Congo in Cartoons: 102 Paintings by Tshibumba

Congo in Cartoons: 102 Paintings by TshibumbaCongo in Cartoons 102 Paintings by Tshibumba Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen (KIT) Tropenmuseum Amsterdam, The Netherlands May 14-October 3, 2004

Thirty years after they were painted, and ten years after Johannes Fabian wrote a seminal account of them, the 102 paintings that make up Tshibumba Kanda Matulu's (1) series History of Zaire were exhibited together for the first time at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, which acquired them in 2000. Although many of these paintings have been exhibited elsewhere since being painted in 1973-74 in Zaire (as the Democratic Republic of Congo was then called), they have never been exhibited together. (2) Until recently the paintings had remained in the possession of Johannes Fabian, an anthropologist who worked and lived in Lubumbashi in the southeast of the country from 1971 to 1976. At that time, Fabian, who was interested in and collected popular painting while in Zaire, met Tshibumba, who made and sold small paintings in the streets of Lubumbashi. It quickly became apparent that Tshibumba was more than a painter and that he considered himself a popular historian. From their discussions grew an idea: Tshibumba would create a series of paintings to narrate the history of Zaire and, in exchange, Fabian would purchase them and record Tshibumba's oral account of the paintings and do his best to make the paintings and the account available to a wider audience. Fabian's effort to hold up his end of the bargain was delivered twenty-two years later in his academic publication Remembering the Present: Painting and Popular History in Zaire (1996), in which all the paintings were reproduced and accompanied by extensive commentaries by the painter and interviews between the painter and Fabian.

The Tropenmuseum exhibition represents the second time an attempt has been made to to address the paintings as a series. Paul Faber, curator of the exhibition as well as the museum's African arts collections, designed a minimalist exhibition space to highlight the serial quality of the paintings. The paintings were arranged in order along a yellow band that stretched around the white walls of the gallery's three divided spaces. Labels in Dutch and English provided the name of each painting and a brief description. Though the design of the exhibit encouraged visitors to start at the beginning and work their way through the paintings in the chronological order determined by Tshibumba, large numbers painted in black above each painting allowed visitors to jump from painting to painting without losing track of where they were in the series. Neither the exhibition nor the catalogue that accompanied it reproduced much of the information already available about the paintings through Fabian's work. Instead, the paintings were left to more or less stand alone, a task to which they easily lived up.

Tshibumba's history is a popular one that is at times idiosyncratic and at times in line with shared popular understandings, and there are numerous instances where it digresses from official historical timelines, both state-sponsored propaganda and academic accounts. In Remembering the Present, Fabian chose to let Tshibumba's timeline take precedence and included copious historical footnotes to indicate possible divergences from the official story. Similarly, the exhibition made little attempt to "correct" Tshibumba's history. Accompanying the show were numerous artifacts, including money, stamps, magazine articles, comic books, and even a copper ingot from Katanga, all of which were likely to have been seen by Tshibumba and to have influenced his style of representation.

Historical video footage also played continually in a small screening room located in the back of the gallery. The video was culled from the film archives of the African Museum in Tervuren, located just outside Brussels, and reflected many of the events highlighted by Tshibumba. Visitors to the show were left to watch the video and view the artifacts and draw their own conclusions about where Tshibumba may have diverged, whether intentionally or unknowingly. It is admirable that the exhibition did not attempt to undermine the artist's historical claims by pointing out discrepancies between his and official accounts, yet this did, at times, seem to lead to confusion among visitors who were hazy about official histories. One visitor, for instance, was overheard to proclaim in a puzzled manner, "But I thought Stanley met Livingstone in Tanzania, and that Livingstone died there." According to Tshibumba, these momentous events occurred in Mulungwishi, a town located between Lubumbashi and Likasi in Zaire. The problem is that Tshibumba sometimes diverged from official histories intentionally, relying on such juxtapositions to invoke irony and to encourage discussion among viewers. His errors were meant to shock and amuse (Fabian 1996:xi). However, viewers must be aware of official histories before they can recognize where the artist broke with them. Of course, exhibitions can hardly be expected to provide visitors with extensive historical lessons and, to be fair, anyone interested in exploring these contradictions further needed only go so far as the museum bookshop to buy Fabian's Remembering the Present to do a little homework on their own. Yet it does seem a pity that the irony and, in my mind, the intelligence behind the paintings could be so easily overlooked by viewers who may have chosen to view the paintings as high, or at least popular art, rather than as historical illustrations, which is what the artist intended.

According to Fabian, neither he nor Tshibumba imagined at the time the paintings were being completed that they would ever be exhibited together and in order in a museum. In fact, as Fabian mentioned at the exhibition's opening, it was the first time he had seen them displayed together since he first acquired them from Tshibumba thirty years previously. The collaborators had imagined them as illustrations to Tshibumba's history of Zaire, which he recounted to Fabian in a series of interviews. If anything, this history was meant to take book form. (3) Yet now they are in a museum collection. In one respect, this is a blessing. Finally visitors can enjoy the images in person and in color. In another respect, however, it is worrisome that museum visitors may be left with the impression that Tshibumba was not a particularly good historian, that he got a lot of things mixed up. Viewing the paintings today one is inclined to look at them with a nostalgic eye, nostalgic for a time when there was hope in Zaire, nostalgic for a time when there was a burgeoning middle class and a market for popular painting in Elizabethville (Lubumbashi), and particularly nostalgic in a sort of sympathetic way for the hopeful figure of Patrice Lumumba, who is so clearly the culture hero of Tshibumba's history (see Jewsiewicki 1999, Roberts and Roberts 1999). Similarly, one is inclined to look at the paintings with a certain degree of sadness, with a longing for history to not repeat itself. Images of fleeing refugees and blue-helmeted UN soldiers have the capacity to induce tears, if not for Tshibumba's past, then for the similar tragedies that continue to unfold in the Democratic Republic of the Congo today.

According to Valentin Mudimbe, "History is a legend, an invention of the present" (1988:195). Tshibumba's history was, likewise, an invention of his present and not ours. As these paintings are displayed, we must recognize, however, that history is once again being reinvented; we must be careful to acknowledge this, to not be too nostalgic, too forgetful. We must remember the past, but we must also remember the present that shapes it.

After Amsterdam, the exhibition will travel to the Museum fur das Furstentum Luneburg at the Kunstraum der Universitat in Luneburg, Germany, from January 5 to mid-February 2005. Then it will move to the Museum of World Culture in Goteburg, Sweden, from March 2005 to May 2006 before returning to be permanently housed at the Tropenmuseum. The exhibit may also appear at the French Cultural Centre's Halle de la Gombe in Kinshasa, DRC for the month of November 2004, though this is not final.

The exhibition is accompanied by an English catalogue (The Dramatic History of the Congo as painted by Tshibumba Kanda Matulu, 46pp., 20 Euros, KIT Publishers, Amsterdam) that contains color reproductions of all 102 paintings, an introduction by Johannes Fabian, and an essay by Paul Faber, the curator of the show. A cd-rom of the paintings is also being developed that will eventually be made available to the public. In its present, unfinished form it is currently accessible at the Tropenmuseum and at sites hosting the exhibition.