KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo — When the painter Hilary Balu was studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kinshasa, one of the most populous cities on the African continent, he learned about all the masters: Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and so on, until his curriculum turned to royal portraiture.
He marveled at the 16th century images of men and women posed in gaudy, elaborate frocks. But he wondered, where were the Africans? He decided to find out.
At about the same time velvet-robed European kings and queens were being feted in paintings, he learned, the Kuba kingdom was rising in Central Africa. Kuba kings wore leopard skins and eagle feathers. And they ushered in an important era of artistic innovation with their elaborately designed costumes as well as the embroidered textiles, ornately beaded hats and wooden cups used to fete them.
“The story of African art was not in our curriculum,” Balu said. “We say Africa is the cradle of mankind, but paradoxically Africa is not represented in art history.”
He played on that idea, producing paintings in 2015 that were copies of the royal portraits — but he carefully cut out the white faces. In their place, he painted masks of Kuba kings. He called the series, “Kuba in the Skin of Someone Else.”
“The idea was to find another way to create our own story by using the story of Europe,” said Balu, who is 29, and counts as an inspiration Kehinde Wiley, who has questioned the scarcity of Black people in Western art.
Balu lives here in Kinshasa, which was the home of world-renowned musicians such as Papa Wemba, nicknamed the king of rumba rock. The city also produced the artist Alfred Liyolo, known for his curvy bronze sculptures, one of which is on display at the Vatican.
But for other yet-to-be-famous artists living in the sprawling city of an estimated 17 million people, the struggle to make a living in their craft can be a challenge. For them, government funding from the Democratic Republic of Congo for the arts seems nearly impossible to secure. Daily life can be difficult in the capital, where only a few lights twinkle across the lush hills beyond the city center at nightfall — much of the city is without electricity — and the main form of public transit is a set of dented, rusty yellow vans nicknamed Spirit of Death for their propensity to get into fatal accidents.
Yet art is everywhere: Colorful paintings are sold in fancy hotel lobby exhibitions and propped in the dirt for sale along downtown streets. Art from local painters graces the walls of bland, blocky government buildings. In an old textile factory in the warehouse district, Kin ArtStudio is hosting artist residencies as part of the upcoming 2021 Congo Biennale (Sept. 17 to Oct. 24). With its theme, “The Breath of the Ancestors,” it is exploring how despite “the violent dismembering of cultural and spiritual context, centuries of abuse, deception and manipulation, the power of the ancestors cannot be erased,” said the visual artist Vitshois Mwilambwe Bondo, the founder of both projects. “How much of the creative genius of the bubbling art scene comes from the breath of the ancestors?” he said.
Balu collaborates professionally with Bondo, and his work was included in the 2019 Biennale. He spent three years in residence at Kin ArtStudio. Outside Kinshasa, Balu’s work has been shown in museum exhibitions in Zurich; Graz, Austria; and Sète, France. Earlier this year, he was selected as a resident artist by Black Rock Senegal, the program in Dakar created by Wiley, best known for his White House portrait of Barack Obama.
On a recent evening in a hilly neighborhood in Kinshasa, Balu walked down a dirt street where chickens scratched in the gutter and clusters of men sat on a street corner in plastic chairs chatting away the last hours of sunlight. He entered his home to show off his studio, just a spare bedroom with white tile flooring and lit by fluorescent bulbs. Large murals in purples and blues and oranges leaned against the walls. Blobs of paint were plopped on a palette on the floor.
Balu hovered over European art books as he held a long, antique sword, wielding it about as he became animated talking about his latest body of work.
The painting he was finishing shows a man — a migrant about to cross the sea — in sweatpants and a nylon zipped tote bag over his head sitting on a patterned cloth. He is holding the same sword Balu was brandishing. Merchant sailing ships from Portugal bob on a purple sea.
The sword came from village leaders Balu met near the border of Angola, where the merchant ships arrived centuries ago seeking slaves. The officials there told Balu that Portuguese merchants had duped local chiefs into trading humans for objects like the sword, as well as military helmets and medals, saying they held special powers.
The piece is part of a new series called “In the Floods of Illusions,” which aims to link contemporary migration and the forced migration invented by slavery.
Balu’s painting reckons with the powerful influence of the West on modern-day life in Congo. In his eyes, both the migrants seeking work and a new life in Europe and the merchants seeking slaves and natural resources, were using the same sea to fulfill their belief that they will find “the best on the other side.”
“For me, that water expresses this space of illusion,” he said.
The work comes out of his desire to understand his place in a society dominated by outside influences, where the overwhelming majority of people live in extreme poverty and where international companies enrich themselves by logging trees from lush forests and digging for diamonds, gold, copper and other minerals.
“That’s what I’d like to know,” he said, explaining the research for his work. “How the capitalist system got to Congo, how the system transformed our political identity, economic identity and cultural and spiritual identities today.”
Balu’s new work recycles an image from his 2020 series, “Voyage Vers Mars,” exploring the tragedy of contemporary migration — portraying young people who risk their lives to cross the sea to get to Europe as astronauts leaving an Earth that has become uninhabitable to go to Mars.
In both series, the figures in the paintings wear nylon bags that migrants often use to carry belongings, which he has fashioned into an astronaut helmet. The bags are made in China but printed on them are images representing the West — a modern city skyline, for instance. The images, he said, were what outsiders think Africans desire. Another illusion, he said.
Balu wants to stay in Kinshasa. His paintings, he said, would never be the same if he lived elsewhere.
“When you leave the house and go out, you see people shouting, you smell the chicken mayo, this smell — that’s Kinshasa,” he said. “My work incorporates the soul of the community.”