Amid more pressing, basic human needs, arts are not the first thing that comes to mind for the millions of Congolese from the Democratic Republic of Congo. While some can say the country has “bigger” things to deal with, we say that arts and culture are one of those “bigger things”. We believe that arts and culture can’t wait for peace, prosperity and for all the stars to be lined up to claim its place in the Congolese society. While others are working on peace and development, we are working on telling the story of this land blessed with talent. While others are getting their hands dirty extracting diamonds and coltan, our hands are dirty from all their oil and acrylic used to paint inspired pieces.
It’s been said that the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country the size of Western Europe that has given us musical greats like Papa Wemba and events like the “Rumble in the Jungle”, is a “geological scandal”: It’s rich in rare-earth minerals, minerals that are used in the terminal that I am using to type this, that you are using to read this text. Across this vast land, titanium, copper, diamonds and many others are awash. So while major corporations are scrambling for these gems, we at Malabo have been digging for other kinds of gem. We believe that people are the real gems, and among this land of some 80 million souls, there is a particular gem that we are looking for: we call them artists.
MALABO started in 2012 to “promote DR Congo’s best gems: its artists”. We work to assist, support Congolese artists- painters to be exact- in making a living of their talent, work with them to establish successful international careers. We aim to be the main actor on the painting scene in Kinshasa, while staying open to all other kinds of artistic expressions.
The country is awash with artists in the largest sense of the word: raw, pure talent at every corner. Whether in the hustle and bustle of Kinshasa, or in green, cheese-making [yes they make cheese] hills of North Kivu, or in the sleepy heat of Lubumbashi, we dare to say that the country is also an “artistic scandal”. An active cultural strategy would generate millions of dollars for its artists and the country.
When we started in 2012, we were involved in music, mainly working with musical giant Papa Wemba until his death in April 2016. In April 2015, we bought our first painting, an acrylic on canvas by young Congolese artist Mbela Mambueni. Several weeks later we signed him to a partnership agreement. A few months later, we fell upon another “piece of gold”, Frederic Kuku, and then stumbled onto a third “diamond”, Wess Itshiri. All three are below 30 years of age, all graduates of the Academie des Beaux-Arts de Kinshasa, a once prestigious school that once attracted students all over Africa that has lost its luster. Kuku, Mambueni and Wess paint. We do the rest. In October 2016, Kuku and Mbela participated in the Salon de l’art africain, a new kid on the block in terms of art events in Paris.
2017 was an eventful year. In March, Kuku, Mbela and Wess showcased their talent in neighboring Brazzaville with “Kongo moko” [One Congo], our first show of the year. While “Kongo moko” was ongoing, back across the river in Kinshasa, Kuku, 22 years old, opened on 20 April his first solo show, showing 60 paintings. In October, after weeks of exchanges with an art-loving baker, five paintings by Wess were on display at Colson bakery in Brooklyn. We enjoyed this opportunity because we believe that arts shouldn’t only be in museums and galleries.
We wrapped up the year with another return to Brazzaville, this time with an artist who is not yet part of our team, Doudou Mbemba. The exhibit of 20 oil on canvas paintings ends next week on 7 January.
And in between all these events, we met people, we gained new clients and friends, we traveled, we learned a lot.
We would like to express our gratitude and appreciation, to all those, near and far, who have supported us by buying paintings, by sharing ideas and thoughts on how to improve this endeavor so that we can establish ourselves as a central actor for Congolese artists and branch out to reach other African artists. We hope that you had a successful 2017 and that 2018 will be even more successful. To those for whom 2017 was a hard year, rest assured that your sun will shine brighter in 2018.
For us at MALABO, 2018 is promising to be a busy year during which we will take bolder steps to ensure that the flag of our three artists- and Congolese artists in general- flies high. So watch this train: next stop March 2018.
Happy New year to all, best wishes to you and your loved ones.