A convoy for the dead president
The painter Kaswende was born in Zambia in 1960, and now lives in the Congo. He is one of those artists whose unexperimental style is frequently misconstrued as "naïve." In fact, Kaswende´s art is often vehemently political, and his formal vocabulary is correspondingly didactic and narrative-based. Besides his political history paintings, he also paints traditional portraits and landscapes.
Kaswende is a cross-border commuter between the Congo and Zambia, and this casts a revealing light on his situation as an artist whose working methods are predominantly traditional. Though born in the Zambian region of Katanga on the upper reaches of the River Congo, he grew up on the other side of the border, in Lubumbashi in the People´s Republic of Congo. Here, he also received his first art lessons, as an assistant to a local traditional artist.
In the Eighties, the economy in Lubumbashi collapsed and most foreigners moved away. Hoping to enlarge the potential market for his popular paintings - which were also highly valued by tourists - Kaswende moved back to Zambia, settling first of all in the so-called copper belt of Katanga. But the economy there, too, went into decline, and Kaswende´s lack of an official permit also got him into trouble with the local Economic Administration Authorities. So, in 1998, he returned to the Congo. Today, once again, he lives and works in Lubumbashi.
Kaswende is one of those painters whose style, at first glance, looks unexperimental. This has often led to him being described, misleadingly, as a "naïve" artist, which overlooks the fact that his motifs are generally anything but naïve. Indeed, his pictures frequently depict important political events and complex social developments, while also boldly taking sides. His style is characterised by a vocabulary of easily recognisable forms and figures, a clear and unambiguous use of the pictorial space, and a basic attitude to painting as - in the broadest sense - a narrative medium. When he paints portraits or landscapes, they serve as representations; when his subject is political events, his pictures function as lessons, or even as propaganda.
A good example of the latter category is "Untitled (Lumumba´s triumphal entry to Leopoldville)," which Kaswende painted in the 1970s, while still a teenager, and which was shown in Germany and the USA as part of the exhibition "The Short Century." This painting depicts a street scene in Leopoldville (today´s Kinshasa) in June 1960, shortly after the Congo achieved its independence from Belgian colonial rule; we see the convoy of cars, in which Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese politician and leader of the Mouvement National Congolais, makes his triumphal progress through the nation´s capital city.
Kaswende shows Lumumba in an open-topped car, accompanied by two motorcycle outriders, driving along a modern urban thoroughfare flanked by high-rise buildings. The First President of the Republic of Congo is depicted standing in the car, waving to the spectators at the side of the road. The crowd is a colourful mixture of people: a policeman, still dressed in the colonial uniform, salutes with his rifle in his hand; masked figures perform a ritual dance; and beside them, a group of people in Western clothing can be seen holding a banner bearing the words, "Long live the independence of the Congo, achieved on June 30th 1960. Long live the Prime Minister P. E. \Emergy Lumumba." Travelling behind the President´s car is a military vehicle bearing soldiers brandishing machine guns. Although this work clearly depicts a historical event, it is more than just a painted document. It is itself a statement. It demonstrates the boundless support, amongst all social classes, for a change of rulers and for the new presidency of Patrice Lumumba.
When one considers that this picture was painted in the 1970s, i.e. several years after Lumumba was captured and murdered in 1961, it becomes quite clear that Kaswende created his historical panorama with a decidedly political intent. In a country plagued by dictatorship and civil war, this painting evokes a great moment of concord and unity.
Though this kind of political – or, put more neutrally, educational – narrative art is widespread in Central Africa, it is in fact deeply rooted in the history of European art. Since the Romanesque period, it had been common practice to vouch for the authenticity of real or alleged historical occurrences by creating images of such events. This tradition continued right into the early 20th century, experiencing a revival in the Soviet Union and in several South- and Central American countries thanks to the cultural policies of the powers-that-were. Against this background, Kaswende’s concept of reality can be seen in a new light. Far from being naïve, or a mere mimesis, his art is carefully constructed, intensely artificial and loaded with meaning.
(Translation: English Express)
Born in Katanga, Zambia, in 1960
Grew up in Lubumbashi, in the Republic of Congo, where he also received his training as a painter.
After several periods of residency in Zambia, Kaswende returned to Lubumbashi in 1998, and has lived there ever since.
Group Exhibitions (Choice)
Exhibition / Installation
"The Short Century“, House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany
"The Short Century“, Villa Stuck, Munich, Germany
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa
(18 May 01 - 29 July 01)