M23 rebels capture Goma
An article for Strife on the day the M23 took control of North Kivu's provincial capital. (20 November 2012.)
Staving Off Catastrophe (The Guardian)
An opinion piece for The Guardian (31 October 2008, featured on the front page of the website).
Congolese Clichés (Frontline Club)
An article for the Frontline Club newsletter (May 2008).
Rebel attack dashes Congo's hopes (Financial Times)
This article, co-written with David Lewis, appeared in The Financial Times Weekend Edition on Saturday 22 December, 2007. See also the accompanying photo slideshow. Both accessible to subscribers only.
Photo of Laurent Nkunda © Lionel Healing 2007.
Chéri Samba - Congo's Hogarth (Art Review magazine)
This article appeared in the June 2007 issue of Art Review: (photo © Lionel Healing 2007).
Chéri Samba lives and works in Kinshasa, the dynamic but dilapidated capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. His paintings reflect and satirise the social and political realities around him. “I just want to tell the truth and ask relevant questions,” he says, “to choose surprising subjects that make people think.” This sort of thing is not generally considered safe practice in Congo’s fragile young democracy, but like a skilled jester, Samba preserves his artistic freedom by sugaring his more bitter messages with plenty of humour, bright acrylic colours and glitter.
Samba’s signature style, which is derived from commercial sign-painting and comic strips, is distinctive for its detailed draftsmanship and bold use of colour and text (in Lingala and French, the first two languages of Kinshasa). He often portrays himself in the scenes he depicts, the better to engage the viewer and share the joke.
He may be one of Africa’s most recognised artists, but Chéri Samba is naturally excited about his first invitation to Venice. “I always thought the Biennale was reserved for the sort of people who sell their paintings for millions of dollars,” he says. “When Mr Storr invited me to participate, it was too much, I couldn’t get over it. But it was also a sort of confirmation, because I have always felt that I was heading for this sort of summit, that this time would come.”
Chéri Samba has been exhibiting in Kinshasa since 1978, but his major international breakthrough came with his participation in Magiciens de la terre (1989) at the Centre Pompidou, which featured contemporary art from ‘forgotten continents’. The exhibition so inspired private collector Jean Pigozzi that he promptly asked one of its curators, André Magnin, to help him establish a Contemporary African Art Collection. Now extensive, Pigozzi’s collection has done much to support and promote the visibility of Chéri Samba and others through loans to the likes of 100% Africa last year at Bilbao’s Guggenheim and the current Popular Painters display at Tate Modern in London.
Although he readily admits the good fortune of his encounter with Magnin and Pigozzi, Chéri Samba cherishes his independence and remains the primary promoter of his own brand. He is also an energetic ambassador for his fellow Congolese artists, even featuring some of them in his paintings. Asked what this group has in common with the many artists he has visited elsewhere in Africa, André Magnin says, “There’s a constant interest in community and the collective. Solidarity, even in the big megacities, is one of the great strengths of Africa. Colour is often predominant; I think it’s associated with hope. Despite difficult living conditions, there is a lot more optimism and humour than you might expect.”
Chéri Samba is proud of his African identity, but as he once told André Magnin, “I don’t want to have any limits, and I’m not interested in being categorised. Whatever an artist’s background and roots, he has to be understood all over the world. You’re born in one place but you don’t only speak about that place.” In keeping with this, the works selected for Art in the Present Tense carry globally relevant messages. The artist comments on three of them:
Fall of the 3rd Baobab (2006) warns of the arrogance of empire: “The US leadership should put a little water in their wine. They seem to think the whole world belongs to them, but other powers are emerging in Asia, and it’s time to tone it down. I have visited America, and I like it a lot. I’m just calling for better management. If they don’t change their policies, they’ll eventually be ridiculed, like the Soviet Union. (By the way, if they want to lighten the load of all that wealth, the best place to invest it is here in the Congo.)”
Towers of Babel in the World (1998) looks at the legacy of colonialism: “Artificial countries – with arbitrary borders agreed by foreigners -- can’t last forever. I’m afraid there could be a bloodbath here, since nobody seems to settle things in a friendly way. Young people should think about the struggle that may be ahead.”
The Water Problem (2004) is a plea to meet a basic need: “It’s a ridiculous problem. Why don’t the Americans help African governments to put a water tap in every home? It might be expensive, but I wonder, how much are they spending on missions to find out if there is water on Mars?”
Chéri Samba will also unveil two large new works in Venice. He hopes they will cause a stir, but is anxious not to spoil the surprise. True to form, he is more interested in popular appeal than critical opinion. “The artist must stay free. How can anyone criticise somebody else’s inventions? So, there’s a scoop for you: art critics shouldn’t exist!”