Congo Art Works: Popular Painting at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow

May 20August 13, 2017

In summer 2017, Garage Museum of Contemporary Art presents Congo Art Works: Popular Painting, a survey of Congolese art over the last fifty years, developed by the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA), Tervuren in collaboration with BOZAR, Brussels.

Curator Valentin Diaconov and assistant curator Iaroslav Volovod.

Six years after showing Carsten Holler and Jean Pigozzis acclaimed overview of art from two important and wildly different culturesJapanCongoGarage revisits the Democratic Republic of Congo, a former Belgian colony that has become a hotbed of contemporary artistic production. This time, the angle is quite different: paintings by prominent Congolese artists are presented not as exotic objects, but as depictions of everyday reality which aim to make sense of the countrys present and its history. Congo Art Works: Popular Painting draws from the collection of the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA) and tells the story of art in the Mobutu Sese Seko era and beyond. The exhibition is curated by Bambi Ceuppens of RMCA and Congolese artist Sammy Baloji, who places his compatriots works within a dense net of colonial memories, personal documents, and hard facts. Congo Art Works: Popular Painting is, in many ways, a continuation of Balojis investigation of the history of his home country that has developed through research, installations, and curatorial projects since 2006.

The phenomenon of popular painting emerged in the aftermath of Congos independence from Belgian rule, in 1960. Initially generating little interest outside the country, it gained international recognition in the early 2000s. The exhibition opens with a selection of film posters, books, and photography from the colonial period that seeks to challenge the established way of looking at African peoples as “underdeveloped or “uncivilized, and therefore excluded from Western modernity or progress. Private art schools established in Congo in the colonial period as part of an institutional outreach program that aimed to present Belgium as a benevolent ruler bringing progress have tried to exoticise local artists by training them to follow the traditional forms of expression.

In order to connect the exhibition and its exploration of colonialism and the post-colonial condition to the Russian context, Garage has developed a show within a show, which examines the art of Chukotka, a region in the Far East of the country that became part of the Soviet Union in 1920. With this investigation of a markedly different type of interaction between the metropolis and the margins, Garage seeks to address an important, but rarely examined topic.

On this occasion we initiate our new "news series", Ask the Curator and requested Valentin Diaconov, about CONGO ART WORKS: POPULAR PAINTING

Krzysztof Gutfranski: What is the relation between the Chuchotka (Russia/Moscow) annex and the main message of the show?

Valentin Diaconov: From the outset, we were aware that if the original show, a complicated and very informed treatise on Congos art history in relation to the countrys political history, would stand alone, and be shown as such, the situation would resemble the Soviet mode of critique of imperialist countries without owning up to policies that bear a striking resemblance to capitalist operations. We needed to own up to Russias colonial past, and also to introduce the notion of Soviet colonialism, something that frequently gets overlooked in favor of a strict focus on the Tsarist regime. Chukotka seemed the best choice on many levels, because a) it became an official part of the country in 1920, and b) over the thirties, with Soviet imperialism on the rise, had suffered through all the techniques of oppression that colonial powers employed forced sedentarism, industrialization, the works. While Chukotka is still part of Russia, it was important for us to show the dynamics of interaction between the artists and the state, that is, the commissioners of the works on display. These interactions are both similar and different from the Congolese history in many interesting ways. Drawing comics is an important part of Congolese art, and Chukotka graphic stories/depictions on the tusks are mostly linear narratives. That is one of many examples.

KG: And in a broader sense, how do you see institutional role as a Garage museum in decolonizing the horizons of contemporary art reception (focused mainly on Euro/Atlantic global art capitals)?

VD: As an institution, we are at the beginning of a long process of addressing these issues. First, we have to start with Walter Mignolos radical understanding of “modernity and “coloniality as two sides of the same coin and think hard on what it may mean for Russias recent history. Were Russias Soviet policies a result of colonization by example, of peer pressure by Western European nations? Or can a state-controlled economy that emerged during the Stalin era work out colonial oppression by itself, without prompting from other, technically more advanced nations? Maybe the first answer is closer to the truth, as intelligentsia has long felt to be part of a “small history of art (an identity close to Milan Kunderas understanding of this term), but the state pursued policies that are in line with colonial rule elsewhere. So there has to be a very precise strategy in dealing with decolonizing horizons, and first up we have to address our coloniality and understand which parts are useful (or imminent?) for cultural dialog. The Garage Museum is, of course, part of the global art capital network, but there have to be ways to uncover the relevance of our “second world experience both here and worldwide.