Music for this post: Franco - Tailleur. One of his few political songs.
Paintings Vent a Nation's Collective Grief. Sometimes they say much more than articles, books, or documentaries. Want to know what people think or how they perceive certain things?
Watch the paintings. You might also want to have a look at Cheri Samba's work (see painting and links below)
NEW YORK, Apr 3 (IPS) - A Congolese prisoner lies prone, as he is whipped by a police officer under the gaze of his anguished wife -- and under the supervision of a Belgian colonial administrator.
"Some of us just have to look at our urban paintings to tell our stories again," says Congolese art educator Lubangi Muniania.
In the years following the Democratic Republic of Congo's liberation from Belgium in 1960, a special genre of popular art emerged known as urban painting.
"During my youth in Kinshasa, I would see these paintings everywhere," Muniania, the former director of education at the Museum for African Art in New York, told IPS following a Congolese urban art exhibit hosted by Columbia University in New York.
Organised by the Museum for African Art, the exhibit has traveled the world for the last seven years. It features more than 90 paintings depicting the rise and fall of Patrice Lumumba, the first Congolese prime minister of the newly liberated DRC, and the social and political context in which he became a national hero and cultural icon.
Included in the exhibition, titled "A Congo Chronicle: Patrice Lumumba in Urban Art", is a series of nearly 50 paintings by Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu, an influential artist of the 1970s, and a number of recent works by contemporary Congolese artists who emulated his style.
"The paintings became an important medium of urban memory which enabled critical reflection of the present," Muniania said. Because the history taught in schools "was not about us, and people did not speak up front, [but] this art taught me about my true past and made me see things differently."
In DRC, where literacy is low, oral tradition historically played a special role in the urban setting. But the right to speak openly about politics and current events changed in the years of turmoil following independence and the leadership of Joseph Mobutu. He controlled the country for over 30 years and renamed it DRC (formerly Zaire), and himself Mobutu Sese Seko.
Fearing persecution, people started expressing themselves in subliminal ways, which gave birth to the new genre of urban art. The paintings, traceable to colonial academies established in the 1940s to train Africans in the so-called fine arts, commonly fell into three categories: chronicles of the past, the social and political realities of the present, and representations related to the world of ancestors.
Urban painting experienced its heyday during the 1970s. Many painters of the time depicted the chains of slavery in the colonial days -- a genre that has became known as the Colonie Belge paintings. Serving as a weathervane of history, they indirectly criticised the oppression under the dictatorship of Mobutu.
Only a few of the hundreds of urban painters who once practiced are still active. But Muniania predicts that "these paintings will re-emerge as a tool that will bring about a serious revolution".
"As I speak this very moment, urban paintings are being created on an underground market," he said. "Because what is going on in DRC today is a travesty, which dates back to the dawn of colonisation."
In the late 1870s, as the Europeans scrambled for African land and resources, the territory of Congo fell under Belgian rule, headed by King Leopold II, who installed one of the most ruthless colonial regimes in history.
Nearly a century later, the young head of the Congolese National Movement, Patrice Lumumba, paved the way for Congo's liberation from Belgium. His three-year drive for DRC's independence succeeded on Jun. 30, 1960, and he became the nation's first prime minister. But a conspiracy, reportedly with Belgian and U.S. complicity, led to Lumumba's murder at the young age of 36, and he became a national hero.
"As a Congolese and an African who has been looking for a clear path in my life, the memory of Lumumba means a lot to me," Muniania told IPS. "This man came from the people, spoke for the people of DRC, and stood up for the truth and human dignity."
Today, over 40 years after Lumumba's spoke out against the post-colonial system and fought to liberate DRC from its role as an agent of the West, "the children of Congo are still captive in their own land," he went on.
"Some of us just have to look at our urban paintings to tell our stories again," said Muniania, pointing to the central motif in many of the Colonie Belge paintings: the flogging of a Congolese prisoner, in the humiliating presence of his wife, under the supervision of a Belgian officer whose hands are clenched behind his back.
"We have always been whipping ourselves, serving as somebody's puppet," recalled Muniania, "and the system of governance still aligns with the international community, whose interests have never served those of DRC or me as a Congolese, but rather revolve around the potential economic profits to be made from our land."
DRC, which is about two-thirds the size of Western Europe, holds virtually all known minerals, including large deposits of coltan, gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt, and major sources of hydroelectric power and extensive forests.
Nonetheless "there are few places on earth where the gap between humanitarian needs and available resources is as large -- or as lethal -- as in Congo," U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland has noted.
Viewed as a critical stepping stone on the road to a new and better era, upcoming presidential and legislative elections in June are meant to cement the transition from a brutal five-year civil war.
Elections were initially scheduled for June 2005, then Jun. 18, 2006, and have now been postponed again to allow candidates 10 more days to register, the head of the DRC's Independent Electoral Commission (CEI) Abbé Apollinaire Malu-Malu announced last week.
According to the CEI, 72 presidential candidates have registered, and another 4,000 are running for the 500-seat parliament. The U.N. Development Programme says that 25.7 million people, out of a total population of nearly 60 million, have registered to vote.
Preparations for the elections have constituted the largest U.N. electoral-assistance mission ever undertaken. The national polls are being billed as the first multi-party independent presidential and legislative elections since the DRC's independence from Belgium in 1960.
But the main opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress of former Prime Minister Etienne Tshisekedi, is boycotting the elections, party members said on Sunday.
For Muniania, the elections are "unlikely to reverse history", he said. Unless there is a dramatic improvement, the situation in DRC will "sooner or later burst out in total chaos".
"At that time somebody will need to pull things together for our people," he went on, "and it will be the people who we know and trust, people who are not letting themselves be tricked -- people such as our urban painters and artists that speak up about what is really going on in our country."
The paintings will next go to the University of Wisconsin, starting Aug. 28. (END/2006)