Congo as Fiction (Fiktion Kongo) is the title of an exhibition at Museum Rietberg in Zürich that takes a look at the art of the Congo both past and present. In the past, the Congo produced impressive masks, figures and design pieces, and today the Democratic Republic of the Congo is famous for its vibrant art scene. Starting point of the exhibition are objects and photographs brought home by the art anthropologist Hans Himmelheber (1908–2003) from his travels in the Congo in 1938/39. The historical masterpieces and photographs are being juxtaposed with artworks by contemporary Congolese artists such as Sammy Baloji, Michèle Magema, Monsengo Shula, and Sinzo Aanza.
Congo as Fiction / Museum Rietberg, Zürich. December 12, 2019.
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Press text (excerpt):
Today, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is world famous for its vibrant art scene. Nowhere else in Africa is artistic creativity so diverse, inventive, and at the pulse of time. However, in the past, too, the Congo produced impressive masks, figures, and designer pieces, many of them today icons of African art. Now, for the first time, historical works and photo- graphs are juxtaposed with contemporary artworks in an exhibition on the art of the Congo. In an attempt to avoid a biased Western view of Congolese art, CONGO AS FICTION shifts renowned contemporary artists from the Congo into the limelight, including Sammy Baloji, Michèle Magema, Monsengo Shula, and Sinzo Aanza. The exhibition shows how artists – past as well as present – critically deal with the impacts of colonialism, missionaries, and global trade.
Ever since the age of discovery, through the era of colonial repression up to the present, the Congo has served as a projection screen for Western as well as African ideas and fictions. Significant hallmarks of Congolese art and history include, from early on, the close entanglement and creative exchange of ideas, forms, and objects in a globalized world. At the same time, the art of the region bears the traces of colonialism, religious conversion, and the exploitation of natural resources. These transcultural and postcolonial issues are not only of significance for understanding the past, but also massively impact on the shaping of the present. This is one of the reasons why the historical perspective is set side by side with contemporary artistic positions from the Congo itself as well as from the Congolese diaspora.
The exhibition embarks from objects and photographs which the art anthropologist Hans Himmelheber (1908–2003) brought back from his travels to the Congo in 1938/39 and which are now presented to the public, some of them for the first time. The colourful masks, power figures, and artfully designed objects of daily use bear testimony to the aesthetics and significance of artistic creativity in those days. His photographic legacy represents a unique snapshot of the aesthetic and cultural practice common to the Congo of the 1930s while, at the same time, documenting the social upheaval experienced during the apogee of Belgian colonial rule. But Hans Himmelheber’s visual and written archives, since recently held by the Museum Rietberg, also reflect his own, personal beliefs and ideas concerning the Congo which are clearly influenced by the zeitgeist of the time.
However, CONGO AS FICTION is not only an attempt to embed historical objects and photographs in the art history of one of Africa’s most eminent centres of cultural production and its early entanglement with the wider world. The old works are juxtaposed with artistic positions of contemporary, internationally renowned artists from the Congo who apply a critical focus to their country’s past and colonial history. In an artist-in-residence programme, the artist and co-founder of the Lubumbashi Art Biennale, Sammy Baloji, and the young writer Sinzo Aanza have dealt in depth with Hans Himmelheber archives and exploited them to create their own Congo fictions. The Paris-based artist Michèle Magema and Fiona Bobo, who was born and grew up in Zurich, have realized commissioned works for the exhibition, along with the artist David Shongo whose intervention is to be shown in Zurich and at the Biennale Lubumbashi almost simultaneously. With additional works by Angali, Steve Bandoma, Hilary Kuyangiko Balu, Aimé Mpane, Chéri Samba, Yves Sambu, Monsengo Shula, and Pathy Tshindele, the exhibition presents in total fourteen artists who relate to traditional art and their own cultural heritage, with regard to either form or content.