Contemporary Congolese art dazzles at Ostend

Visitors to the Mu.ZEE, the contemporary art museum in Ostend, are in for a royal treat. As the museum prepares to mark the tenth anniversary of the bringing together of the city's art collection with that of the Province of West Flanders a third collection focusing on modern art from Congo has been drawn into the mix.

'A conversation between collections from Kinshasa and Ostend' co-curated by the Congolese artist and author Sinzo Aanza presents highlights from the collection of a Belgian aid worker who has been interested in African and Congolese art for quite some time. The Belgian is today based in Congo and personally knows many of the artists whose works are currently on show in Ostend.

Mu.ZEE's Ilse Roosens: 'The exhibition is an attempt at a dialogue between the collections from Kinshasa and Ostend. After ten years in the business we thought the time was right to take a closer look at the route we are taking. And this we've done by contrasting two very different collections, a private collection that is basically the work of one gentleman and the merged contemporary art collections of the city of Ostend and West Flanders Province.'

Enter the exhibition and you are immediately confronted with the work of Emmanuel Botalatala, the 'Minister of Refuse Bins'. If the European art in the exhibition, including splendid works by Paul Joostens, has been created by artists who had access to the finest materials, this is certainly not always the case for the artists represented in the Kinshasa collection. Their world is a very different one – poverty often determines the life and art of a Congolese artist - and they have more than once had to make do. Emmanuel Botalatala, a school teacher, sees himself as a 'ecological artist' and has been able to construct the most magnificent models using materials that other people have thrown away. He is one of the many Congolese artists in this exhibition whose works are imbued with political and social criticism. Unfairness in trade relations between the affluent North and the often struggling South is a returning theme, witness the work of the celebrated Congolese artist Francis Mampuya (top), who is well represented at Mu.ZEE.

Ilse Roosens: 'Our anonymous collector is often in direct contact with the artists whose works feature in his collection. Most of the art was never intended for display in a European museum, but the Congolese artists were insistent that their art would be presented as is fitting in a European museum. The exhibition has also been a unique opportunity to restore many of the works. It's been a balancing act. We wanted to remove the dirt, but not the dust of Kinshasa!'

This model of a Kinshasa brothel that lights up illustrates the completely different world and working conditions of Congolese artists. Ilse Roosens: 'It’s a playful anonymous work. As with many Congolese works of art it's very hard to document. We don't know who made it; we don't know when it was created. These are very western concerns. Issues that will normally be documented in a European museum, but we were unwilling to impose our norms and standards on this African collection.'

Many of the works like Turbo Lusavuvu Makaya's Studio Walls were never intended as works of art. The studio walls of Publi Simaro were just that: studio walls where the artist tried out his skills. Our Belgian collector asked the artist to be allowed to remove the panels and this is how this 'work of art' ended up in a museum here, in a city made great by King Leopold II and his Congolese wealth. The exhibition also features items that belong in a halfway house between art and utensil. Admire the musical instruments that musician Bebson De la Rue has constructed from everyday items to allow him to play music.

Both the Belgian and Congolese artists have also been keen to look to the future and often the future of the city in which they live. Mu.ZEE's collection includes many interesting works by Paul Joostens, who was perhaps most productive during the Interbellum. The exhibition presents futurist towers too, flying saucers made from the material that was available as well as drawings by Congo's Turbo Lusavuvu Makaya, who has been eager to imagine the Kinshasa of the future.

'A conversation between collections from Kinshasa and Ostend' is much more than an exhibition. The exhibition got underway with DJ sets with music from Kinshasa. There are lectures, workshops, film screenings as well as a whole programme of performances. The choice of the works on show during 'A conversation between collections from Kinshasa and Ostend' will vary over the months. Several European works that have never been seen before will also feature. Don't forget to check out the dedicated weblog (https://blog.muzee.be)too that will publish material in several languages!

'A conversation between collections from Kinshasa and Ostend' runs at the Mu.ZEE in Ostend until 12 August 2018.