‘Congo Art Works’ through the eyes of a guide

‘Congo Art Works’ is the most recent exhibition of our pop-up museum. The popular paintings from 1968-2012 currently on show in BOZAR are very entwined with daily life in Congo. The exhibition is worth your admiration, says Katrien Van Craenenbroeck who has been an educational worker in the museum for over 15 years. She walks you through Congo Art Works and explains her thoughts on the exhibit.

You have been a guide for many years now. How would you describe our latest exhibition Congo Art Works?
The exhibition shows the museum’s scientific and artistic expertise through a combination of older ethnographic collection pieces as well as recently acquired paintings, never shown in Belgium, from historian Bogumil Jewsiewicki’s collection. In this collection you can find classic paintings which are mainly all about landscapes and African nature. They are painted with high quality materials by artists with no real academic background. However, they had the opportunity to be gathered in a school which was called ‘academy’ and be guided and sponsored by the French marine Desfosses. On the other hand, you have the popular paintings which are fully connected with urban life. People painted to survive and had no academic background whatsoever. They used basic materials and things you can find in daily life such as wax prints for a canvas and palm oil as a base for paint.

What are the biggest challenges in this exhibit for you?
That would be to guide in a way that everybody in the group understands what I try to explain. It would be sad if people booked a guided tour and afterwards didn’t get what the exhibit is all about. It has so many layers, it’s much more complex than meets the eye. I try as much as possible to adapt my tour to the group in front of me. An art school for example would be more interested in the materials and aesthetic aspects of the paintings. But if it’s a group of people who are culture lovers but no experts on the subject I will try to keep my tour more general.

As a guide you are directly in contact with the public. How do you manage to build a wellstructured answer to the most critical questions, considering you don’t have time to really think it through?
I try to ask them what they mean by analysing the question piece by piece. I try to put it in context as much as possible. If the answer isn’t enough for them, they can always leave their contact information. I will gladly do deeper research and get back to them afterwards.

There is so much to see in this exhibition and in each painting in particular. Considering a
guided tour takes 1.5 hours, how do you manage this?
There are 82 paintings in the exhibit and a lot of ethnographic objects as well. Of course it’s not possible to talk about each painting and I have to be selective. I always have some sort of tour in my head and make a selection before the tour begins. I also know which themes I would like to highlight and what messages to bring to the table. In each room there are some titles from which I always try to build my story but, as I said before this also varies according to the interests of the group. Most of the time 1.5 hours is just long enough for people to remain focused on the subject, but it does occur that they can’t get enough of the tour. In that case, if I have the time, I do try to chat with them afterwards and suggest that they take another tour around the exhibit by themselves as well. We also sell a lovely catalogue which can be purchased in the museum shop in our CAPA-building. And they are always welcome to join our other pop-up activities such as Africa Sundays. Of course, I also encourage them to look forward to the reopening in 2018.

You studied African languages and culture at Ghent University. Does that mean that you
already had a lot of background information or did you have to study the exhibit yourself?
It’s been a while since I graduated and although everything around languages and culture remains very appealing to me, I did have to enlighten myself on this particular subject. For one because the exhibit shows popular painting from another point of view than just the aesthetic one. There are so many different aspects: social life, history, politics… I guess you can say that I do have more affinity for the paintings that have words written in some of the national languages since I do understand some of them. I really love the way many artists show the power of languages in their paintings.

In conclusion, what is your top 3 selection and why is this exhibit an absolute must-see?
Choosing my Top 3 took me quite some time and isn’t absolute since I love many more than 3
paintings in the exhibit but if I must choose:

Edisak, ‘Inakale’, Bunia, Ituri, DRC, 1992, RMCA collection, Tervuren.

‘Inakale’ was very popular in the 70s and 80s and was painted for locals especially. It tells a story about a man sitting in a tree. He wants to get out of the tree because a snake is coming for him on the branches. He’s trapped because on the land is a lion patiently waiting for him to come down. And he can’t jump into the water on the other side since a crocodile is also waiting for dinner in the river.This painting is ideal to get a discussion started: what does it mean? Is there a religious and spiritual meaning behind it? Is it more of a political interpretation during the Mobutu regime? Is it a situation that actually happened and therefore more about history? It all depends on your own personal interpretation.

Chéri Cherin, ‘Lutte pour la survie’, Kinshasa, DRC, 2002. RMCA collection, Tervuren.

A painting with more of a contemporary theme is one from Chéri Chérin.You can see people with different diseases going to what seems to be a traditional doctor. The writing on the wall reveals that he is specialised in everything and therefore cures everything. Behind the walls of the inner courtyard where the doctor works his magic loom both a hospital and a church. An airplane flies through the very blue skies. It shows everything about healthcare in Congo which is often problematic. The hospital and airplane show the more expensive solutions, which can only be paid for by the rich, while the church and the traditional medicine man can be interpreted as being the only option for the average person.

Woyo pot lid. RMCA collection, Tervuren.

One of the ethnographic objects that I really like is the Woyo pot lid. It has a direct link to the oral habits in Congolese society. History shows us that they were used for communication between couples or family members. For example, when a woman wanted to discuss a problem with her husband she would place a pot lid on the freshly cooked meal she made for him. I think it’s very original and inspiring, and it makes me a bit sad that this habit has no longer been in use since the beginning of the 20th century.

Why is this exhibit a must-see?
First off, because you get to see much more than paintings of the big artists such as Chéri Chérin and Chéri Samba. They paint for European clientele whereas popular artwork is much broader. The exhibition places popular paintings in a social and historical context and also shows paintings that have never been on show before. The combination with the older objects is pretty unique too. The way the so-called ethnographic ‘ritual’ objects are interpreted is much subtler than usually shown in temporary exhibits. Therefore, you can say this exhibit is exceptionally sensational!

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