Painting history, making history
The Congo as a history painting
Tshibumba Kanda Matulu was born in 1947 in Lubumbashi in Southern Belgian Congo. He has worked as a painter, primarily of popular genre scenes, since the late 1960s. Between 1974 and 1976, he painted his best known work, a visual history of Zaire, commissioned by the German anthropologist Jahnnes Fabian, and consisting of over 100 paintings. Tshibumba left Lubumbashi in the early 1980s and has been reported missing since then.
Cultural change accompanied political change in the colonial situation in Zaire, namely the country’s relative independence after 1960, and the following foundation of the first republic under Tshombe in 1964. Shortly thereafter, Mobutu took over in 1967, and, for the cultural sphere, passed an ‘authenticity’ doctrine, which aimed to return (especially in the non-urban regions) to a pre-colonial artistic and cultural practice. As a result, the cities developed a peculiar urban culture, in which former models of colonial, Western influences merged with modern, urban modes of leisure and fashion. The deliberate use of Western elements to express the livelihood of urban culture in his paintings coincides with an altered set of parameters of content. After the landscapes and animal paintings from the 1950s, a mode of painting emerged that has been called “genre painting” and that was grounded in a shared local discourse, in the structuring of common memories. Genre painting, in its belonging to a defined cultural climate, is historically contingent as well, having reached its heyday in the decade from the consolidation of Mobutu’s regime in 1966 to the so-called invasions by Shaba starting in 1976. Genre paintings follow three categories: things related to the world of the ancestors, things related to the past, and things from the present time. They had a few accepted visual formulae that were repeated almost without alteration. But in the heyday of genre painting, there were already attempts to expand this particular domain of popular culture. The painter Tshibumba Kanda Matulu, a renown genre painter himself, created a body of work that points beyond the borders of genre and to a painterly practice that could be described as ‘personal account’.
Tshibumba Kanda Matulu was born in 1947 in Lubumbashi in the very south of what was then Belgian Congo. His family moved all over the country to find work in various industries, from the mining companies to the railway company. Tshibumba settled permanently in Kipushi, near his birthplace, by the early 1970s. In the mid-1960s he started training himself to paint and practiced painting as a profession from 1969. Tshibumba’s series of 107 paintings depicting the history of Zaire, painted between 1974 and 1976 can be seen as the most ambitious project to go beyond the boundaries of genre painting from that period. Tshibumba gives an account of Zairian history, from biblical times to the early 1970s when he created the piece. The first painting in the series of 107 pictures is a landscape, and it is interesting to recognize the difference in the conception of this type of landscape and that supported by the painting schools of the colonial period, which favored landscape painting. As Tshibumba says about landscape painting, it “is something of the past; in fact it is the very first thing. As regards painting—of course we know that the Europeans brought painting. So in the end, I’m following an idea of the whites when I paint. But when we paint, we depict matters that concern us and that we have seen. The landscape is the first thing in the history of Zaire.” He thus deliberately conflates landscape painting with the meaning of an origin, which is a fundamental moment in the history of any country. He returns to a mythical state of landscape, to an interpretation that draws on the relation of painting to nature, to a conception of Africa before colonialism. That interpretation stands in sharp contrast to a definition of landscape as a form of painting that was promoted by colonialism. The series takes on the task of illustrating the history of the artist’s country according to stories he has read, heard of, or encountered. It is not the only time that Tshibumba has dedicated his work to historical narrative, since other parts of his work focus on certain periods such as the colonial era (Belgian Congo) as well. But it is probably the only time the artist attempted to narrate an ongoing chronology of events to convey the story of his country as a whole.
Author: Christian Rattemeyer
Group Exhibitions (Choice)
Exhibition / Installation
"A Congo Chronicle: Patrice Lumumba in Urban Art”, Fairleigh Dickinson University’s College, Madison, USA
"Heart of Darkness”, CAAM, Cabildo de Gran Canaria, Spain
"M_ARS - Kunst und Krieg“, Neue Galerie, Graz, Switzerland
"The Short Century“, House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany
"The Short Century“, Villa Stuck, Munich, Germany
"Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art”, New Museum of Contemporary Art, Chelsea, Great Britain
Solo Exhibitions (Choice)
Exhibition / Installation
"Congo on Vanvas“, Museum für das Fürstentum Lüneburg, Lüneburg, Germany
"Congo in Cartoons“, Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands
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)