There is a matchstick man, not so much hiding, but somberly reflecting in the dark, in a corner of the new wing of African Art at the Los Angeles County Museum. It’s an installation by Congolese artist Aime’ Mpane, a sculptural piece that embodies an entire nation, and the pillaging, rape and war it has been enduring for over 100 years.
What is now the Democratic Republic of Congo was ruled by the Belgians, in one form or another, from 1885 until 1960, so it’s easy to see how both African and French Belgian cultures lived together and are still at the heart of this African nation. After achieving independence, (as Zaire first) Congo struggled to find political stability and was beset by civil wars which have resulted in hundreds of thousands of people displaced and dispossessed and in an estimated 400,000 women raped. And peace has not come yet.
Aime’ Mpane straddles both cultures: born in 1968 in a family of artists, with art degrees from Universities in both Congo and Belgium, he currently teaches and works in both countries.
“Living between two cultures and countries, the Congo and Belgium, my artwork is based on interactions between the north and the south and my reaction to stereotypes on Africa and black-skinned people. My artwork is fundamentally based on identity and wounds in the Congolese memory.”
The wonderful portraits of everyday Congolese are all on plywood.
“Because my work deals with problems of race and the stereotypes of black people, the three layers within 4-millimeter-thick plywood make me think of the three layers within human skin.”
The faces sometimes hollowed out, marred by scars, are meant to elicit the wounds that every Congolese carries but they are also beacons of hope, because every struggling African nation has no choice but to look forward, like the children in Mpane’s paintings. The scars will never be erased but will be made easier to bear if peace and prosperity can be achieved.
I particularly like “Koko”. Her eyes slashed away, as if not to see what has befallen her but the mouth still sensual, as if poised to break out in a smile. Her head erect, her demeanour still proud to symbolize a nation not ready or willing to give up.
Shadow of the Shadow will be on view at LACMA until January 2014