20181201: Kunsthaus Graz | Gries

"Congo Stars" is group show of 70 Congolese artists living in Paris, Brussels, Kinshasa and Lubumbashi. The list of participating artists on the website ends with "and many more." [1] Entering the exhibition one is orientated by two architectural models of a city block made of cardboard, by Bodys Isek Kingelez. The works locate the visitor into a colorful and multicultural urban space. Kingelez was working in the second half of the 20th Century making “futuristic visions for Congo’s transition after its independence from Belgian rule.” [2] The models are amazing in detail and certainly stand out from the rest of the exhibition's works, which mostly pivot between paintings of historical events or documentary.

A central orienting device in the exhibition was a two-sided timeline that bisected each from of the exhibition, recounting in parallel the colonization through decolonization of Congo by the Dutch and Africa by Austria. I found my own relation there when I read of the formation of the Afro-Asiatische Institut in the 1960s, which was intended as a conduit of exchange for Austria's former colonial lands. The timeline could have been an artwork or exhibition in its own right; it offered both the large scope of geopolitical events but also the specific histories, such as assassinations, production of artworks.

I was surprised by how many paintings there were, or rather how few of other media were included. Since most painters draws also, works on paper could have easily been included and would have offered a window into the development of some of these works, giving them more of their own universe, rather than simply include as many painter's paintings as possible. The few videos that were interesting: a performance of a woman hanging laundry; another showed a dry, eroded landscape from which colorful smoke was fuming; it reminded me of the sulphur mines I've seen. But by the time I got to them on the second floor, I was already tired from wading through history and dozens of oil on canvases.

This could be thought of as a post-colonial or Congolese diaspora exhibition; the terms are not mutually exclusive, but there are repercussions to framing an exhibition in either way. "Post-colonial" includes artworks about colonization, perhaps not even by someone who was ever directly colonized. I couldn't help but think about how the interest in post-coloniality may recreate or mimic the attraction to the exotic that was rampant in mid-to-late 19th Century Western art history: Delacroix, Degas and Gauguin–who was perhaps the most colonial of all artists because his work isn't considered with these aesthetic canons of the representations, but his methodology of working in Tahiti, depicting the Westernized community as exotic, and enjoying the sexual liberation of the islanders in the same way the colonizers traveled from Europe to indulge in the exotic women in distant lands. Is our fascination for paintings from the Congo greater than our fascination for Congolese paintings by painters who moved to Paris, Brussels or Graz? Has our appetite for the exotic grown from the Other that lives in our building, neighborhood, city or country to reach out to another country from which our neighbor originates? Are those who are in between–those whose parents were colonized but whose children have grown up in a new land–still a relevant part of the narrative to which our fascination tracks? That is, mus the Other be authentically Another, culturally, linguistically, etc.? Is our interest limited by the absence of institutions in those exotic countries, and so we temporarily settle on a local who has only a remote connection to another culture, until that culture builds its own institutions? Is our attraction to post-coloniality toward the exotic Other, or a hope to reverse our exploitative past behavior and re-distribute wealth for the improvement, development or modernization of those crippled by poverty, or both, and does any, either, or all of these motivations really vary from the motivations of colonialism in the first place?

Behind the Kunsthaus is the neighborhood of Gries. It's an immigrant community, the parts of which I've seen are largely Turkish. Between the cafes, restaurants and grocery stores, I was struck by the prevalence of barbershops filled with young men whose hairstyle – shape ups, flat-tops, etc – formed by and dependent upon a personal subscriptions to hair products, resembled the barber shops and styles found in Puerto Rican and Dominican neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Harlem. Are these two communities in conversation? Could visual representations in music culture drive this industry?

Cities are technologies of the Stone Age; streets, passageways, stairways and city walls made of brick and stone.

[1] "With works by

Abis, Alfi Alfa, Sammy Baloji, Gilbert Banza Nkulu, Chéri Benga, Bodo, Vitshois Mwilambwe Bondo, Burozi, Dominique Bwalya Mwando, Chéri Cherin, Trésor Cherin, Djilatendo, Ekunde, Sam Ilus, Jean Kamba, Lady Kambulu, Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, Kasongo, Jean Mukendi Katambayi, Aundu Kiala, J.P. Kiangu, Bodys Isek Kingelez, Ange Kumbi, Hilaire Balu Kuyangiko, Londe, Albert et Antoinette Lubaki, Gosette Lubondo, Ernest Lungieki, George Makaya Lusavuvu, Tinda Lwimba, Michèle Magema, Maurice Mbikayi, Maman Masamba, Matanda, Mbuëcky Jumeaux, JP Mika, Mega Mingiedi Tunga, Moke, Moke-Fils, Gedeon Ndonda, Nkaz Mav, Vincent Nkulu, Vuza Ntoko, Chéri Samba, SAPINart, Monsengo Shula, Sim Simaro, Maître SYMS, Tambwe, Tshibumba Kanda Matulu, Pathy Tshindele Kapinga, Tuur Van Balen & Revital Cohen and many more."

"Congo Stars," Exhibition, Universalmuseum Joanneum, Kunsthaus Graz, 22 September 2018 - 27 January 2019
[2]"Fantastical Cityscapes of Cardboard and Glue at MoMA," Roberta Smith, NY Times, May 31, 2018