Eddy Kamuanga’s Ilunga’s Vibrant Reconstruction Of History
Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga’s paintings bear similarities to 19th-century neo-classical art in their classical poses and convoluted, realistically rendered draperies, a testament to his training in the 19th-century style of formal figuration taught at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Kinshasa where Ilunga enrolled before abandoning his studies in 2011. However, all similarities end there. Ilunga’s paintings can best be described as plain grey canvases populated with hybrid, ‘sci-fi’ bodies, ideographic symbols, bright swathes of “African” print fabrics, brightly coloured slippers and ritual objects.
Working primarily in oil and acrylic from photographs of scenes posed with live models, Ilunga’s work explores the history of globalisation and colonialism and their effect on the economic, political and social identity of present-day Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Like most African countries, the DRC, in favour of globalisation and European religious practices (a relic from the colonial era) is eschewing its multi-ethnic indigenous heritage and traditional culture. This loss of tradition and “African Consciousness” is what the artist bemoans and strives to preserve in his series. His rejection of European-style academic art study and consequently establishing M’Pongo, a group studio where a diverse set of young artists share ideas and exhibit together to generate their own vibrant scene, lends a material richness to his work, culminating in a sort of synthesis between cultures, and between traditional and contemporary forms.
Ilunga’s first body of work, ‘Mangbetu’ was informed by a study of the Mangbetu people, an ethnic group of warrior extraction in the DRC, whose culture is being threatened by a desire to modernise. In these series, the artist depicts the figures in sombre, elegiac poses — giving the viewer a sense of domesticity— draped in vibrant Congolese fabric, some holding household tools or weapons. The figures are also shown with elongated heads — a reference to the Limpobo practice of wrapping heads of infants tightly with cloth found among the Mangbetu people—adorned with elaborate hairdos and headdresses. The darkened skin of his figures is embellished with lines and shapes similar to those found in circuit boards and microchips used in electronic devices. They serve as a reference to the mining activities going on in the DRC for coltan, a dull black metallic ore used in the production of tantalum capacitors in many electronic devices. As one of the world’s biggest producers of coltan, the DRC has suffered human and environmental costs due to increasing exploitation in the mining of this mineral. It is this exploitation, of the people and the land that Ilunga references in his depiction of human skin.
While Ilunga had been active on the local African scene, his international debut was at Pangaea II, New Art from Africa and Latin America, a 2015 group show organised by the Saatchi Gallery, which was followed by participation in international art fairs like Summa Contemporary, Madrid, Spain and 1-54 Contemporary Art Fair London in September and October respectively of the same year. He also debuted at auction in London in 2017 with his Elongated Head selling for £11,250, and at Sotheby’s in March 2018, a comparable painting from his first series, ‘Mangbetu’, created when he was 23 and owned by Charles Saatchi, fetched £65,000.
Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga showed work from his ‘Mangbetu’ series at his first London solo show at the October Gallery in 2016 titled Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga. In his second series ‘Lifeless Objects’ (2017), in each of the nine scenes a shovel appears, hinting at the futility of unearthing cultural treasures whose value is no longer understood.
Full article published in Omenka Magazine Volume III Issue I
August 16, 2019