STEVE BANDOMA vs AMANI BODO
THE FIGHT OF THE CENTURY
STEVE BANDOMA (DRC, 1981)
Steve Bandoma graduated from the Kinshasa Academy of Fine Arts in 2004 and then opted to move to South Africa, where he gradually constructed his own style, raised his profile, began to exhibit regularly and finally managed to make a name for himself on the South African art scene. In 2009, Bandoma hit the road again, travelling to Paris to take up a residency at the Cité Nationale des Arts. In 2011, he exhibited his work at Art Basel, in Pointe Noire and London, and finally moved back to Kinshasa in 2012, where he showed his work at the Centre Wallonie-Bruxelles and at the French Institute.
Bandoma employs a mix of drawings, colour projections and collages, making for an incredible aesthetic of explosion or rather implosion, chaos and suffering, often against the backdrop of a clash of civilizations. Faces, limbs, body fragments, animated statuettes and fetish all fuse to bring to life what seem like superficially wild and incoherent creations which are in fact very well thought-out and carefully arranged. Indeed, most of the time Bandoma produces series. His creative and vibrant work moves and fascinates people.
Several of Steve Bandoma’s artworks were exhibited at the Beauté Congo - Congo Kitoko exhibition at the Fondation Cartier (Paris, July 2015 - January 2016). Steve’s work was recently exhibited at the Texaf-Bilembo Cultural Centre in Kinshasa (April - May 2017) as well as in solo shows in Italy, Spain, Belgium, London and Cape Town, but also in art fairs like AKAA with Angalia (Paris, 2019) and 1-54 with MAGNIN-A (London, 2017).
AMANI BODO (DRC, 1988)
Amani Bodo is the youngest son of the late-lamented Pierre Bodo (1953-2015), who was one of the leading representatives of Congolese painting. Amani Bodo is a self-taught artist and at the age of 21 his works entered the famous Pigozzi Collection. He is one of the most gifted Congolese painters of his generation. His figurative and symbolic paintings draw inspiration from the family’s artistic world and display a surrealist feel. Amani depicts his ideas, visions and sometimes even his dreams. One of Amani’s favourite themes is Africa’s relationship with the world and, more widely, the relationship between the developing and developed countries.
The backgrounds of his canvases are often an impressive rash of flecked colours, a cosmic nebula which immediately grabs the attention and contributes to the dazzling yet mysterious feel of his works. Amani Bodo also displays his talent when depicting the Congolese sapeurs (dandies, as here represented in front of the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, dressed in colours by Daniel Buren in 2017). He not only portrays people but also animals, following the great tradition of Congolese peinture populaire. After a goup show with MAGNIN-A, Amani Bodo's first solo exhibition at the Texaf Bilembo Cultural Centre in Kinshasa (March - April 2016) proved a resounding success and was followed by several European group shows in France, Belgium, the UK, Italy but also in Morocco, Côte d’Ivoire and Russia.
STEVE BANDOMA vs AMANI BODO
THE FIGHT OF THE CENTURY
Since the time of the independence of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1960, and long before that, there has been a fight raging on. From Kinshasa to Cairo, from Hong Kong to Washington, the fundamental struggle for human rights and freedom clearly emerges as the fight of the century, of all centuries in fact.
As part of a satirical challenge to iconic figures of power, Congolese artists Steve Bandoma and Amani Bodo have accepted to get in the ring to celebrate the 45th anniversary of THE FIGHT OF THE CENTURY – watched by over a billion viewers worldwide - the legendary boxing match of 1974 opposing the undefeated heavyweight world champion George Foreman to Muhammad Ali, also known as “The Rumble in the Jungle”. This epic come back by the two-time world champion formerly known as Cassius Clay was a national prestige bet for President Mobutu Sese Seko, who managed to put Kinshasa at the centre of the world map for the right reasons, for a brief moment at least. For Ali the fight was a double win by K.O. The Champ did not dance but he clearly stung like a bee, when in the eight round, he knocked out Foreman in one single blow. His victory marked the high point in his activism for civil rights throughout the 60s, which cost him his boxing titles and licence, stripped and suspended by the US government in 1966 for his refusal to be drafted in the military during the Vietnam War. More than a powerful boxing spectacle, the fight of the century came to epitomize the struggle for black civil rights from America to Africa. Many consider Ali to be one of the first real “African Americans.”
Steve Bandoma and Amani Bodo are important actors of the effervescent artistic scene of Kinshasa, the capital of DRC. Both artists work in a very singular figurative style, which became their signature over the past decade, placing them at the forefront of an ever-stronger African avant-garde which is now playing a defining role on the global art stage.
Let me just remind myself that there is clearly no such thing as African art. How could there be?! One cannot even speak of such a thing as Congolese art. In the DRC (formerly the Republic of Zaire and the Belgian Congo before that) there have been many movements that followed the Congolese primitive artists like Djilatendo (Tschyela Ntendu) and Albert and Antoinette Lubaki of the 1930s.
To briefly oversimplify it, on the one side there was the art that came out from the academies that followed in the footsteps of the pioneers from the Hangar workshop which was founded by Pierre Romain-Desfossés (1887-1954) in 1946, a myriad of artistic expressions which were championed by Mobutu as part of his cultural agenda but later discredited and forgotten after the latter was overthrown - but now waiting for a comeback. There are great masters hidden in the shadows of that history, from Botembe to Liyolo. Time will not forget them.
On the other side there was the art that came from the streets and which was democratic, by the people and for the people, at first. The latter was championed by the likes of Cheri Samba and Moke, with a long and diverse following through historical painters of Peinture Populaire, like Pierre Bodo (Amani Bodo’s father), Cheri Cherin, or the younger generation of painters like JP Mika who started working in the tracks of Peinture Populaire following on from his master Cheri Cherin, and then fought for his own voice, creating his own distinctive style. Amani Bodo followed a similar ascension. At first Peinture Populaire played a significant role informing his subject matter, but quickly he emancipated through the perfection of his form, creating his own pictorial trademarks.
On the side lines of these two main currents came Librisme and later Librisme Synergy as well as art collectives, like Eza possible, which pushed the frontiers of artistic non-conformity even further. Steve Bandoma was active on this front of pluri-disciplinarity and openness to the international art scenes. Today, artists in Kinshasa and all over this immensely vast country are mostly singular and recognisant of their art history.
The 10 unique works you will discover in this show have in common their depiction of the illusion that power can induce. The paintings evoke several narratives exploring the transitory essence of power, its visible-invisible state, its blind ignorance, its relativity, its burden, its solitude, its violence, its self-involvement and its satire. Each work caricatures a form of power that has been fought against in this “fight of the century”, by those who aim to create a better world, in which equality and freedom are pursued against all forms of abuse.
Each in their own distinctive style, Bandoma and Bodo interrogate the viewer. What do we truly know about the powers that rule us? What can we do to change the status quo? Amani Bodo’s detailed realism incrusted on galactic backgrounds is echoes by Steve Bandoma’s use of white space to also isolate his subject. In both cases, the deliberate choice to focus on the individual/s serves as a compelling trigger for narrative storytelling, like a zoom in cinematographic language.
Let’s start with the obvious Little Trump (2018), from the Power Series. In this recent painting by Bandoma, we are confronted with the rock-n-ruling baby boss, the unmistakable Mister Trump. Caught in the middle of a tantrum, we are reminded that the President of the most powerful behaves like a spoiled brat, a bully, who decides everything without a care in the world for what comes after him. Power is here made fragile by the baby chair on which Trump sits, suggesting he would not be able to stand on his own two feet. Bandoma’s unforgiving portrait seems to surf on the codes of pop American imagery in which a chubby heavy metal Beavis-lookalike (from MTV’s iconic Beavis & Butthead) is giving us the sign of the horns, a common gesture of power and individualism in the hard rock and metal music scenes.
This first painting by Bandoma naturally invites Amani Bodo’s Le Rêve de la Présidence (The Presidential Dream), created in 2019, to take a more serious look at the illusion of power as reflected through a mirror. In this self-portrait of the artist as the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we are reminded of what goes on behind the mirror. What may look like a smile and fancy attire on the outside may in fact be make-believe, as suggested by the trousers worn upside down like a jacket by the artist standing to the right. Some hope came with the much needed regime change following the 2018 elections, but pushing the Congo at the forefront of a developing Africa is an immense challenge for which smiles and appearances will not suffice.
Art and its growing power as a cultural commodity and economic asset class is also at the centre of two works in this exhibition. While in Oeuvre et Objets (Work of Art and Objects), Bandoma’s penseur (most certainly after Rodin) is still looking down at the Yombe statues at his feet, comfortably seated on a cylinder decorated with Kuba designs, his eyes are clearly popping out. I see this as an allegory of the Western art world now confronted with an ever more powerful and effervescent African avant-garde, which is about to shake things up. No illusion of grandeur can hold it back any longer. One could also interpret the map on the central character’s body as a metaphor for the waves of North-South migrations which are increasingly polarizing Europe and shaking the established political system, notably with the rise of populism. This sublime painting also questions the Western view of traditional African art as works of art, while many argue they should be seen as ceremonial objects above all. Why not both? Up to you to find your own story in this masterpiece which is powerfully answered to by Amani Bodo’s Le Pouvoir de l’Artiste (The Power of the Artist) Homage to NR.
In this sublime painting, Auguste Rodin gives place to Norman Rockwell. Here, Bodo portrays himself as the American painter, seated in the position immortalised in the latter’s Triple Self-Portrait (1960). In the Congolese artist’s 2019 rendering, works by Dürer, Rembrandt, Picasso and Van Gogh are all replaced by monochromatic drawings of a brain, which Bodo paints in blue on a black canvas in front of him. His reflection in the mirror is shouting back at him despite a hand trying to shut it up. But as in a surrealist painting by Magritte, no censorship or power can mute the voice of the artist, the power of art. Bodo pays here a homage to the brain as the true centre of all power, a central idea in the work of other great artists like Jan Fabre (1958). Yet again, the artist is but one voice, one vision, when many more are needed for real change to materialize.
Bodo digs deep into figures of power in his work, which although now far from Peinture Populaire, recognizes its historical importance in the art history of his country and still carries social satire as a vector for change and popular awareness. A recurring character in that history is the monkey. In his untitled painting from 2014, a dandy monkey emerges from the artist’s galactic background, meticulously composed of painted dots. His capuchin monkey serves as an allegory of the presumed almighty power of man over all other animals, when we are in fact just one member of a complex ecosystem. Just like this ape, we dress up, we wear glasses, smoke pipes, philosophise and impress, but in reality, Nature always has the last word. Human illusions of immortality are perhaps one of the drives for our species’ fabulous expansion over the centuries, but the denial that comes with it might be one of the roots of our extinction if left unchecked. The climate challenge is another facet of the fight of the century, or rather centuries, which has been raging on for as long as we can remember.
Zap (2016) reminds us that we humans also surrender our own power to the media and their commercial backers, quite freely and willingly on top of all. Bandoma’s seated figure here seems to have been over-entertained by what can only be the power of television (rules the nation, as sung by Daft Punk). Long gone is the power of the Nkisi and Songye masks lying dead on the protagonist’s feet, the golden throne is now out to catch up on the never-ending series that keep us tuned and passive. Zap is a French word used to describe the constant switching from one TV channel to the next, never really following anything in particular. On the other side of the Congo river, the legendary Frédéric Trigo Piula (1953) had already created a masterpiece warning against the invading power of television and its many false idols, as portrayed in his historical Ta Télé (1984). Similarly, in Zap, Bandoma warns his peers of the dangers associated with the reign of the individual vs. the community, in which ancestors and fetishes seem to have lost their power to the almighty screen.
In his fight of the century, Amani Bodo takes a shot at the Church through Les Chocs du Pape (The Shocks of the Pope). Not an easy subject. In this delicate painting, three white popes are crying, their faces hidden from us in shame. It is not so much the burning fire of Notre Dame de Paris which seems to be causing the despair, but rather the boy standing left, his back to us. Pope Francis is pointing at a young boy in what I understand to be reference to the many scandals of paedophilia rocking the Church. It seems that on this front, the fight for justice, children rights and freedom from abuse is only now starting to take hold. The artist subtly suggests that the secular institution, like its symbolic French bastion burning in the background, is in need of dire renovations and reform.
Boy angels are flying around an enigmatic figure in Steve Bandoma’s Kuba Danger (2019). Less gravitas in this portrait of an Arcimboldo-type of character, made from Kuba textile, products of mass consumption, flowers and an American top hat – the powerful symbol of Uncle Sam. For satirists and political cartoonists, the top hat was a convenient symbol of the upper class, business and capitalism and Bandoma uses it to reference the morphing cultures of his country, in this case the hybridization of indigenous people facing modernity. For the DRC to take its place on the centre stage, culture will surely have to evolve, as it always does. This particular painting perfectly illustrates the energetic style of the artist who splashes colours on his white background to create dynamic scenes.
Le Roi Léo (2015) is an older work by Bodo, but technically one of his most outstanding portraits, painted when football star Lionel Messi was at the top of his game. Messi is often considered the best player in the world and one of the greatest players of all time. The Argentinian Barcelona forward has won a record six Ballon d’Or. Messi was ranked the world’s highest-paid athlete by Forbes in 2019. In this portrait, reminiscent of some of the British Royalty portraits by Van Dyck, Messi resembles a king, holding a staff in his right hand. His posture is noble, and his gaze is serious. He is dressed to impress. But behind those powerful appearances, there is a man who was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency as a child, but fought his way to the top, only to fall a year after this portrait was dry, when he was handed a 21-month suspended prison sentence for tax fraud. King Léo is part of a wider series of celebrity portraits painted by Bodo, in which stars give into the dandy fashion of the Congolese SAPE (Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes).
This last painting by Steve Bandoma is a self-portrait as a dictator. Racine (Root), from the Zaïre Series, is an enigmatic work highlighting the powerlessness of obsolete African rulers when confronted with the many-faced challenges of modernity, ranking from technology and the digital revolution to AIDS, sexual politics, the church and terrorism, all this while trying to preserve cultural identity. To some the Nkisi statue in Bandoma’s arm will symbolize the restitution debate which is ongoing in and beyond the DRC. But his dictator is in fact vomiting all these symbols. This visual metaphor is inspired by the politique d’authenticité pushed forward by Mobutu to strengthen national identity in the face of globalization. President Bandoma is thus throwing up the symbols that bother him while protecting national culture. One thing is clear, promising to please everyone is a political illusion. Interest groups are ever more conflicting, and the political machinery is ill-equipped to find a compromising middle ground, the result is thus often abuse and neglect of fundamental human rights and freedoms - more regime changes and the proverbial vicious circle.
I am honoured to be able to show these ten works in partnership with Angalia, a Paris-based art gallery and art incubator specializing in art from the DRC. Pierre Daubert and Karin Barlet have been developing talent in and outside of the central African country for more than a decade and contribute to the rayonnement of Congolese art on a global level. When I approached them with my idea of this face à face between Bandoma and Bodo, The Fight of the Century immediately imposed itself as satirical ring in which contemporary issues could be addressed under the limelight of local and global narratives, to highlight once more that civil rights and freedoms can never be taken for granted, even today. Instead, they have to be fought for continuously, by barricading oneself in universities, through impeachment trials, by revisiting the past and repairing its abuses, or simply by engaging people artistically.
Klaus Pas, December 2019