KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo – When the painter Hilary Balu was studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kinshasa, one of the most populous cities on the African continent, he knew all the masters: Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci etc. until his program turns to the royal portrait.
He marveled at the 16th century images of men and women posed in showy and elaborate dresses. But he wondered where were the Africans? He decided to find out.
Around the same time that European kings and queens clad in velvet were celebrated in paintings, he learned, the Kuba kingdom was rising in central Africa. The Kuba kings wore leopard skins and eagle feathers. And they ushered in an important era of artistic innovation with their elaborate costumes as well as the embroidered textiles, beaded hats and wooden cups used to celebrate them.
“The history of African art was not on our program,” Balu said. “It is said that Africa is the cradle of humanity, but paradoxically Africa is not represented in the history of art.
He played on that idea, producing paintings in 2015 that were copies of the royal portraits – but he carefully cut out the white faces. In their place, he painted masks of Kuba kings. He called the series “Kuba in someone else’s shoes”.
“The idea was to find another way to create our own story using the history of Europe,” said Balu, who is 29 and counts Kehinde Wiley as inspiration, who questioned the scarcity of blacks in Western art.
Balu lives here in Kinshasa, which was the homeland of world famous musicians such as Papa Wemba, known as the king of rumba rock. The city also produced artist Alfred Liyolo, known for his curvaceous bronze sculptures, one of which is on display in the Vatican.
But for other still famous artists living in the sprawling city of about 17 million people, the struggle to make a living from their craft can be a challenge. To them, funding from the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the arts seems almost impossible to obtain. Daily life can be difficult in the capital, where only a few lights twinkle across the lush hills beyond the city center at nightfall – much of the city is without electricity – and the main form of transportation in common is a set of dented and rusty yellow vans nicknamed Spirit of Death for their propensity to have fatal crashes.
Yet art is everywhere: colorful paintings are sold in posh hotel lobby exhibits and propped up in the dirt to be sold along downtown streets. The art of local painters adorns the walls of bland, blocky government buildings. In a former textile factory in the warehouse district, Kin ArtStudio is hosting artist residencies as part of the next Congo Biennale 2021 (September 17 to October 24). With his theme “The Breath of the Ancestors”, he explores how, despite “the violent dismemberment of the cultural and spiritual context, centuries of abuse, deception and manipulation, the power of the ancestors cannot be erased,” said visual artist Vitshois. Mwilambwe Bondo, the founder of both projects. “To what extent does the creative genius of the bustling art scene come from the inspiration of the ancestors? he said.
Balu collaborates professionally with Bondo and his work has been included in the 2019 Biennale. He spent three years in residence at Kin ArtStudio. Outside Kinshasa, Balu’s work has been presented in museum exhibitions in Zurich; Graz, Austria; and Sète, France. Earlier this year, he was selected as a resident artist by Black Rock Senegal, the Dakar program created by Wiley, best known for his portrayal of Barack Obama in the White House.
On a recent evening in a hilly area of Kinshasa, Balu walked down a dirt street where chickens were scratching the gutter and groups of men were sitting on a street corner in plastic chairs, discussing the latest hours of sun. He walked into his house to show off his studio, just a guest bedroom with white tiled floors and lit by fluorescent bulbs. Large murals in shades of purples, blues and oranges leaned against the walls. Drops of paint were placed on a palette on the floor.
Balu hovered above European art books as he held an ancient long sword, wielding it as he came alive as he spoke of his latest body of work.
The painting he was completing shows a man – a migrant about to cross the sea – in sweatpants and a nylon zipped tote bag over his head, sitting on a patterned fabric. He is holding the same sword that Balu was wielding. Portugal’s merchant sailing ships float on a purple sea.
The sword came from the village chiefs Balu encountered near the border with Angola, where merchant ships arrived centuries ago in search of slaves. Officials told Balu that Portuguese merchants tricked local chiefs into trading humans for items like the sword, as well as helmets and military medals, claiming they held special powers.
The play is part of a new series called “In the Floods of Illusions”, which aims to link contemporary migration and forced migration invented by slavery.
Balu’s painting takes into account the powerful influence of the West on modern life in the Congo. In his view, both migrants in search of work and a new life in Europe, and traders in search of slaves and natural resources, used the same sea to realize their belief that they would find “the better on the other side ”.
“For me, this water expresses this space of illusion,” he said.
The work was born out of his desire to understand his place in a society dominated by outside influences, where the overwhelming majority of people live in extreme poverty and where international companies enrich themselves by cutting down trees in lush forests and while digging for diamonds, gold, copper and other minerals.
“That’s what I’d like to know,” he said, explaining the research for his work. “How the capitalist system came to the Congo, how the system transformed our political identity, our economic identity, and our cultural and spiritual identities today.”
Balu’s new work recycles an image from his 2020 series, “Voyage Vers Mars”, exploring the tragedy of contemporary migration – depicting young people risking their lives to cross the sea to Europe like astronauts leaving an Earth that has become uninhabitable to leave for Mars.
In both series, the characters in the paintings carry nylon bags that migrants often use to carry their personal belongings, which he transformed into an astronaut’s helmet. The bags are made in China but printed on them are images of the West – a modern city, for example. The pictures, he said, were what foreigners think Africans want. Another illusion, he said.
Balu wants to stay in Kinshasa. His paintings, he said, would never be the same if he lived elsewhere.
“When you leave the house and go out, you see people screaming, you smell the chicken mayo, that smell – it’s Kinshasa,” he said. “My work integrates the soul of the community.