While the paintings from the post-colonial period show scenes from the everyday life of the time – a family boarding a train, a couple dancing in a bar – they also resound with the pain of the nation’s shared suffering under Belgian rule. Dark, violent, and sometimes heartbreaking, the images appear again and again: whippings, beatings, manacles, white priests, uniformed guards, tubby officials, prisons. This is the Congolese artist’s attempt to process trauma, to come to terms with the wounds inflicted on a country.
A whole room is devoted to paintings of the DRC’s first elected president, Patrice Lumumba, who was executed in 1961 (with Belgian involvement) less than a year after taking office. Here he is depicted as a symbol of national awakening, giving speeches as Belgians flock to the airport, or a heroic martyr, beaten and tortured.
Many recent works reveal a sharp political awareness, frustration with the country’s continuing exploitation by the West and anger at corruption. Others celebrate daily life, both in the capital Kinshasa and in rural parts of the DRC. Visually, these paintings are bold pictorial statements that often assimilate speech bubbles and other elements of comic art, and at times even veer into surrealism.
What emerges is a distinctly African artistic voice that is confident and bold in its sensibilities, aims and social relevance. This prompts reflection on the legitimacy of the Western control of the contemporary art narrative and the absurdity of judgements on what is or is not considered to be valid expression.
“I think that contemporary art should be criticized for its total ‘whiteness’ and exclusiveness, and I think that this message of inclusion, this message of an alternative, is one of the questions that people have to ask themselves,” says Dyakonov.
The question is whether local visitors to the exhibition will draw the obvious parallel between what they see here and Russia’s own subjugation of indigenous peoples following the conquest of Siberia and the Caucasus.
To their credit, the Garage curators have anticipated this and have integrated a display of engraved walrus tusks from the Chukotka region in Russia’s Far East, a kind of “exhibition within an exhibition.” The aim is to address the colonial history of Russia, and specifically the Soviet Union, which presented tusk carving as a traditional indigenous practice.