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June 2010

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Congolese painter Aimé Mpane and Brussels art gallery NOMAD are at the forefront of Belgium’s burgeoning African art scene. Veerle Devos and Kristof Dams find out about the artistic faultlines that run between Brussels, Kinshasa and elsewhere

Stereotypes that sell Having been laden for decades with the “ethnic art” tag – or slur, depending on how you view it – today “African” art is on the verge of a mainstream breakthrough. A new generation of African artists are making inroads into the higher echelons of the international art scene – Brussels’ own Aimé Mpane among them. But many still feel that even fifty years after much of the continent secured independence from Europe, Western appreciation of African art is still viewed within a colonial context. The fact that artists of African origin are beginning to get due recognition on the international art scene was highlighted by the first-ever African pavilion in the Venice Bienniale – but it took until 2007 for this to happen. And, much to their indignation, many of the artists there still had to deal with journalists asking what it feels like to be an “African artist”. “People like to put labels on things, so they will call art made by an African ‘African art’,” says Mpane. “But to me these labels don’t matter. I am a creator and art is universal.”

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Mpane was born in 1968 into an artistic family in Kinshasa. In 1994, he came to Brussels to study painting at La Cambre and has lived in the city ever since, though he still spends a lot of time in Kinshasa as well. Mpane has grown to love Brussels (“It’s my first wife...J’adore Bruxelles,” he says) but he did not enjoy the experience of studying at La Cambre. “I wasted an entire year there. ‘You don’t make African art’ is what my teachers [said to] me. The same figurative work I made in Kinshasa, and sold well there – to Europeans also – was apparently not considered artistic enough in Brussels,” says Mpane. “I didn’t immediately change my style because of those criticisms, but I started reflecting upon them. I concentrated on understanding the European public. I looked at certain clichés in my work, and classified them.” Mpane says he also discovered that African art in Europe was generally restricted to three themes: “sports, dance and mendacity. I noticed how racist European society remained. For African works of art to sell well here, they have to meet certain stereotypes. They have to be in tune with what Europeans expect from African art; they have to contain those elements that are central to the European imagination of Africa.” Far from being daunted by Europe’s clichéd expectations of African artists, however, Mpane used it to fuel his artistic development: “I worked further with these insights, and started questioning VEERLE DEVOS


he Congolese presence in Brussels is known mainly through the city’s Matongé area – its flavours, its smells, its sounds. But Brussels is also home to a small but vibrant scene of Congolese painters, photographers and other visual artists who often live and work between Brussels and Kinshasa. Both cities have their own “Matongé” areas (the one in Kinshasa came first) and both Matongés are a reference point in, as well as an inspiration for, their art.

Contemporary artist Aimé Mpane

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Breaking into the international art scene

Faces of Africa: Aimé Mpane’s art installation ‘9 Expressions’

my own work.” More broadly, Mpane started questioning his very identity – as an artist and as a Congolese man living and working in Belgium. “The influence of both cities is present in my work,” but he says he feels like an insider and an outsider in both places. “Here in Brussels, I speak French with a Congolese accent but in Congo they say I speak French with a Belgian accent. They call me ‘the European’. So today, I don’t see my work as either African or European. I am a sponge, which absorbs and whatever I absorb comes out in some form or other.” Mpane says he is at peace with the fact that he cannot change how other people want to categorise him. “The label of ‘African artist’, when all is said and done, doesn’t even bother me anymore. But it’s simply not correct. So I am glad that the upcoming Liverpool Biennial does not pigeonhole me as an ‘African artist’, but simply presents me as a contemporary painter, questioning painting. Because that is what I am.”

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But the ‘ethnic art’ expectation, and all that it entails, will not die easily. It already prevented the major breakthrough of a generation of African artists who rose to relative fame in the 1980s and 1990s, such as painter Chéri Samba. They made their impact, but never quite managed to escape from the ‘outsider art’ pigeonhole. They remained on the fringes of the traditional art circuit with major galleries showing no great interest in their work, although several private top collectors became return customers. However, today’s generation, with artists like Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui, who has exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, have been more successful in breaking into the mainstream: at last, the outsiders are becoming insiders. Walter De Weerdt and Ashley Peeler are owners of the NOMAD gallery in Brussels, currently the only contemporary exhibition space in the city to specialise in art from the African continent and diaspora. “What we try to do here at NOMAD is to raise African art to an international level,” says De Weerdt. “We exhibit the work of BelgianCongolese artists in the context of a professionally run gallery. Up until now, African artists were mostly exhibited in the context of more folk-style, non-profit organisations. We also actively scout new artists, not only in the Congolese diaspora in Belgium, but in Africa as well.” But it is not an easy task, says De Weerdt. “The problem is that there are so few art critics in Africa and so few art academies that finding schooled African artists is really pioneering work. Certainly the art coming out of many French-speaking African countries is, through a lack of serious art education, often what you would call ‘naïve’. Most of the artists there are self-taught, though there are exceptions. But the strongest new artists come from English-speaking countries with a good art education – [places like] South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria.”

Finding a market for African art If African artists on the continent still have difficulties winning over Western art critics, then what about their fellow African artists in Belgium? Music and food seem to play the most prominent part in Matongé-Brussels, but the visual arts are present too. Painter Chéri Samba used to have a mural there (which has now been demolished) and today, there is a sculpture by Belgian-Congolese sculptor Freddy Tsimba named ‘Mother and

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Child’, an assemblage of bullet shells as a protest against war. But what place does visual art really occupy among the Congolese community living in Belgium? NOMAD says there is work to be done in this area: “Africans in general do not buy works by their own artists. The Congolese middle class shows no interest in Congolese artists.” Aimé Mpane confirms this: “In contrast to music, and, to a lesser extent, literature, the visual arts are not ingrained into the life of the Congolese in Belgium. This is certainly true as far as sales are concerned. But sales are not all that matters, of course. There is also a question of making an impact.” Much of Mpane’s work investigates the fraught relationship between Africa and Europe since the 1885 Berlin Conference, which divided Africa between the Great Powers of Europe. Members of the Congolese community in Belgium, Mpane says, often speak to him about this part of his work. “You see, the Western model which was applied to Congo, ‘Kinshasa-Bruxelles. De Matonge à still has important consequences Matonge’ runs at the Royal Museum for today,” he says. “The colonial Central Africa until September 20. Lannoo publishes Jean-Dominique Burton’s book of the same powers did not know Africa well, name in July. See or so they just cut it in pieces to suit for more their own needs, without regard information. to the people there. Congo and Congo-Brazzaville for instance, NOMAD Gallery, Centre Dansaert Centrum, 7 Rue d’Alost, Brussels, were cut in two, while they are really part of one cultural entity, with one language, one culture, Work by Aimé Mpane will be shown at NOMAD, one population. What they did as well as the Liverpool Biennal from September 18 to then was comparable to the Berlin November 28. Wall: separating families and an entire people.” But Mpane refuses to be defined by Congolese culture and history alone. “There are lots of things I don’t understand anymore about Congo. Going back is not an option for me. Living in Europe enriches me. I get more out of it than those who were born here, because I have a view from a distance. I have two backgrounds, two cultures to draw from. I see the stereotypes in both cultures, with a sociologist’s view. I process these insights in my work.” Brussels especially is an inspiration to him: “This incredibly dense mix of peoples, you don’t have that anywhere else. Where I live, in Anderlecht, it’s as if you were in Morocco. In other places you would think you’re in central Africa, or in Portugal. I could live in New York, London or Paris, sure, but Brussels is much more attractive to me.”

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Matongé – twin fruit

While NOMAD’s focus is on Africa, the gallery doesn’t just represent African artists. “By way of post-colonial statement, if you like, we open a dialogue of African and non-African art,” says De Weerdt. “We have, for instance, an exhibition by Belgian photographer JeanDominique Burton, who also has an exhibition of photographic work running simultaneously in the Africa Museum in Tervuren and in the streets of Kinshasa for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Congo’s independence.” In this exhibition, Burton portrays 40 Congolese in Matongé-Brussels and Matonge-Kinshasa. “The name Matonge comes from the fruit ‘litonge’ – ‘matonge’ is the plural,” he explains. “That’s beautiful, isn’t it? The two neighbourhoods form a twin pair. They are alike, yet different and this comes out in the pictures.” The difference, indeed, is striking. “Where the surroundings in Matonge-Kinshasa are almost black and white, grey even, the people are so garish that it looks as though I coloured the pictures. Even the nuns in Kinshasa are colourful and bright, and even the old people are elegant. Even in the dirt and in the broken landscape, the people dress in their Sunday best, the very embodiment of elegance. There are also the ‘sapeurs chanteurs’, young rappers who are always looking tip top. In Matongé-Brussels, on the other hand, everyone is grey, even the Congolese people in the pictures. Of course, you have some colourful characters here as well, like the ‘sapeurs’, or the ‘Mama’s Benz’ who make a lot of cash and like to flaunt it driving their Mercedes cars around.” At this moment, Matongé-Brussels is in a state of transition: the Congolese are leaving the neighbourhood, first in reaction to its degradation, and now because of the rise in real estate prices. But the African businesses stay on and their clientele is still faithful. In any case, both in Kinshasa and in Brussels, the Matongé area is a benchmark for artistic expression. !

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Brussels - Kinshasa  

Congolese painter Aimé Mpane and Brussels art gallery NOMAD are at the forefront of Belgium’s burgeoning African art scene. Veerle Devos and...