Tshibumba was a Congolese artist and self-proclaimed historian. His beginnings as a Congolese historian were the fruit of a series of events.(Blommaert, 2004, p. 18) After a chance meeting between him and an ethnographer who wanted to buy a few of his paintings, Tshibumba knew someone who was not only interested in his pictures but wanted to hear the story of his country.(Fabian, 1996, p. 220) This way, Tshibumba slowly started to break out of his actual role of painter to find himself becoming a historiographer.
There are a few points one has to take into consideration when looking at Tshibumba’s historiography. First of all, much of Tshibumba’s works are based on his personal historical experience; which is strongly bound to his Katangese origins. Despite probably having national ambitions, Tshibumba always kept a certain Katangese bias in his historic understanding.(Blommaert, 2004, p. 17) Furthermore it is worth taking into account that Tshibumba’s historic knowledge is based on what he has been told. This means that Tshibumba’s narrative has very much been influenced by Mobutist propaganda. According to Blommaert, “there is a shift in general footing and framing as soon as Tshibumba embarks on the Mobutu period in his history,” which may serve as evidence that Mobutist propaganda did indeed influence Tshibumba’s narrative in regard to history
In many of Tshibumba’s works and the accompanying texts (conversations the artist had with Johannes Fabian,) he seems to be praising Mobutu. An example of this is in a picture called “Happiness – tranquillity – joy of living in peace.”(Fabian, 1996, p. 174) The painting is marked by Fabian with the year 1972, which is means it is still within the first decade of Mobutu’s long rule. The picture shows the sun which is represented by the MPR symbol and shines over the country. Mobutu is standing in a car wearing his toque, abacost and sceptre. This work really seems to give thanks to Mobutu for bringing peace and stability after the hectic years after independence.
Also Tshibumba’s painting showing Mobutu’s speech before the United Nations seems to be praising the president. The piece of art tells its audience that the speech was the most applauded speech at the United Nations.(Fabian, 1996, p. 170) Besides, Tshibumba expresses that he agreed with everything Mobutu had to say at the speech in his conversation with Fabian. The artist also seems to show pride in that he believes the entire world was listening to what his president had to say.
In other works by Tshibumba however, you can find subtle criticisms of Mobutu and his regime as well. In a painting he made, dubbed “the Key to the Future,” the artist shows a skeleton and the words “one hundred year for Mobutu.”(Fabian, 1996, p. 178) The painting was inspired by a song Tshibumba heard and a dream he had. This gives an impression of the fear that Mobutu’s power might inspire rather than praising his presidency. In the broader scheme, this piece shows a turning point for Tshibumba. From this painting on he no longer praises the Mobutu-regime but starts to criticise it.
Take for instance the 99th picture in Johannes Fabian’s book which shows a church worshipping the MPR, rather than a religion.(Fabian, 1996, p. 181) About the painting Tshibumba says:
“We will lose the churches. How are those churches going to be lost? Their being lost simply means that they will be taken over in the name of the MPR. The party will be God here in Zaire. All the people will have only ideas that come from Mobutu. The religions will be lost, as I show you in this painting.”
This citation shows that Tshibumba was very much aware of the ambitions of Mobutism. Young and Turner, much like Tshibumba compare Mobutism as an almost religious doctrine, who speak of the “altar of the state.”(Young and Turner, 1985, pp. 170–171) Tshibumba continues the church-state analogy in the next picture which shows a priest preaching in the name of Mobutu instead of God.(Fabian, 1996, p. 182)
Although Tshibumba was very critical of Mobutu from a certain point on, the criticism he drew or painted does seem quite subtle. This might be because there used to be a risk expressing critical thoughts in regard to Mobutu. Today, more than two decades after the capitulation of Mobutu’s regime, it is likely that people have more freedom to express their opinions vis à vis Mobutu’s presidency.
A more explicit criticism can be instance be found in Sapin Makengele’s canvas which depicts the history of the Congo as perceived by the artist. In Sapin Makengele’s drawing, several western states and the United Nations are represented forming a staircase starting at Mobutu Sese Seko’s feet, leading towards a portrait of a younger Joseph-Désiré Mobutu. Although the states are represented as people with flags wrapped around their left arm, the characters do not represent specific persons. The states represented are Israel, France, Belgium and the United States, whom are all alleged to have been involved in Mobutu’s ascension to power. At the bottom of the stairs Mobutu is standing on the year 1965 coloured with a sanguine red, which obviously marks the year Mobutu officially assumed power of the Congo. At the bottom of the number 1965, people are drowning in a river of blood, representing the brutal years of oppression to come. Mobutu is also in his left hand holding a skull, which is likely to represent the fierceness of the Mobutu-regime as well. Mobutu’s head is represented by that of a leopard in reference to his nickname ‘Roi léopard.’ In this representation of Mobutu, he is wearing his iconic leopard-skin toque, glasses and walking stick, two attributes that gave him an iconic physical appearance. The Leopard was central to Mobutu’s personal iconography, and related from a likely mythical episode in his childhood in which he claimed to have killed a leopard with his bare hands (Wrong, 2001, p.71).
At the end of the chain Mobutu is holding in his hand, the heads of three figures have been drawn. The faces of these people resemble those of Mulele (on top,) Tshombe (bottom left,) and Kasa-Vubu (bottom right,) this might be indicative that Makengele sees Mobutu as the de facto leader and played the strings behind the scenes while Kasa-Vubu, Tshombe and Mulele were well known figures with de jure power.
It is as if the states and the United Nations on the right are holding some sort of carpet that they call pull from under Mobutu’s feet whenever they like which might imply that Mobutu has the power but only because the West allows him to.
It is interesting to see that Mobutu has been represented in such a negative way when comparing it to Tshibumba’s much milder representations of him. This could be evidence to either Tshimbumba’s sentiments towards Mobutu, who was perhaps less critical of the Mobutu-regime than Makengele is today; or it might be evidence on the liberty artists have gotten in their representation of Mobutu’s regime after its capitulation.
Not all recent art telling the history of Zaïre show the same level of critique as Makengele does in his drawing. Congolese slam poet Yekima for instance, has recorded a song and a video nostalgically looking back at Zaïre and Mobutu.(Yekima Official, 2018) This song’s refrain include the lyrics “The Zaïre years are not all years to hate;” introducing some a sentiment of nostalgia vis à vis the Zaïre years despite the criticism Mobutu gets from many people. In the video Yekima can be seen dressed similarly to Mobutu: a leopard skin hat on his head and a cane in his hand. In the intro of the video the text “Yekima feat Mobutu” appears, the song samples a few audio clips recorded during Mobutu’s reign. For example, the song samples the well-known chants “Tata ko? Moko. Mama ko? Moko. Mboka ko? Moko. Mokonzi ko? Moko,” in a call and response manner between Mobutu and a crowd. This is then closely followed by Yekima’s lyrics: “a charismatic gesture of a man who is both adored and feared,” which is representative of Mobutu’s authoritarian power, but also of the near-godlike status he was attributed. This ends with Yekima quoting Mobutu while simultaneously playing a sample of Mobutu saying: “understand my emotion”, likely taken from his ‘capitulation’ speech to the MPR conference in 1990, in which he promised to initiate the transition to democracy.
In the videoclip of “Les Années Zaïre,” Yekima can also be seen wearing clothes similar to those of Mobutu. He wears a similar leopard-skin toque as that of Mobutu Sese Seko. Furthermore, the leopard-skin jacket and the walking stick are all references to Mobutu’s iconic physique.
Yekima’s nostalgic feelings for Zaïre could solely be based on the memories of his youth rather than an actual nostalgia for the Mobutu regime. Of course, this is open for interpretation. In an interview he did for France 24, Yekima says that in the future it will be likely that people will look back nostalgically at the Kabila-era; reinforcing the idea of a nostalgic look at his youth in Zaïre instead of a nostalgic look at the Mobutu-regime.(FRANCE 24, 2018) On the other hand, Yekima can often be seen wearing or showing the flag of Zaïre on his social media.(yekimadebelart, 2018a, 2018b) This gives the impression that there is some sort of affiliation to what Mobutu represented rather than merely a nostalgic look back at his youth. Of course, it is worth keeping in mind that these pictures are also in promotion for the song and video of “Les Années Zaïre.”(Yekima Official, 2018) Finally, it is hard to determine whether the song and its accompanying clip are an homage to Yekima’s personal youth experience in Zaïre or to Mobutism. Either way, Yekima does give an alternative, milder, perspective on the Mobutu-era to the more critical look at Zaïre of Sapin Makengele.