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Interview: Henri Kalama by Ruth Sacks

Painting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: Culture and Identity

Ruth Sacks: Henri, please tell me about the colonial histories of painting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo?

Henri Kalama Akulez: Painting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was introduced from its inception by the idea that art should be the expression of collective cultural identity. As a result, paintings were produced in the name of the culture that had to be expressedif one believed to have itor to find it again if one thought it to be lost. Congolese artists, mostly graduates of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Kinshasa, are very limited in their choice of means of expression, as they believe that they can only express themselves and deploy their talent within the restricted framework of ethnic identity. The concepts of culture and identity are perceived as static entities, a heritage that indelibly marks the individual and defines it in a certain and authentic way. The desire to account for this “African cultural identity” has generated over the years an “African art” that came out of what I call the “mould of African art”, a stereotyped and sanitised art, comprising the elements of an “African painting”: African masks and statuary, African pictograms, ideograms etc. This approach is the product of internalisation over generations and the different perceptions and conceptions of culture and identity, including identity (primitive), authenticity (Bantu) and “Magicians”.

RS: One of the aims of this publication is to think about what “decolonising” might mean in terms of making art within institutions. Decolonising is a major preoccupation in South African universities at present. To my understanding, the overall concern is to work out ways of breaking with pedagogies and histories that uncritically follow structures first laid down in colonial and apartheid practices. My impression of spending time at Académie des Beaux Arts is that the discussions and concerns taking place are different to those in South Africa.

Could you give an idea of what you feel are the most pressing issues are at ABA today?

HKA: There are three big issues that we have to deal with, with equal urgency, at ABA: The first is the environment in which teaching must take place. We do not have sufficient material for teaching. Teachers have to make do without a single bench or drawing table, only plastic chairs. Teaching cannot be well organized under such conditions. This is what we’ve been facing and what we need to resolve in terms of infrastructure.

The second is to have a good curriculum: a curriculum that suits and looks after the kind of student who is graduating from this school. We are reviewing studios and constantly working on this and on the question of what we have been teaching until now.

The third issue is the quality of the teachers: are they qualified, and if they are not, what can be done with an unqualified teacher? We need to get the funds to get teachers on exchange programmes, but also organize exchange programmes for students. Students should be able to go on to get a Master’s and PhD. So, these are the main issues to address: the infrastructure, the curriculum and the quality of the teaching.

RS: Is decolonising a similarly dominant concern in the Kinshasa academy?

HKA: How to decolonise the institution? The problem is seen in a different way. What we are dealing with in art todayand the work that is being doneis more concerned with the heritage of the Africanist painters. These were mainly European artists that came to Africa, for example, Fernand Allard l’Oliveir, Jean Dunand, Maurice Loutreuil, Lucie Coustutier, and Marcelle Ackein (mentioned in Lynne Thornton’s Les Africanistes Peintres Voyageurs 1860 -1960, 1998). The work they did set up certain archetypes of African art. The Congolese people quickly forgot that this way of working was a colonial style of painting. They took it as authentic Congolese painting.

The tendency is rather to see all new media and new approaches of contemporary art as colonial works. These are the kind of works that are seen as colonising the school and the ones that should be kicked out of the institution. This attitude forgets that we have always been in a colonial way of working at the school and that we now have to decide what we think is best for the institution. So this is the situation: being in a colonial mentality without being aware of it.

RS: New media—video, photography—these are all seen as a colonial medium?

HKA: Yes, for some. Some students see these modes of working as trying to copy a Western way of working and therefore a colonial way. They think that we should remain African, while they are not aware that those paintings are colonial too.

RS: Would you say that this is encouraged by the conservative part of the academy? (I am thinking here of the factions that were visible in the Kinshasa Conference that took place in January 2016, which was held at ABA).

HKA: They are not conservative so much as they are unaware of the colonial heritage of African art and an African way of working. For me, decolonising is getting out of that mould and having the choice of having the kind of teaching we want to have and the kind of artists we want to promote and produce at the school.

RS: I think that is really interesting for a South African audience. Would you mind clarifying that choice again? What, for you, it means to decolonise?

HKA: To decolonize, from our side, is having the right to choose what we think is better for the need of society and for the need of artists; to not be put in a ghetto which we cannot get outside of because we are unable to see the larger situation. For example, I have a Jamaican friend who was asking an Afro-American woman (who is a descendant of slaves): “Would you be a Christian if your slave master had not been not a Christian?” In the same way, a lot of people are not aware that what is perceived as African is, in fact, a colonial way of perceiving Africa and perceiving art. This is because up until now there has been a lot of documentation which shows that it was not a genuine African way of working, but work done by the outside. So, we should be able to allow for choice through the kind of teaching we do: especially if anyone is questioning if Africans should be interested in video or photography and insisting that they should only be working with wood or stone. Africans should be able to make architecture or whatever we choose for ourselves. Changing our ways of teaching and allowing for choices; this could be a way of decolonising.

RS: Can you share some of the strategies you have been pursuing to try and open up these choices since becoming director?

HKA: I’m a teacher, first and foremost. At the beginning, we talked, organized a lot of meetings with teachers in the departments, trying to promote the coaching of the kind of teaching that would help us to listen to the students. The students are connected. They are connected to the internet, so they have some awareness of what is going on in the world. We should not be discouraging them and offering them something that doesn’t match their needs. So—and this is also becoming very challenging to teachers—we open up the horizon for the students.

Since we revisited the curriculum, teachers are preparing lessons rather than teaching only what they know. They now need to prepare lessons because there is a document which asks them to do so. The classes need to be prepared, otherwise they will be improvised and that could look bad or even ridiculous to the students.

RS: Could you explain further about this preparation?

HKA: The idea is to prepare the aim, or the objective of the class. So classes are prepared in order to fit the different levels of students. To ascertain what is most important to 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade. To ascertain what the needs of the senior students are. It is in this manner that the teachers must be prepared. So, for example, in the 1st grade we might have had a student who was having more difficult classes than a student who was in 5th year. It must be appropriate to the grade and the level.

RS: Could you talk a little about how you have worked to counteract stereotypes of African art in your own artistic  practice?

HKA: When I was starting in this school, there was this idea of African art and being an African artist. This was mainly an approach that appropriated Cubist paintings from modern artists who were inspired by African masks and took everything which appeared as a little bit exotic or bizarre (whether it came from Oceania, or wherever). People didn’t know, so everything which was a little bit strange could easily pass as African. So, you find that the teachers in the Congo were encouraging this, and criticizing art for not being “African”.

So my first training started there. But, somehow, I got through this and when I finished I got a good mark and I ended up being an artist. I listened to myself. I don’t think that art comes from the brain but from what is within. So I used my brain if I wanted to sell some work to tourists. It was like taking a book, like the one by Josef Cornet, a Belgian who worked for the museum. He wrote a lot on the technical details of Congolese masks or statuettes (in books such as Art of Africa: Treasures from the Congo, 1971). I could just copy from the book and sell some art, because this is the kind of work people expect.

But then the artist is still restricted because he/ she is not listening to him/herself. Instead, I make work which is abstract: abstract in the sense that it is not realistic. But it is also abstract in the sense of the abstract you provide when you write a thesis, for example. It is what is essential, as opposed to not being figurative. It is abstract in the sense of what is essential for me. My work tries to keep the essential part of what I feel and what I appreciate. But people can also see it’s abstract according to the general understanding. In the past,

I called it “cosmic vibrations” to refer to trying to capture my feelings. It’s a kind of working to help one reach a catharsis, a way out. This was more important than pleasing people.

RS: I understand that you have always sold your work and been very supportive of the idea of the artist as a businessman.

HKA: Yes, so this is what was such a big surprise, that being different helped me a lot. So it has not been about listening to what people think I am supposed to be doing, but rather about trying to please myself first.

RS: Can you tell a little bit more about your academic work in your PhD thesis and how this relates to your painting practice?

HKA: My PhD work was more of a discussion concerning culture and identity in Congolese painting. I described how the perception of culture and identity in the DRC created an African art mode. This culture and identity were perceived as a genetic gift, as if once you are born you are marked or defined. You can be a Congolese born in New York and spend 50 years there, but because you are an African, or Congolese, you are expected to be the same as other Congolese who have lived for 50 years in the Congo. And if you’re an artist, you should spend your life with ritual culture, according to what tribe you are from. If I am not trying to make work about my culture, I am accused of not being African enough. So, this is the environment.

What is being produced from this culture is work that regularly references masks, cowries and ideograms or pictograms (which used to be a way of writing in Africa) and using brown sacks. Using these is seen as an expression of culture. This results in works that all look like they came from the same mode: “African” art. I deconstructed this mode because, in today’s world, African artists should be able to talk about what is happening and take part in what is happening in America, Australia, etc. African people cannot spend all the time only making work about being African. That is like saying to a woman that she can only make a painting about feminism or being a woman. And that she has no right to talk about men. It is a form of auto-exclusion. Art should be open. The field should be opened up and expression should be democratized.

This is how my work fits in. I can talk about myself and my environment without necessarily bringing up masks, cowries, jembe or whatever. Masks are not only African. There are Asian masks and European masks. In Europe I have found that they also have popular works (similar to the peintures populaire) in their history. And if you look closely at those images, they fit very closely with African ones. But why, when it comes to Africa, are these the works that international curators pick up? Why is it that in France, it is someone like Daniel Buren (or other artists) that are featured rather than craft artists?

RS: Can you tell me a little more about pursuing your PhD through a Chinese university? Was it easier to talk about the Congo from another place that wasn’t Africa or Euro-America?

HKA: This was a PhD level of work. I could have done it in New York or South Africa or wherever because this is the topic I wanted to pursue. The institution I attended was international, with Taiwanese, French, and Belgian scholars, and my main supervisor was Franco-Chinese. I don’t think that locations make a difference. The problems I dealt with in my thesis were ones which I wanted to resolve for myself and for my country. I don’t think that because I am an African I should be different. There are Europeans working on African culture, so Africans should be allowed to work on whatever they want. I had that discussion with our Brazilian friend Emi Koide.

When she goes to Europe, people remind her that because she looks Asian, and people think she is Chinese, that she should be working on her own people. How rude is that?

RS: My interest in the Chinese institution partly comes from our current focus on international South-South institutional relations, instead of always looking to Euro-American. For example, in my own PhD experience at a South African institution, I found that most of our model for study was based on what happens in the American institution. 

HKA: That also comes from colonization and we should be trying to change that perspective. We have a colonial mentality. What we think about China is informed by the mainstream media, what they think about it. One ends up thinking that serious studies can only happen in Belgium or in France or the UK. And we were raised to think that this was normal. And that is how we think about China too. I think a PhD which is written in Congo is written in no poorer condition than one in China, which is part of the first world. China is a developed economic country where there is a lot of investment in education. This is very complicated and difficult to explain to people.

RS: What has always struck me about Congo is that the central question is not only about how the colonial regime constructed an idea of African art, but also the Mobutu regime (Mobutu Sese Seko’s rule took place from 1965 to 1997). Could you give your own impressions of the impact of Mobutu’s influence on the Congolese art world today and what this means for teachers and students at ABA?

HKA: Sometimes it can be very difficult to tell the difference between Mobutu’s ideas and the colonial ones. Mobutu’s time was affected by types of colonial work. The colonial perceived of the African as primitive. And the work they promoted, which a lot of Africans are still doing, also perceived Africa as primitive. When Mobutu invented an image of Africa he was trying to make a positive identity. But this positive identity was also recycled. He took a perception from modern art, especially modern painters’ work on African masks, such as Picasso. Mobutu tried to recuperate what was already recognized as art, essentially masks and statuettes. But at the same time, in trying to invent this national identity, the art came up with two identities: the primitive one and the pan-African one. This perception also came from Senghor with his Negritude ideology and Kwame Nkrumah and his consciousness. Mobutu, for his part, produced recours a l’authenticitié (return to authenticity). This is the situation. The art environment is still influenced by these two identities. It was in Mobutu’s time where an idea of African art was promoted. A lot of this art was copied from other images. I can show an image and people tell me the nationality of the artist, they will say “Congolese”. For some, they can’t name the artist but they are certain that it is a Congolese artist.

RS: Was there anything you did not get to say at the Artsearch Symposium in Johannesburg (which took place in 2017) that you would like to say now?

HKA: I wanted to talk about the new dynamic that is coming in with new artists, people who are decolonising themselves and functioning in an international realm. These are people who are artists before they are African. They are not saying “I am African, therefore I have to work like this.” There are artists like Ange Swane, Vithois Mwilambwe, Eddie Kamangwa, Hermès Maurice Mbikaya, and Dolet Malalu who are outside of a colonial way of viewing Congolese art. I would rather show people who are decolonising themselves and moving beyond the normal categories.

Henri Kalama Akulez, PhD. is the current chancellor of the Académie des Beaux-Arts de Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo and the first professor to hold a PhD degree in arts  He has been part of this institution since 1996 as a student, and since 1999 as lecturer, professor and head of the oil painting department. In his first year as chancellor, he introduced several modernisation campaigns, infrastructure projects and strategies to improve the quality of teaching in order to elevate the ABA to an international standard. His advanced studies brought him to the prestigious “China Academy of Art” in Hangzhou for eight years. As a painter he has travelled and exhibited in solo and group exhibitions in Africa, Europe, Asia and North America. His atelier “Kalama-les ateliers réunis”, founded in 2007, has been pioneering the promotion of promising artists from the DRC and has been changing the local art scene ever since.

Henri is representative of a trend that aims to evolve from certain stereotypes in what is generally considered as "African Art”. He is working constantly to improve people's awareness of the implied (unconscious) "primitive art" expectations when referring to "African Art". In helping to open minds, he is also certain that this will contribute to liberate a certain form of creativity with artists of African origin - one that can actually help African people and countries develop in their own ways as well. Henri is currently building what will be the first professional fine art gallery in Kinshasa.

Ruth Sacks is a South African artist who lives and works in Johannesburg. She has been a doctoral fellow at the Wits Institute for Social & Economic Research (University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg). Her thesis, entitled Congo Style: From Belgian Art Nouveau to Zaïre’s l’Authenticité, was submitted in January 2017. In her artistic practice, Sacks focusses on the medium of artist books, the most recent being Twenty Thousand Leagues Under Seas (2013). Her current research is centered around African independence aesthetics and postcolonial design. She has exhibited widely locally and internationally, including at the African Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (Italy, 2007), ZKM Centre (Karlsruhe, Germany, 2011) and Performa (NYC, US, 2009). Sacks lectures at the Wits School of Arts (Division of Visual Arts), as well as the Market Photo Workshop, and is a laureate of the HISK (Higher Institute for Fine Art) in Ghent, Belgium.

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Issue 49

Decolonial Propositions