In Conversation with Kura Shomali
For Kura Shomali, an artist living and working in Kinshasa, Congo, L’art est une camisole et je ne sais comment la porte; une peur intérieure de ne pas pouvoir répondre aux peurs collectives. Seul l’art pourra l’apaiser.
"Art is a straight jacket and I do not know how to wear it; an inner fear of not being able to meet the collective fears. Only art can soothe."
Using a variety of mediums, Shomali’s oeuvre comprises vibrant works with a color palette as bold as their socio-political nuances. Having come across his works in a gallery in London, I was immediately drawn to not only his aesthetically striking and technically inventive pieces, but also his visual references to many African photographers represented in the permanent collection of The Studio Museum in Harlem. Eager to learn more about the invigorating work of this talented up-and-coming artist, I reached out to Shomali to find out more about what informs his artistic practice and vision.
Katherine Finerty: How does the environment and energy of Kinshasa directly influence your artwork?
Kura Shomali: Kinshasa is a city, a very immense city in which more than ten million people are trying to live. It is here that I grew up—I built my experiences and my debut as an artist. It is the city and its components that I'm trying to digest for making art. Not an art of recycling the African, but an art that is like life. Recycling is a vital necessity for most people in Kinshasa, for me it is this town and its inhabitants that feed my inspiration and my work.
I use the expressions of passersby on the ‘princes’ (streets of Kinshasa), their extraverted or introverted appearances. I represent them. I illustrate the songi songi, rumors spread by the radio and sidewalk, which is the main information circulating in the countless, densely populated streets. Like many artists from Kinshasa, my work is polymorphic.
I work every day, rapidly and slowly drawing from magazines that I find, local and international publications on current affairs or art. With humor and militancy, I realize phantasmagoria amid a deluge of bulky bars, large markets, hospitals, pharmacies, politicians with their train of armed troops accompanied by jeeps of MONUC (the UN Mission in Congo), not to mention weddings, funerals and street children running around.
KF: What are you currently working on?
KS: I have a huge range of manipulating materials around me, wood, paper, plastic waste, scrap, the signs through the city that I photograph in their multiple appearances, many Congolese languages, bright colors under the sun and the dark chaos of a city or the festival which is eternal.
These drawings literally become alive during performances that feature puppets—they speak and tell what we can not say. There is war, impunity. These puppets become the protagonists of my videos. They have anti-values like our politicians, headless elephants who govern us. I create my own puppets with recycled materials. This activity is linked to a creative workshop, the open city, with street children and child soldiers demobilized.This is a great inspiration for me. The boundaries become porous between the real world and the manipulated world.
KF: At The Studio Museum in Harlem we have works in our collection by African photographers such as Seydou Keïta, Malick Sidibé, and Samuel Fosso, and we view them as very influential to artists of African descent today. How do these photographers inspire you and your artwork? In what ways do your reinterpretations (via medium, color, character, etc.) create new visions and meanings?
KS: I was inspired by African photography in the year 2001 when I was still a fine art student in Kinshasa, where a symposium was organized and it involved a beloved Congolese artist. He talked about his experience and his meeting African photographers Jean Depara, Malik Sidibé, Seidou Keïta... After that they really caught my attention and I found a track for appropriating all this photography, a massacre in my own way and finding an original style, an aesthetic point of view, ethics, applying my color more like graphics which I’ve done for several years. I work through meetings, exchanges with other artists – it keeps my mind open to the priority of the contemporary world.
To my pleasure I have a large suitcase of ideas to use color and to show my work one day to myself. One could find it a little shocking...
KF: What do you intend to offer and show the world as an individual artist; an African artist; a global artist? What is your artistic mission?
KS: I go back to drawing daily. It comes alive this time in the installations. No, it is dead. Installed in a device based on the common plastic chair, the drawings become sculpture, sitting in these chairs. The message to the viewer becomes: Sit or don’t sit in the place of a violent representation of our lives. To appropriate installation or to get caught in a trap of the device.
Art is a straight jacket and I do not know how to wear it; an inner fear of not being able to meet the collective fears. Only art can soothe.