Paintings show the casual violence of colonial masters

CNN  — 

In front of a white building, with a Belgian flag flying high in the yard, a black man in a striped t-shirt and shorts is being strangled with a chain.

Nearby, another black man is lying face down on the ground, his trousers pulled down to reveal deep bleeding cuts in his buttocks. Above him stands another black man, smartly dressed in a colonial police officer’s uniform, whip raised above his head, ready to strike. The guard looks furtively over at a white man, in a white uniform with the Belgian flag sewn into his lapel, and a white pith helmet on his head. He smokes a pipe and has one hand in his pocket. His other hand casually directs the violence in the yard.

This scene is from one of the paintings in a new exhibition, 53 Echoes of Zaire, which opens on 27 May at the Sulger-Buel-Lovell gallery in London. The painting, titled “Congo Belge II,” was made in the 1970s and depicts a period in the history of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (previously know as Zaire), a former Belgian colony.

The Kingdom of Kongo rose in the 1300s, and part of it became Congo Free State, the private holding of Belgian King Leopold II, in the 1880s. Speaking of that colonial history, Christian Sulger-Buel, who co-founded the gallery says: “Belgian Congo is an extraordinary exception to the colonial norm. It was dramatically exploited by one man, King Leopold (II), who treated the people and the land like his private property. He owned Congo the way you’d own your car.”

Political art

The artist, T. Kalema, was part of a group that came to be known as the “Lubumbashi Movement,” artists living and working in the southeastern city of Lubumbashi. The work of the Lubumbashi Movement served as a way to document Congo’s turbulent history.

The political nature of the art created in Lubumbashi in the 1970s is particular to the city, which is the copper mining heartland of Congo. “In Kinshasa (the capital of the DRC) the subjects of art were typically social, lighter and with a lot of humor,” says Salimata Diop, head of programs at London’s Africa Centre, and the exhibition’s curator.

By contrast, artists who were part of the Lubumbashi Movement painted scenes from the slave trade in the 16th and 17th centuries, through to the brutality by the colonial masters and right up to their contemporary struggles: miners strikes, independence, the secession of Katanga, and hope in Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba that turns to despair as he’s arrested and later killed.

“These artists were not making ‘airport art’ – art for foreigners or tourists to buy,” says Diop. “They saw themselves as artisans and were making art for local people.”

Among these visual historians in Lubumbashi a sub-genre called “Colonie Belge” became popular. “These paintings typically depict a white man – the colonial master – impeccably dressed, doing nothing except watching a black man flog another black man, often while his family look on,” explains Sulger-Buel.

The images are striking not just for their graphic content but also for their use of color, a remarkable achievement considering the poverty in which the artists lived. “They had access to only basic primary colors and despite the fine lines in some of the paintings, only worked with large brushes,” says Sulger-Buel.

‘The demons of Africa’

Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu, the lead artist in the exhibition with over 30 works, had aspirations to be a teacher but became an artist. He was already prolific when he met Etienne Bol, a Belgian man his age with whom he struck up a friendship. Between 1971 and 73, Bol commissioned Kanda-Matulu and four other artists to paint the images displayed in the exhibition.

Diop says: “Paintings (usually created on canvasses made from flour sacks) sold for very modest sums. Kanda-Matulu lived in a small one bedroom house and found it difficult to make a living from his art. He was very poor.”

Despite his contribution to popular Congolese art, Kanda-Matulu’s life is shrouded in mystery. He met Etienne Bol in 1972, 10 years later, in 1982, he disappeared. People he knew thought he had gone back to his village, others speculated that he may have moved to neighboring Zambia. Given the political nature of his art, could his disappearance have been politically motivated?

Diop doesn’t think so but says: “Tshibumba was easy to find – he was always working from home. But suddenly, he wasn’t there anymore. In the troubled times (under the autocrat Mobutu Sese Seko) it was not uncommon for people to move a lot in search of a peaceful life. We don’t know if he’s alive or dead.”

The exhibition, which closes on June 30, the day Congo gained independence from Belgium 55 years ago, is overall a portrayal of what Sulger-Buel calls “the demons of Africa – forced labor, civil war, violent repression of student protests,” which still haunt Congo today.

Whether seen as a retelling of the past or a perspective on its present day, the art and artists of the Lubumbashi Movement deserve a place in Congo’s national history and on the global art scene.