Summers in London mean good food, good music and great art. One bright Friday morning I made my way through the busy streets of Holborn towards the October Gallery. Just days before I had joined many others in this gallery for the private viewing of Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga’s latest collection, Fragile Responsibility.
Eddy is an artist from the Democratic Republic of Congo. His work often explores the “the seismic shifts in the economic, political and social identity of the DRC that have taken place since colonialism” and this collection was no different.
I was so captivated by the vibrant colours, contrasted by the black figures as well as the meticulous detail on the fabric and patterns. What intrigued me most was the historical context that this series reveals. Images of porcelain items can be seen throughout the collection; soldier figurines and vases stand in proud juxtaposition of wax batik materials and domestic items. I didn’t quite understand their significance. Why are these Europe objects placed within this clearly African setting? This was one of many questions I had for the artist that Friday morning. Our conversations taught me much about both his work and a specific parts of DRC’s history that I didn’t know before.
For this new project, Kamuanga uses the history of the Kongo Kingdom to reveal the legacy of its leaders and examines the impact this has had on contemporary Congolese society. These new works feature objects such as porcelain used by early Portuguese traders as well as pottery, such as Toby jugs, which later entered the trade routes in the Kongo Kingdom for the trade of slaves. In this body of works, Eddy pays tribute to the slaves and ancestors who resisted this human trafficking by presenting a vision of the socio-political landscape of the Democratic Republic of Congo. – October Gallery.
This twenty-seven-year-old artist explains how he uses history to “question the present.” Many of these porcelain pieces can be found around the DRC, passed down from generation to generation, a continual reminder of the gravity and history they carry. On the skin of the black figures are dots and lines overlapping each other. They represent “circuits which can be found in electronic objects,” Eddy explains to me. “It’s made to address the exploitation of Congo by some western countries because of its mines. They are built to extract materials like copper and cobalt which are then used to make these circuits. These images also question the position of the black man as territory to be used and exploited.”
Panels of symbols are also a repeated appearance throughout the collection. “These are ideography,” Eddy continues. “They aren’t used anymore but they were in the past to establish a system of language used in different fields like justice, religion, commerce. They were especially used to indicate the role of someone in society. Some of the symbols were used to explain unity and a oneness. Some were used to pursue peace or execute justice.”
And what of the significance of the fabrics? “They are symbols of exportation especially after the arrival of colonialism and its impact on modern society. With the arrival of capitalism, cotton plantations have been exploited by western countries from the 19th century.”
Each piece is informed by considerable amounts of research which continues long after a canvas is complete. Some of this research is conducted in person, speaking to individuals. There was one such man featured in the exhibition. “During my research along the coast I went to several villages,” he says, reflecting on the proceeds. “ I met many people that had ceramics. One man had inherited a lot of ceramics which come from his forefathers’ generations ago. His ancestors sold slaves for ceramics from the Portuguese.”
When translating such stories onto a wool based canvas, Eddy uses acrylics and oil paint as well as other media such as videos to accompany the main body of work. “I work based on both personal experience and research.“ After several months the series is ready for exhibiting but the real work has only just begun. “I’ll continue working on the project,” Eddy answers when asked what’s next. “There is still much I want to say so I have to paint and research.”
I then asked Eddy for any advice he had for aspiring artists and the relationship he envisions for African art, African artists and the international art world. His response is humble, acknowledging that every artist has a different path.
In my experience its very important to be aware of what you do, to take in the consciousness of one’s self and be sincere with yourself and your work. You must have solid principles. It’s not enough to be good, it’s important to have fixed principles.
As for African art and the rest of the world, it’s not a matter of keeping their interest. It’s the responsibility of Africa to keep on doing and producing work, to keep being interested in art. It has to come from the artist. But we also need more galleries, museums and collectors in Africa. It’s partly their responsibility to keep us as artists creating.
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