Culture & Conversation

Pop Goes the World

Putumayo World Music and Buena Vista Social Club is blasting into the pristine white space of Gallerie Pangée in Old Montreal. Hip, well-heeled art aficionados drink red wine and mingle amidst large, brightly coloured canvases. It’s a lively vernissage, but this party of artsy hipsters is demure in contrast to the hedonistic atmosphere featured in many of the paintings on display for Kinshasa Pop, the gallery’s newest exhibition.

Kinshasa Pop presents eleven works from eight Congo-based artists: Chéri Samba, Pierre Bodo, Monsego Shula, Moke, Moke fils, Mika, Chéri Chérin and Amani Bodo, whose distinctive styles of painting are collectively known as the School of Popular Painting, founded in the mid-1970s in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.  Largely self-taught and unassociated with any academy or Western art movement, these male artists use their canvases and bold acrylics to address contemporary issues in African society and capture a unique quality of life that is largely unfamiliar to our Western consciousness.  Vibrantly rendering the everyday life and popular culture of the Congolese, the paintings are often frank in subject matter; yet they maintain a strong sense of exuberance and even satire.

Sexuality is a predominant theme in many of the paintings, as voluptuous women entertain, satisfy and take advantage of men. Their curvaceous breasts, bellies and bottoms are barely contained by their clothing; rainbow glitter accentuates their eyelids and lips. Although they are depicted as hyper-sexualized, they are clearly the ones in power, keeping cool and coy while men (soldiers, clients, tourists – all intoxicated by lust and booze) let their mouths fall agape and their wallets fall from their grasp.

The inclusion of text in several paintings reinforces the element of satire.  One such painting reveals two sleeping men, so completely surrendered to pleasure that drool creeps down the sides of their mouths. Three prostitutes stealthily exit the scene, pocketing cell phones, wallets and other valuables before disappearing into the city, which is as glittery and deceptive as they are.  Written across the bottom: “Le Goût du Risque.”

At the back of the gallery, a painting by Chéri Chérin bears the title Attendre Jusque Quand? A small bus, its roof piled high with suitcases, is cheerfully decorated with graphic patterns. Inside are despondent, weary-faced passengers. A man stands outside the bus with an impatient expression and outstretched arms.  It is unclear what exactly they are waiting for; however the image is one more familiar to North American perceptions of the Democratic Republic of Congo: that of political unrest and social instability.

Other highlights of this exhibition include a sprawling, surrealistic painting by Pierre Bodo, where beak-nosed people wander through a forest clad in business attire, leaves, banana shoes and unexpected debris. They encounter other strange birds, even a bubbled-backed bird-mobile (you have to see it).  The three smaller paintings by Moke eschew glitter and clean lines in favour of a more captivating use of dark colours and rough brushstrokes. The carnival atmosphere remains, yet there is a tangible sense of threat and unease.  Beside these, a painting by Chéri Samba, commenting in a comic book style on the behavior of Parisian prostitutes compared to African prostitutes, keeps the mood upbeat.

The works of Kinshasa Pop offer an updated perspective on contemporary African painting. Challenging misperceptions of Congolese culture, these paintings sparkle with life. It is a dazzling invitation to a party where the music is loud and live and the walls are anything but whitewashed.

Kinshasa Pop is on display until December 31st, 2010 at  Galerie Pangée, 40, rue St-Paul Ouest in Old Montreal.

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