The sixth and final of Tshibumba’s paintings selected is entitled LE DISCOURS LE PLUS APPLAUDI DE L’ONU:
The painting depicts a speech made by President Mobutu to the UN General Assembly in October 1973, pictured below:
(United Nations Photo Archive, “President of Zaire Addresses the General Assembly,” 4 October 1973).
A common theme within depictions of the Congo Crisis has been the relationship between the United Nations and Mobutu Sese Seko. During the crisis General Mobutu led a coup which removed Prime Minister Lumumba from power and placed President Kasavubu in control of the country in 1961. In 1965, just after UN forces left the region, Mobutu returned and became President of the Congo, which he renamed Zaire in 1971 (Nzongola-Ntalaja: 2002). Over the next thirty years of controversial rule Mobutu became a dominant political figure on the international stage. Mobutu remained in power until 1997, after which Laurent-Désiré Kabila became the third President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
As a dominant political figure for much of the late twentieth century, Mobutu’s image features heavily across Congolese popular painting. In Sapin’s original painting, one of the most striking images centres on the propping up of Mobutu by a lineup of Western powers, pictured below:
In the painting, Israel, France, the UN, Belgium and the United States can be identified through various flags or symbols pictured on the men in the lineup. When discussing the painting with the group in class, Sapin stated that the men depicted are not any figures in particular, but rather broad depictions of Western powers. This detail, in itself, may represent differences in depictions between art and historical accounts, one which is of interest to this discussion. As the men are depicted reaching beneath Mobutu’s feet, one interpretation might also follow that the Western powers were able to ‘pull the rug out’ from under Mobutu at any moment. The delicate power balance between Mobutu’s regime and Western political interests reflected in Sapin’s painting carries similarities to a number of recent histories on the subject (Dunn: 2003; Ikambana: 2007).
In both Sapin and Tshibumba’s paintings, a clear connection is drawn between Mobutu’s platform, his power and the UN as an organisation. In one, an unidentified figure with a UN armband forms part of the lineup of Western powers propping up the Mobutu regime, and in the other, Mobutu is pictured making a speech at a platform provided by the UN. In both paintings Mobutu is represented in relation to the figure of a leopard, in one with the head of a leopard and in the other with a leopard-skin hat. However, there are also clear differences between these depictions of Mobutu and his relationship to the UN. In Sapin’s painting, the figure of Mobutu holds chains, as well as a bleeding skull, thus depicting a more violent image than that of Tshibumba’s formal depiction of Mobutu as a world leader. In an interview with Fabian, Tshibumba describes the scene:
So he [Mobutu] spoke, and we all agreed, not a single thing was disputed. And it was a speech of which this gentleman said — someone from the UN, I forgot his name — that, ever since speeches were made at the UN, it was “the one that drew the most applause.” [It was] Kissinger, if this is what he is called.
In Remembering the Past, Fabian suggests that some of Tshibumba’s paintings and inscriptions may give the impression that he ‘glorified’ the Mobutu regime. However, Fabian then follows this by stating that such an impression is ‘completely dispelled’ if one reads a little further into his narrative and considers the pictorial series ‘as a whole’ (Fabian: 1996, xiii). As is implied throughout Fabian’s work, the more critical elements of Tshibumba’s paintings may have been constrained by the political realities of his working in the 1970s.
As such, comparison of these two paintings represents the different periods in which these artworks were created. Analysis of twenty-first century popular painting in the Congo often highlights the more critical elements which have developed in recent years. One such example is the exhibition held in Austria in 2010 as part of the Horvath Collection, entitled ‘Die Freiheit und der Kongo‘ (Freedom and the Congo). In this exhibition, the work of Congolese artists was used to explore the ‘situation’ of the country fifty years after independence. Similar to the artists explored in this analysis, the figures of Mobutu, Kabila and Lumumba feature heavily in the paintings, as does the role of external influence from forces such as the UN. Comparative analysis between the work of Tshibumba and contemporary painters is particularly interesting in relation to the UN, as many recent works reference the Second Congo War and the re-entry of a UN Peacekeeping force through MONUC (United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo). The mission was established in 1999 by the UN Security Council to oversee the peace process of the Second Congo War and has remained an active force in the region since this time (now MONUSCO). Therefore, the re-entry of UN forces in the Congo during the twenty-first century offers a comparison point between works on the Congo Crisis and those on contemporary subjects.
Below, three paintings have been chosen from the Horvath Collection which represent current depictions of the UN in Congolese art. The first comes from the artist Sam Ilus (Mbombe Ilunga), a popular painter from Kinshasa who began his career in the late 1990s. Below is a painting from 2008 entitled R.D.C Fini la Recreation:
This painting shares similarities to Tshibumba’s in the use of flags and the symbolism of the UN. However, instead of the UN flag depicted next to that of the United States and the Congolese Government during the Congo Crisis, here the UN is depicted dropping relief supplies alongside the African Union and the European Union. In the foreground the UN is represented not by the figure of Dag Hammarskjöld as was depicted in the crisis, but William Lacy Swing, Special Representative of the Secretary-General to MONUC between 2003 and 2008. In the passage accompanying the painting, it is suggested that the painting symbolises the disparity between that which has been promised and the reality of daily life in the Congo.
The second painting chosen is from Alfi Alfa (Alafu – Bulongo), a Kinshasan artist and pupil of Chéri Cherin. The painting was created in 2008 and asks, QUI DIRIGE R.D.C. (Who Rules the Congo?):
In the painting, a UN soldier is depicted giving an injection into the Congo. The same solider has a boot emerging from his sleeve with the flag of the United States, which is stepping on blood-stained contracts. Similar to the paintings of both Tshibumba and Sapin, the use of flags draws a connection between the UN and their involvement with the United States. The critical portrayal of external influence is present in a number of Alfa’s paintings, particularly in relation to Kabila and the future of the Congo. The role of UN forces in overseeing the 2006 elections also forms a theme seen in Alfa’s work, as well as across the paintings of the Horvath Collection.
The third and final paintings brings analysis back to the starting point of this project with the work of Sapin. As a contributor to the ‘Die Freiheit und der Kongo’ exhibition, Sapin’s 2008 painting pictured below is entitled QUI POUR LA R.D.C.:
Although the painting makes no specific reference to the UN, the role of external influence depicted in the previous two paintings is also mirrored here. Similarities between the work of Alfi Alfa and Sapin may be due to influence from their shared teacher, seen in this painting through the use of flags. Here, the influence and investment of the Chinese government and the European Union is depicted through their flags alongside the torn flag of the Congo. The role of China and the European Union in Sapin’s painting, as well as the African Union in the painting by Sam Ilus, speaks to the reorientation of external influence from the Congo Crisis to contemporary representations in Congolese art.
What is evident in comparison of all of these paintings, and indeed the periods in which they were produced, is the continuation of the relationship between art and history. Themes concerning the intervention of the UN in the 1960s are mirrored in recent depictions of MONUC, particularly in the interaction between the UN and other external interests. However, a number of themes have also been developed within this contemporary context, particularly on the involvement of new global actors and the development of more critical expressions concerning intervention. Through an exploration of the relationship between art and history, parallels can therefore be drawn between the Congo Crisis and the development of popular painting into the contemporary era.