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View the documentBiennial of Contemporary Bantu Art: African art revived

Biennial of Contemporary Bantu Art: African art revived

by SimSOUINDOULA

In 1985, CICIBA (the International Bantu Civilisation Centre) launched one of the most important cultural events in Africa, the Biennial of Contemporary Bantu Art. The Biennial has now been held three times - in Libreville (Gabon) and in Kinshasa (Zaire) and has become a focus for observation of the development of art forms in West, Central and East Africa.

The word “Bantu”, hitherto the preserve of academics, entered popular vocabulary in the early eighties, coming into common use in 1982, when the plan to open an International Bantu Civilisation Centre was realised. The 10 African States (Angola, the CAR, Comoros, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Rwanda, Sao Tomnd Principe, Za and Zambia) which signed the convention setting up the Centre in January 1983 confirmed the existence of the concept of Bantu civilisations and entrusted the new body with the important task of highlighting their characteristics - stating the obvious, of course, but freeing the “Bantu” idea from its linguistic cradle and expanding on archaeological, historical, philosophical, anthropological and anthropobiological considerations to take in other disciplines such as traditional medicine, ethnomusicology and the arts as well.

The challenge facing CICIBA was clearly that of seeking similarities and differences in the Bantu world through cultural events and research - the background against which the Biennial of Contemporary Art was born. The new expression, “contemporary Bantu art”, thus means all current plastic art and other works by Bantu artists or expressing the realities of the Bantu world.

Aims

Although the main aim of the Biennial is to highlight convergences and differences in the various forms of expression and plastic techniques, it has not only to emulate, but also to:

- present works showing the plastic creativity of present-day Bantu artists;
- back outstanding talent by awarding prizes;
- encourage contact, discussion and exchanges by artists (painters, sculptors, ceramic artists and engravers) by running workshops within the framework of ABAP, the Bantu Association of Plastic Artists;
- keep the best in the Contemporary Art collection of the future CICIBA museum, thereby making them available to the public.

Organisation

CICIBA coordinates the Biennial, but other bodies - Ministries of Culture in countries of the Bantu zone, national associations of artists and academies of art - are also involved and this decentralised form of organisation - wanted by the artists themselves - has given rise to the network which forms the frame of ABAP, the Association which will be in real overall control of the Biennial in a year or two. In the meantime, CICIBA has arranged a free and open framework embracing all forms of plastic art, without any constraint as to subject matter.

Patronage

The Biennial, a distinctive event in sub-Saharan Africa, has the constant support of the continent’s Heads of State and of various international organisations, companies and foundations. The Presidents of Gabon and Za, for example, have already put up prizes worth US$ 15000. Elf-Gabon backed the first Biennial with almost US$ 80 000 for organisation, the Rockefeller Foundation gave US$ 50000 to the third, and major prizes have been awarded by international bodies such as the Commission of the European Communities (US$ 3 300) and the Agency for Cultural and Technical Cooperation (two of US$ 1700 each).

Travelling exhibition

The recent scheme to take exhibits round to the various countries of the Bantu zone owes much to the success of the Biennial. After the first exhibition, people in Port-Gentil and Franceville (Gabon), Luanda (Angola), Malabo (Equatorial Guinea) and Lusaka (Zambia) had the opportunity to see samples of Bantu plastic art of the present day and the impact was considerable, as the exhibits were shown at the time of international conferences, national festivals and other festivities. More than 20 000 people visited the CICIBA stand at SIAC, the International Arts and Culture Salon in Luanda (Angola), in September 1989, for instance.

Schools, trends and styles

CICIBA’s three Biennials have all featured authentic Bantu works, the profound meaning of which will be lost on no art critic, as the creative skills of the Bantu artists have burst out in all their diversity and dynamism on these occasions.

Painting and engraving

The “naturists”

The personal touch of the Bantu artists bring out their love of nature, one of the dominant themes of their works, with great emotional force. In this school, we find the maturity and finesse of some of the naturist painters, such as those of Congo and Zaire, side by side with the hasty, lovely works of those of Sao Tomnd Principe and Rwanda. Vibrant greens, reds and yellows and subtle shading make these canvasses unforgettably bright. “ No blue. Above all, no blue” (for Africa), Gustave Hervigo used to say, but he is proved wrong by the enchanting figurative naturist and realist brush of Protasio Pina (with “ Pigo Papagaio “), Cupertinho and Cesaltinho of Sao Tomnd Principe, whose island views, fishing studies and even portraits are all against an azure background.

Other noted naturists are Iloki (“Les oiseaux”), Hengo (“L’antilope”) from Congo, Tibund (“ Sous-bois”) from the CAR, and Manzambi (“Paysanne dans le bois”) from Zaire. In Lubumbashi (Zaire), works of art have been produced by the skill and enthusiasm of Mwenze, famous for his streaks, and Pili-Pili, whose similar, but smaller, polychrome streaks have made him an international name. And many of these painters are familiar with the techniques of impressionism and will no doubt be giving us new means of expression.

The “ realists “

Realism in the Biennial is represented by the works of Tomas Vista (“A quitanda”), Augusto Ferreira (“Dande circuncistchokw148;) and Afonso Matondo (“Jovem muhuila”) from Angola, Fylla (“ M, fils et flamme “), Ngavouka (“ Guerri “) and Eug Malonga (“ Le musicien paralytique”) from Congo, and Cicero (“ Le gusseur”) from Sao Tomnd Princip

There are many outstanding works of this sort. There is “ Lundaba”, by Vaz de Carvalho (Angola), for example, a suburban view of the Angolan capital made attractive by the control and balance of colour. And there is the village homestead by Oubanga, the young CAR painter who won first prize at the first Biennial, and Daikou, his engraver compatriot, who specialises in rural scenes of life both of them artists of the naive school using refined techniques to portray humble scenes.

And there is the Zaan perfection of the almost expressionist work of Kond“Antente”), L (“Propulsion”) and Tschiboko (“Bonheur”), painters who, in their stylised manner, bring to life everyday events or ceremonies, portraits, market scenes, and hunting scenes.

A great draw in the CICIBA Biennial is the realist sensitivity of the popular urban painters of Kinshasa, the successful school of artists which includes Ch Samba, Sim Simaro, MokTuyindula, Bodo and Vuza-Toko, who have a critical approach and whose meaning lies in the imperturbable, caricature-like representation of the frenzied life of the capital. These Zaan popular artists, much admired by art-lovers internationally, have been labelled amateur and their pictures quite wrongly called naive. Although the school is not in the mainstream of conventional academic painting, its works are not without quality and its representation of society is intelligent. Moknd his fellow countrymen portray everyday life in Kinshasa with a sharp wit and an unrestrained eye and, as far as they are concerned, their audience can take it or leave it. They depict the mami-wata (African’s white-skinned siren), recent episodes in Zaire’s history, mythical subjects (chimpanzees on motor-bikes and animals of the forest playing in a band), religion revived by the country’s severe economic crisis (the red valley of purgatory and other apocalyptic visions) and sex (denunciation of the end of sexual taboos in out-of-control Kinshasa).

The “ symbolists “

The power of Bantu creation which the Biennial reveals in symbolist painting is both varied and complex and not confined to a particular genre or theme. The works encourage meditation, suggest the decoding of legends and generate optimism and they recreate subtle messages, communicating the artists’ symbolism in pictorial form, an echo of the souls of the Bantu peoples.

The troubled environment of Angola encourages the emergence of symbols, as is apparent, for example, in the powerful handling of the carnival figure at Luanda’s annual festival by Luzolano (he died in August 1986), who took third prize at the first exhibition. And traditional Cokwicture making is both inspiration and obsession to Jorge Gumbe (“Uma recep”), who, along with a number of his fellow countrymen, learned to engrave in Cuba.

The well-known Poto-Poto school, founded in 1950, by the Frenchman Pierre Lods, is a systematic coming together of popular plastic expression and that of the art school, and it is one of the major symbolist trends to be represented at the Biennial. The Poto-Poto painters - the first-generation, Ondongo, Zigoma, Iloki and Ouassa, and the up-and-coming Dimi, Bokotaka and Mpo Gerly - are all there, faithful to their particular styles in their masks and symmetrical patterns. But this school has seen its major developments. A peak has been reached and fresh impetus is called for, maybe from an independent artist such as Gotene, trained at one of France’s best art schools, or Mokoko, President of UAPC, the Congolese Union of Plastic Artists, or Hengo.

The works of those great hopes of African painting, the Gabonese artists Minkoe Minze, Ekornd Onewin (the last two won prizes at the first and third Biennials), are impressive indeed with their ritual masks and their representation of the ambiguity of Africa, the cultural drama of traditional and modern, and their deliberate limiting of the use of colour creates a sobriety symbolic of a Gabon as difficult to understand as it is deep in anthropological meaning.

Equatorial Guinea is represented by “Los Afligados”, a fine canvas from the brush of the young artist Menan, a Spanish speaker, who is greatly attracted by the work of Picasso. But the Bantu influence comes out more strongly in the work of Esteban Bualo, whose initiation rites are painted against a background reminiscent of the Equatorial Guinea’s great forests.

The Zaan symbolists show great mastery and clear technical maturity. The distinctive “sand artists”, such as Mukalenge and Tuzolano, stand out, with their “ little bit of sand, little bit of glue, little bit of paints and a lot of talent” and the originality of their attractive technique, “Sandism”, a new approach to picture making which is already a success in Central Africa is bound to grow.

Zaire, a country of constant artistic creativity, is the source of another original technique, too, that of paint scraping, the great exponent of which is Kamba Luesa, twice a Biennial prizewinner and a master of astonishing effects reminiscent of cave painting.

Sculpture and ceramics

Wood and stone and the more modern bronze, brass and aluminium all have their place in the collection of realist and abstract sculptures, inspired by traditional Bantu and contemporary European art, in which the Biennial highlights the dynamic approach of the Bantu sculptures of today. The time-honoured art of wood carving has been carried on here by Hakizimfua from Rwanda, Massongui (“Jeu de masques”) from Angola, Oemba (“Paysanne Ngbaka”), Djatao (“Statuette bicale”) and Mbotowo (“Factice kaloboungba”) from the CAR, Ndong Menzamet (“Prntation”) from Gabon and Zaire’s Mpane (with his wonderful sculpted ebony), Beya Tshili (“ Protection “) and Lubanza - who took the main prize at the second Biennial with his “La Pens#148;, symbolising the coherence, the balance and the anthropological dimension of Bantu philosophy.

Stone sculpture is a rarity at the Biennial, the only exhibitor being Aubin, the head of ENAM, Gabon’s School of Art and Manufacture. Gabon (using stone from the Nbigou area) and Zimbabwe (with the artist Munyaradzi) indeed seem to be the only Bantu countries which encourage this technique.

Liyolo (Angola) makes a great impact with the slender brass shapes of his “Mirage du Fleuve” and he and Temba, Lulu and Wuma have now broken through on the international scene.

Geometric stylisation and abstraction typify the work of Tela Mateta (Angola) and Makala Mbuta (Za) and impressive symbolism that of the outstanding Nginamau - three artists who are experienced in large-scale sculpture (decorating Za’s main public buildings), but who produce a range of smaller works too. Artists in the copper country have gone in for modelling in copper, of course. Lubumbashi is the domain of Kalumba and Chenge Baruti and the technique has been taken up in Kinshasa too, by Pemba (“La maise”) and Safu Mwanza (“Bifulusi”), and in Brazzaville, by Kitshiba.

The fascination which female beauty holds for ceramic artists, painters and sculptors alike is apparent in the female masks and heads exhibited at the Biennial. Woman as the positive symbol of life and the incarnation of beauty is very much linked to ceramic art and Matondo (“Jeune muhuila”) from Angola, Edou (“Source”) from Gabon and Mbaku Miamambi (“T ptienne”) from Za bring out the nobility of their clay in perfect aesthetic portrayals of women who are extraordinarily “alive”.

The centuries-old strain of artistic endeavour which has taken Bantu art to the peaks of achievement has not waned over the 20th century. The only change is in the motives behind it. Modern art has moved from religious to profane, to art for art’s sake, as it has all over the world, and the Biennial illustrates this admirably.

The panorama it presents does not yet cover the whole of the Bantu world, but it is given depth by the wood carvings of the Makondthe Tanzanian inheritors of Tangatinga and the Zambians inheritors of Tayaly, the firmly entrenched popular creation of “Chief twins seven seven” of Buraimoh, Jacob Afolabi of Nigeria and the rounded people of Valente Malangatana of Mozambique.

The Biennial has highlighted the various trends which have taken shape - the Barra in Luanda, the Poto-Poto School of Brazzaville, the ENAM colleges of Gabon, the Kinshasa school, a natural development of the art school which surpasses itself with the “avantgardists”, the “great workshop” which produced the “sand artists”, the highly modern “New Generation” and, of course, the school of Lubumbashi in South-western Zaire, all of them living side-by-side with a host of na and popular artists. And although these schools contain a wide variety of talents, their figurative tendencies and their immense feeling for colour and decoration constitute common ground, the result of culling their inspiration from virtually identical traditional social set-ups and - most of all - very similar training.

The Angolan artists all trained at the Kinshasa art school and use the same methods as the Zaans - Luzolano with his vibrant scraping of colours, Kabisi Remos (winner of the second prize at the third Biennial) with his sand pictures and Tela Mateta with his slender brass forms. And the Gabonese artists at ENAM have considerable affinities with their training school in Kinshasa too, Ekore and Aubin being outstandingly talented.

Artists do not stick to their schools come what may and exhibition after exhibition brings changes in style, with Viteix, for example, moving from oils to engraving, Kabisi Remos displaying as much skill with oils as with sand painting, Ekorncreasingly keen on realism rather than the symbolism of masks (even if his fans are unenthusiastic about it) and Menan veering in much the same way.

What Bantu works now have in common is that they derive their inspiration from purely African sources - proof that they are culturally tied to their roots, in spite of using the Western techniques which have enabled contemporary Bantu artists to create new aesthetic values.

The outlook for the Biennial is good. A special salon on anti-apartheid art, run during the third exhibition with the help of the OAU (Organisation of African Unity), won the support of public opinion and suggests that other displays on specific topics could well be a success. CICIBA takes its work for art one stage further with its two-yearly Bantu children’s art competition, an opportunity to pave the way for young talent in which thousands of school-children take part. Relations with artists of other backgrounds took practical shape when two Cuban engravers came to the second Biennial and this contact was followed up at the Biennials in Havana and Sao Paulo (Brazil). The involvement of American specialists - Susan Vogel and William Rubin, of the African Arts Centre in New York - was a very valuable contribution and will be built on, with CICIBA, for example, loaning some of its pictures to “ African Art of the Twentieth Century: Digesting the West”, the New York African Arts Centre exhibition due to open in January 1991.

The Biennial of Contemporary Bantu Art, is now established as a living picture of artistic endeavour unfolding before our very eyes.

S.S.