Why Are There No Women Artists in the Congo? / by M Durquet

The “Beauté Congo” exhibit at the Fondation Cartier in Paris has been so successful that it is extended until 2016.  As I walked through the exhibition, I noticed that most of the human subjects were men- Congolese politicians, Barak Obama or Muhammed Ali, for example. The occasional woman was provocatively dressed or a showcasing a car or pregnant with a budding male writer/artist.
Then I noticed that the artist names on the wall were all male. This is not unusual, in any part of the world.  According to the Guerrilla Girls, in 2012 less than 4% of artists in the modern art section of the Metropolitan Museum of New York were women. But in 2015, in a major art capital like Paris, at an exhibit representing an entire country and spanning a century, at a venue that according to Cartier’s website, “distinguishes itself by its curiosity, originality and heterogeneity,” I hoped for better. In the WSJ, Tobias Grey, says the “show’s scope is ambitious.” I wish it were ambitious enough to include women.
I asked a girl working at the museum entrance if there were any women artists in the exhibit. She nodded no, then as I walked away, she said: “Wait! There is one downstairs.” I headed there, excited. Finally, towards the end of the exhibition, I saw the name: Antoinette Lubaki. She was born in 1895. There were 4 works by her, identical in subject and style to the 14 works by her husband nearby. So, I considered some of these possibilities:
1.    No woman born in the 20th century, in this country of 77 million people, ever touched clay or a brush, camera or other artistic tool or attended an art school or produced anything of artistic value.
2.     The curatorial team (headed by Andre Magnin), did not make an effort to look for such a woman. It is noteworthy that of the 11 (mostly white) catalogue contributors, only two- Nancy Rose Hunt and Dominique Malaquais, are female.
3.    Magnin’s definition of what constitutes Congolese art is too narrow to include what women do.
4.    For any number of reasons (which might include economics, war and societal expectations), women are discouraged from making art.

Magnin said, “It is my duty to recount…the adventure that led me to a deep exploration of Congolese art. I had three aspirations with Beauté Congo. The first…was to share with a Western public the passion that impelled me to search all over Congo-Zaire for thirty years. My second aspiration was to tell the story of ninety years of Congolese art which had always been described partially, and was visually familiar, but only fragmentarily so until now. I want this exhibition to widen people’s perceptions of the country…” 

Yet, I still feel I am being presented a “partial” and “fragmented” story. One interesting work is a painting whose title translates into “Africa of the Future.”
Here we see a utopian vision of a modern world- clean, bright, and where women are mostly invisible. The few women are accompanied by a man, while the men either walk independently or with their friends, drive cars or spaceships. I counted approximately 57 men and 9 women. This far exceeds the imbalance in countries like India and China, which have a preference for sons and where (according to the Daily Mail) “there are now as many as 120 or 140 boys for every 100 girls despite a ban on gender-based abortion.” Art reflects back to us our desires, values and beliefs, so what is this painting saying?  

I would have liked the Fondation Cartier to address why, of the 350 works shown and of the 40 artists represented, only one is a woman (represented by 4 pieces, or 1.1% of the total works). I am not even sure 1.1% is statistically relevant. The Guardian refers to this show as the “first ever retrospective of art from the DRC”, but it would be more appropriate to clarify for visitors that this is the first ever retrospective of art by MEN from the DRC. In France, where people love to strike, why haven’t the citizens of Paris plastered fliers or held signs in front of the Fondation? Why the blindness and complacency? Of all the reviews I’ve read, only Rachel Donadio in the New York Times has touched upon this, and brings in a quote by Pascale Obolo regarding the “neocolonial and paternalistic attitude of Mr. Magnin.” Ms. Donadio also informs readers about Michele Magema, a successful Congolese artist who has exhibited internationally, yet wasn’t included in this show. How did Magnin, “The world’s foremost expert on African art,” (according to The Guardian) miss her?

Jenny Stevens, also from The Guardian, interviewed one of the artists in Beauté Congo, Kiripi Katembo. He shares his thoughts about one of his images: “Women raise children, look after their husbands, and also go out to work and provide. Yet men are still seen as the chiefs. When I look at this picture, I think about all the work women do to serve the economy of Congo and their families, but they get no respect. They are treated like machines, while men can do what they like. I also think of my mother, who died last year. She worked in the market, ran her own business, knitted and worked out in the fields, too. So I called this image Move Forward as a way of saying thank you to women – because they are the true power of my country, the people driving it forward.” 

A Guerrilla Girl who goes by KAHLO said, “ How can you really tell the story of a culture when you don’t include all the voices within the culture? Otherwise, it’s just the history, and the story, of power.” In this exhibit we have a story of the power of men, and a story of the power of France in its former colonies. We have the story of who finances exhibits in the contemporary art world. Cartier is owned by Compagnie Financière Richemont SA, based in Switzerland and headed by a South African: Johann Rupert. As of 2014, Richemont is the second-largest luxury goods company in the world and Rupert is the 2nd richest man in Africa, valued at over 7 billion dollars.

I wanted to find a different story about Congolese women artists and after searching, I came upon this. In April 2014, Ugandan born curator Robinah Nansubuga curated an exhibition in Kinshasa called Women Without Borders, and it included 19 artists from central and east Africa, including the DRC. She estimates that “only about 10-20 out of 200 or 300 artists in a university here are women. We wanted to understand why there are so few, and what challenges are holding them back.”

Other links of interest: