Enid Guene is Research Associate in Cultural History on the ‘Comparing the Copperbelt’ project.
Contemporary African art is on the rise, or at least, that is what the international art market says. African art fairs, such as London’s 1:54 fair, have become staples of the high-end art calendar. In 2018, a long-lost 1974 portrait of an African princess by Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu captured headlines after it sold for £1.2 million. Meanwhile, African pop music, particularly West African Afrobeats, has exploded into the mainstream across Africa and into parts of Europe and North America. In October 2018, Spotify became the latest streaming service to get in on the Zeitgeist. Describing Africa’s musical culture as ‘an important component of today’s mainstream, modern music’, it debuted its AfroHub, offering classics such as Fela Kuti as well as music from lesser-known artists from across Africa, as well as the African Diaspora.
Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo have not been ignored. The last decade has seen a resurgence of interest in art forms that partly developed in the Copperbelt during the mining industry’s heyday. The 1960s and 1970s were heady times in the Copperbelt’s towns. The mix of populations and cultural influences, coupled with the relatively high wages at the time, and the exhilaration of political independence, boosted myriad creative endeavours. In Haut-Katanga’s towns, a group of mostly self-taught artists known as ‘popular painters’ gained prominence. Using bold colour and text on canvas, they developed a new approach to figurative painting, reflecting the daily lives of Congolese people, their struggles, or historical events. Historical paintings such as Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu’s Colonie belge, which depicts the burden of colonial past, quickly attracted the attention of academics (e.g. Bogumil Jewsiewicki and Léon Verbeek). Debates have ranged from the interpretation of the paintings’ subject matters, iconography and style (e.g. Szombati-Fabian & Fabian 1976), to whether popular painting is a valid tool for historical research (e.g. Vincke 1992).
In Zambia, music has been the leading cultural medium for political or social commentary. In the 1970s Zambia experienced a psychedelic period complete with flares, extravagant hairstyles, and an explosion of ‘Zamrock’ – a blend of traditional African music with guitar-driven sounds à la James Brown, Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin. Zamrock embodied the important social changes and later the economic recession that characterized the lives of those who came of age in the early independence period. For example, Working on the Wrong Thing by Rikki Ililonga & Musi-O-Tunya captures the pitfalls of migrant workers away from one’s home village, while Black Power by The Peace addressed the struggle for racial equality.
But Congo and Zambia’s artistic booms had an Achilles’ heel: their fortunes rested on the copper industry. By the late 1970s, economic decline, rising inflation and unemployment, alongside competition from musical styles such as Congolese rumba, disco, and gospel, sounded the death knell for Zamrock. Katanga, for its part, experienced a haemorrhage of its popular painters and musicians.
Yet Congolese paintings and Zamrock survived, in archival form. Both Bogumil Jewsiewicki and Père Léon Verbeek collected c.3,000 paintings between the 1960s and 2000s (their collections are now housed at the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren and the Institut de Théologie Saint-Francois de Sales in Lubumbashi, respectively). Similarly, though Zambia’s two major recording companies, Teal and Zambia Music Parlour, closed in the late 1990s, the records they produced remained and Zamrock, forever captured on vinyl, survived in people’s homes and collector’s shops. This would make their ‘rediscovery’ possible, some thirty years later.
Brussels’ Centre of Fine Arts, the BOZAR, which in 1929 had deemed popular painting unworthy of being presented on a par with ethnographic pieces in its L’art nègre exhibition, recently showcased Jewsiewicki’s collection in the exhibition ‘Congo Art Works’ (Ceuppens et al. 2016). Another successful exhibition was 2015’s Beauté Congo – 1926-2015 – Congo Kitoko, held at the prestigious Fondation Cartier in Paris. The exhibit spanned 90 years, including 350 paintings, photographs, sculptures and bandes dessinées from 41 different artists. Congolese Popular Painting, with its techniques reminiscent of poster painting, street art and advertising, has now become deeply associated with Congo and has been embraced by many artists from across the continent. André Magnin, curator of the Beauté Congo exhibition, expressed his wish to shatter stereotypes:
“People see the DRC as just this country of war and death and suffering, but look around – these are such beautiful works filled with such colour and humour and sensuality. I want this exhibition to widen people’s perceptions of the country.”
Zamrock too retreated from view until its recent rediscovery by music bloggers and record companies. Since 2010, Now Again Records and other companies reissued the vinyl records of bands such as Amanaz, W.I.T.C.H and Dark Sunrise, and, in 2014, a Zamrock anthology was released with the title ‘How Zambia’s Liberation led to a rock Revolution’. The W.I.T.C.H. (‘We Intend To Cause Havoc’), one of the most popular Zamrock bands of the era, has toured internationally under the leadership of Emmanuel ‘Jagari’ Chanda, the only surviving original member. It was also the focus of Gio Arlotta’s documentary We Intend to Cause Havoc (2017). The first Zamrock performance in 35 years took place at the Trans Musicales music festival in Rennes, France in 2012 and in 2018, Zambian TV viewers watched eight bands of young rock enthusiasts battling it out for first prize in the second edition of a ‘Battle of the Bands’ in Lusaka. Zambia’s ‘rock revolution’ may very well be entering a second wave.
The phenomenon of artistic revival is a powerful tool. It can help forge new images de marque for countries long associated with poverty and/or war. It can boost old and more contemporary art forms. It is also random and unpredictable. For a start, such revivals can only take place if someone, somewhere, sometime, created a database or a collection. The renewed success of Congolese popular painting can be partly traced back to academics who sought alternative tools to study Congolese history. In fact, there are suggestions that academic interest considerably boosted the demand for historical or political-inspired paintings in Katanga (the majority of Jewsiewicki’s and Verbeek’s collections depict landscapes and village scenes, but these have not elicited the same level of interest). Their work has contributed to this type of art being noticed and preserved and to fostering its popularity, locally and internationally, in the context of the contemporary African art boom. Zamrock and popular paintings (rivalled only by Congo’s other major artistic export, rumba music) have now become their respective countries’ best known artistic outputs. Yet this new boom has largely taken place in the ‘West’, something which is bemoaned by many contemporary African artists. This begs the question: what art forms have been unwittingly doomed to oblivion because they were not collected or ‘archived’? What have we missed?
Ceuppens, B., S. Baloji, B. Jewsiewicki & D. Huylenbroek. 2016. Congo Art Works, Peinture populaire. Bruxelles: Racine.
Szombati-Fabian, I., & J. Fabian. 1976. Art, History, and Society: Popular Painting in Shaba, Zaire. Studies in Visual Communication 3, no. 1: 1-21.
Jewsiewicki, B. (ed.). Art pictural zaïrois, pp.9-24. Célat: Quebec City.
Jewsiewicki, B. 2013. A Century of Painting in the Congo: Image, memory, Experience, and Knowledge. In: A Companion to Modern African Art, edited by Gitti Salami, Monica Blackmum Visona. Wiley-Blackwell: pp.330-346.
Verbeek, L. (ed.). 2008. Les arts plastiques de L’Afrique contemporaine – 60 ans d’histoire à Lubumbashi (R-D Congo). Paris: L’Harmattan.
Vincke, E. 1992. Un outil ethnographique: la peinture populaire contemporaine au Zaïre. In Jewsiewicki, B. (ed.). Art pictural zaïrois, pp.223-241. Célat: Quebec City.