Body to Kinshasa,” Nation, April 26, 2016, http://www.nation.co.ke/lifestyle/showbiz/Papa-Wemba-body-to-be-flown-home/-/1950810/3176808/- /t07hviz/-/index.html. In 2013, two years before his death, Kingelez said to a reporter, “Here in Kinshasa, I’ve never done any exhibition. Let me tell you, no one knows who I am or what I do. Two weeks ago, I was very sick, and I was about to die in front of my wife. No one in Kinshasa would have known. Nothing on the radio or the TV or the newspapers. That’s the way it goes in the Congo.”127Draper, “Kinshasa: Urban Pulse of the Congo,” 123.
Kingelez died on March 14, 2015. Three days later, the notice of his death in the French newspaper Le monde hailed him as a “monument of Congolese art” and aptly identified both the utopian underpinnings of his oeuvre and the implicit social critique in his “chimerical architecture . . . without police or cemetery, traffic or congestion.”128Roxana Azimi, “L’artiste congolais Bodys Isek Kingelez est mort,” Le monde, March 17, 2015. Trans. by the author.
In 2000 the artist claimed to have produced 3,014 works over the preceding twenty-five years.129Kingelez, “Artist’s Statement,” 9. In the French version of this statement, the number 3,017 is given. See “Interview de Bodys Isek Kingelez,” in Bodys Isek Kingelez (Brussels: La Médiatine, Centre Culturel Wolu- Culture, 2003), 12. While that is almost surely an overestimate, it is also certain that sculptures have been lost to floods and shipping accidents, to the effects of time on paper and glue, to oversight and human error. In researching this project, I have seen just over one hundred or so single works and eight cities by Kingelez in collections around the world. Yet even in this relatively modest number, his oeuvre is a towering achievement, a body of sculpture with tremendous visual allure and enduring social resonance.
Kingelez anchored his work in the present and the recent past and in the fabric of the city around him, inspired equally by colonial architecture, the ambitious buildings of post-Independence Zaire, and idioms that typify national building styles. But his work was always future facing. In an era in which cities, including Kinshasa, were (and continue to be) under pressure to accommodate unprecedented rates of growth and the attendant challenges to civic life, Kingelez pointed a way forward, offering models of beauty, harmony, and functionality. His work addressed the great challenges of the twentieth century—decolonization, health crises, the quest for nationhood and national identity—but it is infused with potential, both philosophical and formal. In his hands, new, cooperative ways of living and working were possible, and the most mundane of materials could become technically precise, inventive, and elegant objects. He declared himself “a designer, an architect, a sculptor, engineer, artist.” His dazzling sculptures, manifestations of a future that perhaps only he could see, suggest one additional role: “A visionary,” he said, “is someone who dreams of what doesn’t exist yet.”130Kingelez in the film Kingelez: Kinshasa, une ville repensée, 19:35 min.
Title and epigraph: The phrase “Kingelez visionnaire” is inscribed throughout the artist’s work Kimbembele Ihunga. For the epigraph, see Bodys Isek Kingelez, “Artist’s Statement,” in Perspectives 145: Bodys Isek Kingelez(Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum, 2005), 9. This extraordinary autobiographical statement was adapted from an interview in French between Kingelez and André Magnin in Paris and Kinshasa in 2000.
This essay by Sarah Suzuki was originally published in the exhibition catalog Bodys Isek Kingelez , available in the MoMA bookstore.