In three words: troubling, confronting, revealing.
With a powerful title ‘Amour Forcé’ [ForcedLove] (2016-2020), the Congolese artist Irene Kanga draws a vivid and confrontational statement including historical and political references. In her new exhibition, originally aimed at the WIELS Museum in Brussels and exposed at the EYE FILM Museum in Amsterdam, the sculptor presents five statues made from cocoa and palm fat placed next to each other.
Part of the ‘Cercle d'Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise’ (CATPC) [Art circle of Congo plantation workers], Irene Kanga’s art focuses on the relations of power and oppression. Not only exposing the dark history between Europe and Africa, she makes an intense portrait of long-standing gender violences.
Thriving for greater collective consciousness, the sculptor raises awareness on what seems to be obliterated: colonial exploitation of natural resources by Western companies as well as asymmetric gender dynamics still pertaining in today’s context.
The choices of sexual violence as subject-matter and its subsequent use of cocoa and palm oil as primary materials are not accidental. The artist brings back to the front scene her personal traumatic experiences and the overarching historical narratives of Congo’s colonial past. Taking the rape of Kafutchi in 1931 as reference point,Irene Kanga offers a rough and unsettling account directly confronting the viewer’s sight: a violent and revolting scene frozen at its paroxysm for eternity.
In fact, inscribed during the colonization of Congo by Belgian troops, Kafutchi – as many others – were victims of sexual violence by colonial agents during campaigns of forced recruitment for palm harvesters. Kafutchi,wife of chief Kelenge, got raped while being recruited for the ‘Lever brothers’ in Lusanga - a company we know today as the British-Dutch multinational corporation ‘Unilever’. Far from random, Irene Kanga reminds us of the constant exploitation of plantations by multinationals continuing to this day to generate massive profits at the expense of local populations.
Taking part of the exhibition ‘Risquons-tout’ [Risk everything], Irene Kanga exposes along many powerful and innovative artists aiming to challenge the viewer on globalization, transnational circulation, and diasporic movements. With unsettling and powerful imagery, the artist transcends emotional, physical, and intellectual boundaries across time and space. As a striking reminder, Kangare affirms the primary purpose of art: make sense of one’s world, take control of one’s destiny and confront the other with past and contemporary underlying -and violent - realities.
Video: ‘Irene Kanga in White Cube’ publishedby the EYE FILM MUSEUM, https://vimeo.com/478515145.
Exhibition: ‘Risquons Tout’ at theWiels Museum in Brussels, Belgium, https://www.wiels.org/nl/exhibitions/risquons-tout (in Dutch).
Documentary: ‘White Cube’ (2020)directed by Renzo Martens and exploring the ties between Western art museumsand the violence of the plantation system.
Further reading: Dr. Bambi Ceuppenson Art in Congo, https://www.ntgent.be/en/news/lezing-bambi-ceuppens-kunst-is-een-middel-om-het-eigen-lot-in-handen-te-nemen.