MoMA DEVOTES ITS FIRST SOLO SHOW EVER OF A BLACK AFRICAN ARTIST TO BODYS ISEK KINGELEZ
Better late than never: on May 26 MoMA New York will open its first-ever solo show of a Black African Artist, a first full-dress retrospective on the 'extreme maquettes' of the late Congolese sculptor Bodys Isek Kingelez.
In Europe, Bodys Isek Kingelez (1948–2015) already became an instant sensation when his work was included in the landmark exhibition Magiciens de la Terre at Paris’s Centre Pompidou in 1989. Since then, his work has been in numerous high-profile group exhibitions - he participated in the Johannesburg Biennial in 1997, and in both Documenta XI in Kassel and the São Paulo biennial in 2002, for instance. Although he figured in The American Effect at the Whitney Museum of American Art one year later, the breadth of his achievement remained largely under-known in the US. The MoMA exhibition does not only intend to make up for that blind spot, but for the museum's and country's longstanding western-centered politics altogether – be it that it will just be the proverbial drop in the ocean.
Without a model, you are nowhere
A nation that can’t make models is a nation that doesn’t understand things, a nation that doesn’t live
“Without a model, you are nowhere,„ Bodys Isek Kingelez said, explaning the nature of his work, „ A nation that can’t make models is a nation that doesn’t understand things, a nation that doesn’t live.” Born in the village of Kimbembele-Ihunga, Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire), Kingelez moved in 1970 to the city of Kinshasa, the capital of the newly independent country. He first started making art in the late 1970s, finding himself compelled to get his hands on “scissors, a Gillette razor, and some glue and paper.” Based on the technical mastery demonstrated by his earliest works, the self-trained artist was hired as a restorer of traditional objects at the Institut des Museés Nationaux du Zaire, a post he held for six years, before concentrating totally on what he preferred to call “extreme maquettes“. Kingelez made sculptures of imagined buildings and cities that first and foremost reflected his dreams for his country, offering fantastic, utopian models for a society of the future, and a more than optimistic and redemptive alternative to his own experience of his home city - a exponentially growing Kinshasa, where urban planning and infrastructure were totally non-existent.
Deeply rooted in his native culture, Kingelez’s vibrant sculptures reflected the poverty and chaos of his surroundings by being created from an incredible range of humble and everyday materials, and found objects, such as colored paper, commercial packaging, plastic, soda cans, and bottle caps—all meticulously repurposed and arranged, into dazzling, intricate sculptures, turning trash into treasure, and rags into richness.. From fanciful models of civic buildings and public monuments, to colossal models depicting entire cities, Kingelez's work offered a vision for his ideal metropolis. „It is truly a singular vision.“ says Sarah Suzuki, who curated the MoMA survey, „ He developed a practice that he honed to perfection and that looks like absolutely nothing else that I know in the world. He was highly technically accomplished, not naïve in any way.“
Wildly colored and obsessively detailed,his tiny and joyous buildings and cities mixed wide-ranging styles, from pagodas to Dutch gables, exploring urgent questions around urban growth, economic inequity, how communities and societies function, and the rehabilitative power of architecture—issues that resonate even more profoundly today. The survey at the MoMA will for instance also include the complex multi-building cityscape Kimbembele Ihunga (1994), in which the artist reimagined his agricultural home village complete with a soccer stadium, banks, restaurants, and skyscrapers, and Ville Fantôme (1996), a maquette that will be accompanied by a Virtual Reality experience for visitors, and in which the artist imagined a peaceful city in which doctors and police would not be needed. „It’s a city that breathes nothing but joy, the beauty of life,“ Kingelez said, „ It’s a melting pot of all races in the world. Here you live in a paradise, just like heaven.”
RUMBLE OF THE JUNGLE-
It is important to know the African context of that time to understand these works, says Sarah Suzuki, „In Kinshasa, some of these seemingly fantastical buildings had a place in reality, after Mobutu Sese Seko seized power in 1965 and tried to send messages through architecture. Mobutu built two massive palaces, and invited Chinese engineers and architects who built authentic pagodas. One of the compounds is actually where George Foreman and Muhammad Ali stayed at the time of 'Rumble of the Jungle'. He also instituted something akin to a world’s fair with pavilions for countries that were interested in doing business with the Congo. So when you look at this kind of rich combination of different factors—the Art Deco buildings erected by the Belgians, then a post-independence ambition—it’s all there in the soup. But no one did with it what he did.“
While Kingelez didn’t travel outside of Zaire until 1989, he did not limit his scope to the local situation. His work was highly attuned to the African continent and the rest of the world. The Scientific Center of SIDA-Hospitalisation (1991), for example, referenced the AIDS crisis; Palais d’Hirochima (1991) addressed the condition of postwar Japan; and U.N.(1995) attested to the organization’s global peacekeeping efforts. Kingelez also referenced contemporary architecture, including the Grande Arche de la Défense in Paris, whose hollow armature he emulated in Bel Atlas (1989) after seeing the monument the year it was inaugurated. Other structures akin to national pavilions suggest a local specificity—the log cabin–inspired form of Canada Dry (1991), for example, and the nod to Dutch gables in Belle Hollandaise (1991).
The MoMA exhibition City Dreams will span the sculptor's three-decade career from early single-building sculptures, to spectacular sprawling cities, and futuristic late works, which incorporate increasingly unorthodox materials. “Making this exhibition was far from easy,„ says Sarah Suzuki, “ If you’re working on Toulouse-Lautrec, you have generations of terrific scholarship to go on. Kingelez was in a different milieu, living his entire life in Kinshasa. So the same kind of known network of patrons, collectors, and journalists was not really there. You have to reconstruct it.There’s also very limited writing on the work, maybe two paragraphs in catalogues for group shows that included him. Luckily, there are people like André Magnin, who was on the curatorial team for “Magiciens de la Terre” and when assigned to work on Africa decided Kingelez should be included. Magnin then went on to work for the art collector Jean Pigozzi, who was gobsmacked when he saw the work and built a terrific collection, based on a long-term dialogue between him in Paris and the artist in Kinshasa.Talking to all these people with great knowledge of the artist enables you to provide as nuanced and multifaceted a view of the artist as possible. There are also collectors and dealers and patrons in Belgium that have long-standing relationships. But it’s really forensic detective work.“
Organized by the Department of Drawings and Prints of The Museum of Modern Art, the exhibition design is produced in collaboration with artist Carsten Höller, while the catalogue will include a text by the celebrated architect David Adjaye.
'Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams' will be on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, From May 26, 2018 till January 1, 2019.