Artist Dossier: Bodys Isek Kingelez
“Without a model, you are nowhere. A nation that can’t make models is a nation that doesn’t understand things, a nation that doesn’t live,” said late visionary artist Bodys Isek Kingelez (1948–2015).
Born in Kimbembele-Ihunga, a village in what was then the Belgian Congo, Bodys Isek Kingelez began his artistic endeavours in the late 1970s when he moved to Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire (the country’s new name that would last until 1997). At the time, he was also working as a restorer of masks and other tribal relics at the Institute of National Museum, an occupation quite different in sensibility from his artistic aesthetic but which nevertheless helped him perfect his craftsmanship and enhance his eye for detail. Story has it that when Kingelez initially presented one of his maquettes to officials at the museum in the late 70s, they refused to believe that he had made it, so he created another before their eyes. This led to six years of employment at the museum.
In the mid-80s, he began devoting himself to art full time, and despite having no formal training as an architect or artist, Kingelez created ambitious architectural models of utopian buildings and cities out of everyday materials and found objects. He made sculptures of imagined buildings and cities that reflected dreams for his country, his continent, and the world. His extreme maquettes offer fantastic, utopian models for a more harmonious society of the future. His home city of Kinshasa grew exponentially and organically, with urban planning and infrastructure often unable to keep step. His work, therefore, offers an optimistic alternative to his own experience of urban life in Kinshasa and explores urgent questions around urban growth, economic inequity, how communities and societies function, and the rehabilitative power of architecture—issues that resonate profoundly today. Kingelez has projected the future of other places in addition to his hometown, including Belgium, Germany, Japan, Palestine, the United States, and the Soviet Union.
His buildings are variously tiered, towering, serpentine, pinnate, finned, and scalloped. Colonnades and grand staircases abound, as do ingenious decorative grids of circles, stripes, diamonds, stars, and floral motifs. Kingelez was a great and subtle colourist, with a palette anchored by the red, yellow, and green of the national flag of Zaire. He once said, “A building without colour is like a naked person.”
His big break came in 1989 when he took part in a hugely influential 1989 group exhibition in Paris, Magiciens de la Terre, which showcased Western and Third World artists with equal fervour. Meanwhile, his six-month stay in the French capital, his first trip abroad, enriched his artistic sensibility and broadened his material palette. While he hadn’t ventured outside of Zaire prior to that, he was highly attuned to world events and deeply concerned with social issues. The Scientific Center of Hospitalisation the SIDA (1991), for example, references the AIDS crisis; Palais d’Hirochima (1991) addresses the condition of post-war Japan; and U.N. (1995) attests to the organisation’s global peacekeeping efforts and the artist’s own sense of civic responsibility. In the complex multi-building cityscape Kimbembele Ihunga (1994), the artist reimagines his agricultural home village, complete with a football stadium, banks, restaurants, and skyscrapers.
Undoubtedly, the artist’s most impressive work, which is also widely considered to be his masterpiece, is Ville Fantôme (1996), where he imagined a peaceful city in which doctors and police are not needed. The work consists of an approximately 6-metre sprawl of about 50 structures, including a bridge and an airport, serviced by a network of roads, pathways, train tracks, and bridges. The work is enhanced by an overhead mirror that reveals even more of the astounding complexity of this work, which took two years to complete. The miniature city can also be explored with a headset that offers visitors the opportunity to take a self-guided virtual-reality tour.
More observant viewers will detect that Kingelez often worked his name or initials into the buildings’ facades or signs—modesty was not one of the artist’s strong suits. After all, he once described himself as “a small god,” whose architectural flights of fancy are a warning against the excesses of power and money. However, on a more visceral level, they offer a joyful reprieve from our anxiety-laden lives. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the artist’s work has seen high sales at auctions. In December 2018, his work titled Pacific Art (1989) sold for $62,592 at Artcurial (S.V.V.)’s, Paris#Marrakech: African Spirit auction.
Other previously high-grossing works include Base King (2000), sold for $60,235 at Sotheby’s Modern & Contemporary African Art sale in March 2018; Seattle (2007), sold for $33,988 at Sotheby’s Modern & Contemporary African Art sale in April 2019; New Wax (2000-2001), sold for $32,975 at Sotheby’s Modern & Contemporary African Art sale in October 2018; and American Passport (2003) achieved $23,637 at Christie’s Art D’apres-Guerre et Contemporain auction on May 2008.
In his lifetime, Bodys Isek Kingelez created more than 300 models, starting with individual architectural structures. He began assembling entire cities with numerous buildings, avenues, parks, stadiums, and monuments in 1992. He presented numerous exhibitions in Europe and North America, including at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and at the Documenta XI in Kassel (Germany). His work can be found in the Jean Pigozzi collection, the Musée International des Arts Modestes. (MIAM) collection in Sète (France), the Cartier Foundation in Paris, and the Ludwig Foundation in Cologne (Germany).
Biography: “Bodys Isek Kingelez,” Museum of Modern Art in New York, retrieved on April 30, 2019, from https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/3889
Biography: “Bodys Isek Kingelez,” Contemporary African Art Collection, retrieved March 11, 2019, from http://www.caacart.com/bio.php?la=en&m=50
“The Utopian Vision of Bodys Isek Kingelez,” The New Yorker, retrieved on April 30, 2019, from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/06/04/the-utopian-vision-of-bodys-isek-kingelez
Art prices: “Bodys Isek Kingelez,” retrieved on April 30, 2019, from https://www.artprice.com
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