From Traditional art…
Traditional Congolese art is particularly rich and varied. It is composed of Kuba, Tshokwe, Songye or Pende arts which are the pride of the different regions and ethnicities of the country. They distinguish themselves in fields as varied as sculpture, statuary, weaving, ceramics and tapestry.
The name Kuba means “People of lightning”. Of all the great pre-colonial kingdoms of the DRC, only the Kuba survived the colonial era. This survival can be explained by three reasons: the solidity of the central political organization on the eve of the colonial conquest, the almost sacred character of the king in the eyes of his subjects, and the extraordinary reputation of the Kuba arts.
Kuba art is first and foremost a royal and aristocratic art. It is characterized by an exceptional sense of forms and colors. It is found in the form of statues, combs, razor holders, stylized eyeshadow boxes, cephalomorphic cups, dance masks, woven raffia fiber and embroidered fabrics.
The Tshokwe (or Chokwe) inhabit a vast region on the border between Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Tshokwe art is characterized by its great diversity: masks in wood or in fragile resin, scepters adorned with figures of chiefs, sculpted seats … But also small objects such as whistles, and an abundant statuary representing chiefs or chiefs’ wives whose function we do not really know, always made in a dark wood.
The Songye are a people living in the wooded savannas of the southeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Songye have created some of the most impressive masks in black African art. These masks are among the ceremonial objects that still play a prestigious role among the Eastern Songyes today.
Known to be one of the only peoples to have had the audacity to face the firepower of the Portuguese invaders, this people was nicknamed by its neighbors — for whom their attitude bordered on unconsciousness — the Pendé, which means “the rebels”.
Pendé art is very prolific and presents a very wide variety of masks, each more inventive and surprising than the previous.
...To contemporary art
The 1930s, the beginning of contemporary art
Modern art in the DRC grew out of its contact with the west. The artistic tradition is influenced by the use of new media and tools from Europe. The beginnings of contemporary art in the 1930s are attributed to the time of the Belgian Congo.
Two pioneering artists emerge from this period, supported by Belgian administrator Georges Thiry, Lubaki and Djilatendo. Fascinated by their drawings on boxes, Georges Thiry provides them with paper and watercolors so that they can transcribe their works on a more resistant support. Their drawings are often figurative, sometimes abstract, they deal with themes linked to nature, everyday life, local legends and dreams.
Lubaki’s watercolors were presented for the first time in 1929 in Europe, at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.
The 1940s & 1950s, the art academies entered the scene
In 1946, almost twenty years after the discovery of the pioneering artists, Pierre Romain-Desfossés founded in Elisabethville (now Lumumbashi), the Indigenous Art Academy, better known as the “Atelier du Hangar”. The objective of the French patron was not to teach his followers to paint in the European way, but rather to help them express their art and their personality, drawing on ancestral traditions of representation.
Three artists stand out in the Atelier du Hangar by their style: Bela, Pilipili Mulongoy and Mwenze Kibwanga
The Academy of Fine Arts of Kinshasa was created in 1943 as a school, before taking its definitive name in 1957.
The Elisabethville Academy of Fine Arts, founded in 1951, is one of the first interracial schools in the Belgian Congo and offers training in drawing, architecture, ceramics, painting and sculpture.
The 1970s: emergence of popular art
During the post-colonial period, popular painting emerged with the exhibition “Art everywhere” held in Kinshasa in 1978. This movement brought an end to a period when contemporary art was caught between the Western influence and the affirmation of an African art.
The leading artists were Chérif Samba, Moke, Pierre Bodo, Chéri Chérin. Their subjects relate to political and social criticism. The paintings sometimes include explanatory texts combining humor and derision. This current of popular art is carried on today by a new generation of artists, the best known of which are JP Mika and Monsengo Shula. Mika is the youngest of the popular painters exhibited in Paris.
The 2000s, the birth of experimental art
We are witnessing in the 90s a new turning point with the creation in 2003 of the collective “Eza Possible” (“It is possible”, in Lingala). This collective brings together a dozen artists including Kura Shomali, Pathy Tshindele and Mega Mingiedi Tunga. These artists reject any form of conventional and established art and advocate an experimental, multidisciplinary and resolutely urban art.
Today, this multitude of artists is represented during international exhibitions making the Congo a leading country for contemporary African art. The success of the exhibition “Beauté Congo” in 2015 at the Fondation de Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris is an illustration of this.