Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreamsby Maddie Klett
MUSEUM OF MODERN ART | MAY 26, 2018 – JANUARY 1, 2019
In theorist and historian Partha Chatterjee’s 1991 essay “Whose Imagined Community?”, Chatterjee challenges Benedict Anderson’s argument made in his book, Imagined Communities, that politicians in Africa and Asia selected their post-liberation national forms from existing models in the United States, Western Europe, and Russia.1 Chatterjee responds: if postcolonial nations are restricted to these models, then what is left for them to imagine? The late Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez’s works can provide an answer to Chatterjee’s question. His first U.S. retrospective, City Dreams, at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), presents a selection of thirty-three of his miniature buildings, towers, and cityscapes, dating from 1980 to 2007. The pharmacies, airports, parking lots, soccer stadiums, and other structures of civic life on view here combine the ideologies, institutions, and architecture of multiple traditions—Euro-American, African, Asian, and otherwise.
Kingelez’s autodidactic development as an artist—he had no formal training—aligned chronologically with the nation-building project Mobutu Sese Seko undertook during his dictatorship of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1965 – 1997). But as curator Sarah Suzuki explores in her thoughtful catalogue essay, Kingelez’s work shares little with Mobutu’s plans for Congolese nationhood. The artist lived in Kinshasa, the capital city, during the peak of Mobutu’s project of authenticité, a pro-Africa campaign during which Mobutu changed the country’s name to the Republic of Zaire, banned Western dress, and encouraged citizens to change their Euro-Christian names to African ones, among other demands. In this context, the artist’s sculptures of a modern African utopia differ from Mobutu’s rigid traditional ideals and provide a more cosmopolitan vision through urban planning, architecture, and civic life. Untitled (1982), for example, is a three-story cardboard church that features both Christian crosses and the upturned eaves of East Asian roofing. Maryland University USA (1981), a tall and narrow structure covered in delicate paper fins, is an embodiment of the ivory tower emblematic of American academia. And closer to home, Approche de l’Échangeur de Limete Kin (1981), constructed of various sized tubes of rolled paper, recalls the Tour de l’Échangeur in central Kinshasa, a soaring tri-columned tower whose incomplete construction began under Mobutu’s reign in 1971. In these early works, Kingelez asserts that any tradition can be “African” without submitting to any one national model—neither a model selected from Anderson’s prescriptive Western forms, nor one possessing a Mobutu-ordained sense of authenticity.
The catalogue offers crucial historical context for Kingelez’s work, and separated from it, the exhibition feels a bit incomplete. The show includes brief explanatory labels and a handful of facsimiles of the artist’s original handwritten work descriptions—purportedly written in a flowery, grandiose style of French that was arduous to translate into English—but Kingelez’s cultural or historical objectives are ultimately less of a focal point than his craftsmanship.
This more formal approach is understandable, as Kingelez’s arrangements prove transfixing without any written mediation: Clusters of individual buildings and larger cityscapes take center stage on top of amoeba-shaped plinths, designed by Carsten Höller, which create pathways resembling the curved boulevards that snake between Kingelez’s buildings. (The artist did not favor grids.) Further, despite referring to his works as “maquettes,” Kingelez did not consider them architectural models—their miniature stature is their final, and intended, form. The buildings and urban scenes are therefore architecturally-inspired sculptures, and as a result, their material qualities are essential to understanding their development and meaning. The artist made early works out of this found detritus, and began purchasing papers, tapes, and electric lights for later projects. (A long list of the works’ materials is featured in the exhibition’s wall vinyl, and includes, bottlecaps, ballpoint-pen shafts, and food wrappers.) Kingelez only obtained funds and access to new materials after Jean-Hubert Martin chose him to participate in the 1989 exhibition Magiciens de la Terre—the first claiming to present contemporary art and artists from a global purview. Kingelez sourced glossy monochrome papers and what looks like patterned tissue in the tri-colors of France’s flag for Paris Nouvel (1989), one of a handful of sculptures exhibited in Magiciens.
But even this examination of the works’ material properties could have benefited from the addition of more social and political context, as the history provided in the catalogue certainly changed how I understood the sculptures. The colorful materials point to a nation’s means of branding itself, a phenomenon certainly on the artist’s mind at a time when Mobutu was expounding Zaire’s new identity to the world. Allusions to nation-branding also are prominent in the artist’s most ambitious cityscape, Ville Fantôme (1996). The city recalls the Olympic Village or Embassy Row, with buildings named “Russia Ways,” “Seoul,” and “Chinaers Center” (likely a reference to China) sitting below a towering metallic gold skyscraper labeled “USA.” All exist harmoniously along winding streets dotted with drawn flowers.
Ville Fantôme does not stage a dominant national character, ideology, or aesthetic—prompting us to think out forms of government or society that don’t conform to any one model. Yet, despite its image of international kinship, Ville Fantôme’s title points to how the artist may have considered a city devoted to this confederation a no-place—the literal meaning of “utopia”—that is, a “ghost town” that no one could inhabit. Of course, Kingelez intended for his works to be no-places, or visions of modern, cosmopolitan African cities never realized in brick-and-mortar. They instead exemplify the international connectedness and multiculturalism that the 1990s promised—cultural and political circumstances central to the artist’s visibility in the decade’s proliferation of global exhibitions and biennials.
Met with visible excitement by MoMA’s hordes of viewers on the day of my visit, City Dreams celebrates Kingelez’s artistry and imagination, and points to some nostalgia for the recent past. The joy that Kingelez’s sculptures induce is perhaps unsurprising. Despite functioning as embodiments of the artist’s utopian imagination, they express a very real hope for a more open world—something welcomed in our era of renewed nationalisms.
- Partha Chatterjee, “Whose Imagined Community?,”1991, Empire and Nation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010) 23 – 36.
is a writer and independent curator based in New York.