Kinshasa: Decolonising Arts Education I

Towards an Open Approach or a Dead Letter ?

Arts practitioners, educators and academics gathered in Kinshasa earlier this year to discuss the way forward for arts education in the Global South. Jean Kamba gives us his local insight...

Group photo: Participants of the symposium Mediating Past, Present and Futures: Dialogues with Global South experiences, January 2016. Académie des Beaux Arts de Kinshasa. Photo: Benny Mayasi

By Jean Kamba
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What a blessing to be present at the discussion in the Academy of Fine Arts (ABA) in Kinshasa! – To discuss a number of topics during the symposium, especially how to effectively integrate contemporary practices of art into the curriculum. As Patrick Misasi, the Director General of the Academy, said in his opening speech, “A curriculum should not always stay the same … .” It was astonishing to hear that the Academy intends to integrate the new artistic media that have been seen for so long as outlaws, phobias and ‘non-art’ in the heart of this temple of classicism. Good to hear the talk, but it would even be better to see the walk.

The present Director General of the ABA is the painter Dr Henri Kalama, who succeeded Patrick Misasi. The new director general may personally represent an open approach. Remember, he is a rebel against the status quo, an old Librist, a supporter of freeism. But… but how is he going to deal with the heavy academic spirit so deeply entrenched at the top of this institution? That’s the question. It won’t be easy for him to uproot old habits and plant new seeds and implement all the other recommendations of the symposium. And they are not meant to stay in his pocket like a string of good luck beads! A tough battle lies ahead for this artist, the new director general, who is the embodiment of change.

ABA Kinshasa urgently needs to integrate new media instead of sticking only to teaching, to the old ways, to Painting and Sculpture etc. It is an academic institution that does not look kindly on the concept of artistic performance, installations and video art, as well as art photography and other forms of art using the new technology of information and communication. Yes these media overlap with universal problems that affect the lives of human beings and their environment today.

It is a bitter truth that a good number of the invited artists and other participants at the symposium obtained their qualifications abroad. They benefited from study trips organized the partnerships, which have now been suspended, between the ABA and the School of Decorative Arts in Strasbourg. But none of them were invited as staff teachers or teaching assistants at this institution. Moreover, their experiences in workshops, studio residencies and international exhibitions have been largely ignored. At this symposium for the first time it was possible to see members of the ABA Kinshasa and many of its defectors, sitting together and discussing specific topics with each other.

All the Congolese artists were present as invited guests, and they joined with the non-invited participants to fire off some shots at close range. It was a rare opportunity in the art world in Kinshasa to speak directly face to face. For a long time the visual artists of Kinshasa have seen each other as china dogs, the artists of the second generation and of the third generation, mutually accusing each other.

A godsend and a rare event, these meetings provided a forum for artists and former students like Pathy Tshindele, Freddy Tsimba, Vitshois Mwilambe, Julie Djikey, Cedrick Nzolo, Eddy Kamwanga, Mega Mingiedi, etc. They met up again with each other, and with their former teachers and colleagues from other countries, to give their opinions about art in the Republic of Congo and about the ABA in Kinshasa.

Similarly, the “maîtres,” the master teachers, vented their own feelings of indignation during the round tables on specific themes, accusing the young contemporary artists as usual of taking things easy and being in the pay of foreigners. These teachers have an ethnocentric attitude: they do not regard the young people as practicing art and see their works as being dispossessed of their African identities.

Several uninvited artists also attended the Symposium, including Yves Sambu Eddy Masumbuku, Dolet Malalu, Iviart Izamba, etc. Desperately eager for meetings like this, they showed signs of desperation. There was a general atmosphere of catharsis.

History repeats itself but not in the same way, and the content of this gathering was not particularly new in the context of Congolese art. This debate already took place here twenty years ago. It was launched by artistic actions in the late 1990s and early 2000s by the “Librisme” art movement and the “collectif Eza possible:” Back then the need for a more open approach was not fully understood and was violently rejected by the “master” teachers and reigning master artists in this state-run institution. It was practically monopolized by the guardians of academic formulas who advocate an anachronistic type of art inspired by that of 19th-century Europe, mixed with decadent notions of President Mobutu’s philosophy of  “the return to authenticity.”

The ABA Kinshasa, through its former Director General Patrick Misasi, was not shy of boasting during the symposium, proudly claiming the Librisme movement as one of its achievements. This was like a hijack, suggesting that the ABA would take its place in history alongside the steamroller of Librisme, the channel through which the concept of contemporary art found its way into Kinshasa, not without great difficulty. On the other hand, inviting artists from the rebel generation of academicism was a good idea. Their presence filled a vacuum that their absence would have created – a vacuum in terms of contemporary artistic discourse and in terms of the works that some of them presented. Especially because the theorists and artists, the invited guests, who combine diverse perspectives, got updated on notions of art; what could be more normal than for the ABA to invite those Congolese artists who are very active on the contemporary art scene to balance things up!

Eddy Masumbuku, Francis Mampuya, Germain Kapend, and most important of all, the deceased art critic Célestin Badibanga – the three latter artists were absent, but all of them could have felt proud because history and the force of time have caught up with the ABA.

This institution seems to want to open up and the symposium was already proof of this. It shows there is no need to cling to theories that are outdated and old-fashioned and above all, static and out of step with the times.

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 Jean Kamba is a poet and art critic.