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Congolese artists dazzle in Paris: the vitality of a century of Congolese art, sculpture and photography is showcased for the first time in a major exhibition.

Paris is hosting the first ever retrospective exhibition of art from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most of these works have never been displayed internationally before, being held in private collections in Belgium, France and Switzerland, while others were found in the colonial archives in Brussels and a few more brought over from Kinshasa, direct from the artists themselves.

Looking back over 90 years, there are over 350 paintings, photographs, sculptures and comic books by 41 artists.

The curator of the exhibition is world expert on Congolese art Andre Magnin. He first travelled to Kinshaha in 1987, where he found a thriving popular artistic scene, with artists who had begun as billboard painters, decorators and illustrators, setting up their studio on busy streets so that their canvases would be seen by everyone.

"I was struck by the freedom, variety, humour and beauty of the paintings that were passing before my eyes," he says. "I was at the heart of an art form that required no theorising or explanation, revealing a whole new cultural lifestyle by evoking political and social moments, whether tiny or overwhelming."

In Kinshasa he met many of the painters whose work is exhibited here in Paris. Their paintings feature bar scenes, parties, musicians playing the Congolese rumba popularised by guitarist Franco, sapeurs (those young men who belong to the self-styled Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes, for whom dandyism is a religion), and quarrels between neighbours.

Cheri Samba, now 58, is one of the most internationally renowned artists in the exhibition. His works have been shown at the Pompidou in Paris as well as at MoM A in New York and at the 2007 Venice Biennale. Having begun life as a billboard painter in the 1970s, he went on to pioneer the Popular style of art--bright, eye-catching works that focused on everyday life and often incorporated text.

"I'm the one who came up with the name 'popular painting', because it comes from the people, is about the people, and is intended for the people ... My paintings, like those of my colleagues, address issues such as education, morals, politics and everyday life. I favour a direct style to convey messages that speak to everyone," he says.

"I use lots of bright, flashy colours to make my paintings vivid. That's why I added glitter in the late 1980s," he adds.

But stretching back over the decades, as early as the mid 1920s, when Congo was still a Belgian colony, ivory carver Albert Lubaki and his wife Antoinette, and the tailor Djilatendo painted the first known Congolese works on paper, representing village life, the natural world, dreams and legends.

In the 1940s and '50s, painters such as Bela, Mwenze Kibwanga and Pilipili Mulongoy created works using distinctive techniques, drawing inspiration through their own traditions rather than imitating European styles, though an art workshop, the atelier du Hangar. Following the death of its founder, French painter Pierre Romain-Desfosses, in 1954 it was integrated into the Academie des Beaux Arts of Elisabethville, founded three years earlier by the Belgian painter Laurent Moonens, and Mulongoy, Kibwanga and Sylvester Kaballa became professors.

In the 1970s, the exhibition Art Partout in Kinshasa in 1978 presented works by Cheri Samba, Cheri Cherin, Moke and other artists, many of whom are still active today. Papa Mfumu'eto 1st explored daily life in his work and younger artists such as JP Mika and Monsengo Shula tuned into current events.

In the 1980s, innovative sculptors such as Bodys Isek Kingelez and Rigobert Nimi created architectural models of utopian cities or robotised factories to explore social cohesion. In the 2000s, founding members of the collective Eza Possibles, Pathy Tshindele and Kura Shomali revitalised the scene with their unconventional collages and paintings.

The exhibition also presents the work of photographers such as Jean Depara and Ambroise Ngaimoko, from Studio 3Z, depicting the energy of the city of Kinshasa following independence. The designated photographer of the musician Franco, Depara portrays the lively and extravagant nightlife of the '50s and '60s. Ngaimoko records the idiosyncratic world of the sapeurs.

With music, fashion shows and an alternative internet radio station as well as art, Beaute Congo shows that Congolese culture is alive and thriving.

Beaute Congo 1926-2015 Congo Kitoko is at the Fondation Cartier pour Fart contemporain in Paris until 15th November.
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Comment:Congolese artists dazzle in Paris: the vitality of a century of Congolese art, sculpture and photography is showcased for the first time in a major exhibition.(Art)
Author:Dalby, Alexa
Publication:African Business
Geographic Code:6ZAIR
Date:Oct 1, 2015
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