Celebrating African Arts In Congo’s Heart

Art students paint a fresco at Brazzaville’s Palais de Congrès. Gael Le Ny/Etonnnants Voyageurs

Brazzaville’s corniche, a once elegant drive with an air of abandonment, looks out over the Congo River, the immense silted waterway that shaped the destiny of equatorial Africa. Just downstream are the Livingstone Falls, named by Henry Morton Stanley after his hero, the Scottish missionary who tried to chart the upper Congo. More than any other 19th-century adventurer, David Livingstone came to stand for an age of exploration whose lingering assumptions can still distort outside views of Africa.

The bicentenary of Livingstone’s birth, on March 19, arrives on the heels of a groundbreaking and eye-opening festival in Brazzaville that made manifest what many early European explorers failed to see: the culture of the people whose lands they “opened up” for commerce and Christianity. Even the relatively benign anti-slavery Livingstone shared the prejudices of his day. And, as Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe pointed out, Joseph Conrad, who piloted a steamship up the Congo in 1890 and hinted at the brutality of colonial rule in his most famous novel, merely portrayed the Congolese people as a mute or jabbering backdrop. But as the novelist Henri Lopes, now Congo-Brazzaville’s ambassador to Paris, told 90 writers and artists from around the world: “You’re not in the heart of darkness, but the beating heart of the continent.”

The linchpin of the festival, called Africa Rising, is its co-director Alain Mabanckou, a youthful and iconoclastic novelist born in the coastal Congolese city of Pointe-Noire, who has both a French knighthood and a professorship at UCLA. “When Europeans came here and tried to spread their culture,” he told me, “they came with their exotic eye, seeing everything from a distance ... They underestimated African culture.”

jaggi-OM03-african-culture-festival-second Posters in Poto-Poto announce the Etonnants Voyageurs festival. Gael Le Ny/Etonnnants Voyageurs

As befits a festival bringing together Africans on the continent with those outside, the boundaries at Africa Rising were fluid. South African novelist André Brink appeared alongside Lisbon-based José Eduardo Agualusa, Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole, and authors from across Françafrique. The main venue was the Palais des Congrès, built in the 1980s with Chinese aid. Despite former Eastern bloc ties, French influence is apparent in everything from Brazzaville’s patisseries to the games of boules in the streets.

The festival is the latest branch of Étonnants Voyageurs, begun in St-Malo, France, in 1990, by Mabanckou’s co-director Michel Le Bris, to explore a literature “open to the world.” Le Bris, a veteran of the 1968 student movement in Paris, said that “Africa is moving, expanding economically ... There’s a new Internet generation. It’s a mental revolution.” The burgeoning of cities such as Lagos “creates horror and misery, but we’re also seeing an incredible number of writers, musicians, Nollywood filmmakers. This energy is the power of creation, not just destruction.”

jaggi-OM03-african-culture-festival-third Portraits from the Ateliers Sahm, on display at Africa Rising.

Brazzaville takes the baton from the Bamako festival, begun in 2001 but defunct because of Mali’s recent conflict. Yet it’s been only 10 years since the end of Congo-Brazzaville’s civil war, whose two bouts spanned a decade—a period reflected in Emmanuel Dongala’s fine novel Johnny Mad Dog. The city is still pockmarked with abandoned and derelict areas.

Congo-Brazzaville’s culture minister, Jean-Claude Gakosso, hailed the festival as a “big first for central Africa.” Another rationale for Africa Rising was to reunite Brazzaville with its “other side.” The city was founded in 1880 by the Italian-French Pierre de Savorgnan de Brazza, who claimed the north bank for France, while Stanley planted a flag on the south bank for the Belgian king. The skyscrapers of Kinshasa, formerly Léopoldville, rise across the river, as the two capital cities face off.

Mabanckou’s fiction makes fun of rivalries between the Republic of Congo (“little Congo”) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (“big Congo,” formerly Zaire). But the difference in colonial masters had a marked effect. While the French system educated an elite of évolués, and Brazzaville’s literature became the “envy of the continent,” the Belgian system involved more naked plunder. According to Koli Jean Bofane, a writer from DRC living in Brussels, only a handful of people in Belgian Congo were university-educated at independence in 1960. Yet Lopes also recalled a colonial epoch when “people went there to dance and came here to drink wine,” and the dream of the writer Tchicaya U Tam’si of a “cultural and intellectual bridge” between the two banks.

jaggi-OM03-african-culture-festival-fourth The Congo’s cultural riches include a vibrant musical scene. Gael Le Ny/Etonnnants Voyageurs

Lopes described the creative energy of one of two “native districts” under colonial segregation in his novel A Child of Poto-Poto, published in French last year. Poto-Poto is “not only a territory but a culture,” he told me. (The neighborhood also gave its name to Brazzaville’s renowned school of painting.) “It’s our Harlem, and it had a cosmopolitan character, with people from every tribe in Congo and Africans from elsewhere.” Now its heart is a vibrant West African district. “Under colonialism we were considered as a people without a culture or civilization,” Lopes said. “Usually educated people think of culture as knowledge of works of art. But, beyond that, it’s a way of perceiving the world, and of being perceived.”

In the adjacent neighborhood of Diata, which emptied out during the civil war and still lacks amenities, the Ateliers Sahm lies down a dirt road in a forest clearing. The studio was opened last year by Bill Kouélany, who developed her collages and videos during the civil war and who felt called to aid young, aspiring artists coming to her for help. A self-possessed woman who is clearly a role model, she said, “We didn’t have to wait for this festival to know the young are on the rise. I see it every day—they paint when they come back from school. They’re determined and energetic.” Though she senses the “residual violence” of the war in many children who were small when it raged, a “rising generation has an energy and is building something out of the rubble.” I saw electrifying portraits made from rusty razor blades and stunning work from 16 young artists who addressed social problems in their city that ranged from counterfeit medicine to power cuts and water shortages (a bizarre feature of life beside the Congo River). President Denis Sassou-Nguesso swept through the festival venue for a photo opportunity. But, Kouélany said, “I don’t know of any public cultural policy for fine art.” To succeed, she had to study in France.

jaggi-OM03-african-culture-festival-fifth Sapeurs—modern-day dandies—flaunt their style. Hector Mediavilla/Picturetank

Perhaps the most arresting form of self-invention is La Sape, a movement of dandies for whom sartorial elegance is almost a political statement. I first came across the phenomenon in Paris, but it originated in colonial-era Brazzaville, where white-clothed colonial masters imbued tailoring with an aura of power. In the documentary Sunday in Brazzaville, shown at the festival, a sapeur named Hugo Le Tricolor sports the colors of the French flag, while another goes by the alias Yves Saint Laurent. Most striking is the contrast between the sharp-creased sapeurs and their run-down surroundings. I found one sapeur in a cloud of cologne and yellow plus fours by a garbage dump near the river.

Nearby was a scrap-metal mountain, on whose summit an intrepid wag had planted a desk and chair, with a red cap flying from a pole. An impromptu art installation, its resourcefulness and humor more than matched the spirit of the festival. A witty riposte, perhaps, to the flag planters of old.

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