Chéri Samba is the undisputed king of popular painting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Over the past 40 years or so, he has been depicting the everyday concerns of his countrymen and women, reflecting on education, morality, sexuality, politics and corruption in his oeuvre, often with humour.
The master painter is exhibiting in the Kings of Kin exhibition at the Magnin-A contemporary art gallery in Paris, France, until 30 October. The exposition features the work of two other Kinshasa kings: painter Moké (1950-2001) and Bodys Isek Kingelez (1948-2015). Moké (born Monsengwo Kejwamfi) became known for his painted nightlife scenes while Kingelez built incredible models of imaginary buildings and cities from used materials.
Born in 1956, Samba is the remaining survivor of this pioneering trio of contemporary Congolese artists whose artworks first came to international attention in 1989 through the exhibition Magiciens de la Terre at the Pompidou Centre and Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris. Since then, their artworks have been collected by, among others, the Contemporary African Art Collection (Jean Pigozzi) and exhibited the world over: the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, National Museum of African Art in Washington, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, Tate Modern in London, Cartier Foundation in Paris, Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, Venice Biennale, and Documenta in Kassel, Germany. Their works can also be found in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, among numerous others. I spoke to the celebrated artist in Paris on the eve of his exhibition opening.
This interview was conducted in French in Paris on Friday 11 September at Galerie Magnin-A and has been edited for length and clarity.
Riason Naidoo: You say you were born an artist. Can you expand on that?
Chéri Samba: When you come into the world, you don’t choose what you should be. It’s like, in a curious way, doing a job you didn’t choose. When I was a child, I was drawing in the sand. Like everyone else, every child needs to play, to play in other skies. I had no materials. I used my fingers to scribble in the sand and little by little, when I was in school, I started to have some white paper [and] ballpoint pens. With pencils, I was making drawings. I copied comics from the entertainment magazines that were all the rage at home in Kinshasa. I would keep them in notebooks, it was my hobby. My fellow students bought it. That’s why I say I was born an artist. I didn’t choose it, it just happened.
Naidoo: You’ve been in Kinshasa ever since you moved there from your village as a young man. What is so special about Kinshasa?
Samba: Kinshasa is the city to which I am drawn, but I was born in Kinto M’Vuila in Lower Congo, 80km from the capital. We do not choose the place of birth. After dropping out of school, I preferred to go to Kinshasa because almost everyone wanted to live there. It is a desire. I changed my studio only recently from the corner of avenues Birmanie and Kasa-vubu to 250 Avenue Commerciale, which is where I still am.
Naidoo: Who were the artists that inspired you then?
Samba: Frankly, I didn’t have a role model. At the beginning, it was if I existed all alone in the world. It was just after several years [of being an artist] that I heard about others. I thought I had to try to see what these artists were about. We got together, we rubbed shoulders, but I wanted to be true to myself.
We are at the show of three artists [now in Paris], the other two being Bodys Isek Kingelez and Moké, who were my colleagues, my friends. They came on stage before me and I appreciated their work. I met them, they accepted me. Each one of us was different.
Naidoo: What makes your work different to theirs?
Samba: Isek Kingelez, he was a model maker, so that was a big difference between painting and models; Moké, a painter. We can see very well that the processing of my images is not the same. I preferred to do a little realism… even if it could have a little flaw. There is another difference. I wanted to put some text in my paintings because before I set out on this adventure, I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t see a painting that bore text and I almost suffered for it.
The people from the Academy of Fine Arts [in Kinshasa], the teachers from that school – who wanted to take care of my work while I was not their student – said, “How can this artist afford to put texts… to write on his paintings. Maybe he doesn’t know how to make his images understood.” I said let me do what I want to do. My desire is to hold people’s attention in front of my work so that they take time to contemplate my work. There are people who read and understand very quickly everything that is written. I read slowly, word by word. It takes time.
I told myself that there might be others like me [who take time to read]; it [the text] will delay people in front of my painting. This is what I wanted. This was not the case with my colleagues. That was the difference.
Naidoo: I’ve read that you make up to three versions of the same painting. If that is true, it is very unusual in modern and contemporary art that relies on a unique painting.
Samba: Sometimes they ask me, “Why make the painting in several versions?” Before Chéri Samba, there were also other painters who did paintings in a series. In my case, if I paint the picture several times, it’s because there are paintings that I don’t want to sell.
If I paint a subject, I would like everyone to see it, so that it circulates all over the world. I myself would like to keep a copy. Sometimes, I wanted to do it again for myself. It happened to me that a painting that I might reserve for myself lands up in someone else’s home. So, there is already an existence of this subject that is already gone. I think to myself that it is not good that I repeat the same subject for someone else who is interested. There are some who asked me for the third, fourth, fifth, sixth version of the painting and I said to them, no! In this case, I like to limit myself to three versions, so it was not me who chose but it is the requests that I receive that resulted in the additional versions.
I was surprised that there were back-and-forth requests, demands from so-called art connoisseurs who asked me to make another version of a painting for them. Finally I said to myself, in order for people not to miss the work, I would have to continue. It’s not my choice to reproduce all the time, but what should I do?
I’m talking about paintings such as J’aime la couleur (I Like Colour), 2010, also the subject. I think a lot of people liked it and it hurt me that it was only found at someone’s friend’s place while everyone wished to see it.
Naidoo: Could you describe the Art Partout (Art is Everywhere) exhibition in Kinshasa in 1978 and the atmosphere around it?
Samba: The idea was to show that there are artists everywhere in the world, that they are not only in the West, as we used to say in the past. And what was a little ambiguous is that we thought that where there are no galleries, museums, there are no artists, and it was a false discussion… art is everywhere in the world. That was the idea behind the exhibition [that took place in the streets].
Naidoo: What do you mean by “paintings with no soul”? What are your thoughts on the contemporary art you see when you visit museums around the world?
Samba: I was just saying that there are things you can easily understand and things you don’t. I compared, a little, the work dictated by the so-called connoisseurs in the fine arts schools. There are works where, sometimes, the people for whom the works are intended had difficulty understanding the message. It’s not to say it was well done or that it was bad, no, [but that] the message is only for initiates, art connoisseurs, insiders.
If someone wants to challenge the conscience and wants to talk with these compatriots, why code the message? This is why I was saying I would like to paint in what I would call “folk art”. Of course, the word “popular” was also not very well understood, especially in the West. People thought “popular” was without thought. We pick things up without thinking. I said that “popular” is a painting that comes from art and goes towards the people and the people are easily recognised there. So there is this relationship between the art understood by the people and art that is intended for the initiated, while the world belongs to everyone. For me, you have to give the message to everyone unambiguously.
Naidoo: Is it true you wrote words in your paintings in Lingala to be invited abroad?
Samba: Yes, it’s true. It’s not only in Lingala that I wrote. I also wrote in Kikongo, in Swahili, etc. I wanted to write the words from my country so that I would be known outside my country, then I could be invited to speak. That was the strategy.
Naidoo: Did it work?
Samba: I don’t know if it worked because sometimes it’s not just what I write that interests people, but what I present in pictures. This is what people see first.
Naidoo: You first met André Magnin in 1987. Tell me about that meeting.
Samba: A gentleman arrived in my studio and introduced himself as André Magnin. He wanted to do an exhibition for the very first time that was to bring together several artists from Africa and from all over the world, around 100 artists. I was chosen. He told me that I wasn’t going to do anything else. If I had a trip in mind, I must just forget about it… I just trusted Mr Magnin who was going to present my work at the exhibition, and it paid off. We developed a mutual trust.
Naidoo: What was it like to be part of the Magiciens de la Terre exhibition in Paris in 1989? Could you describe the moment of going to Paris and exhibiting at the Centre Pompidou?
Samba: Magicians of the Earth was an exhibition that brought together several tendencies of artwork that we were doing. There were already people who exhibited in museums and there were others that we did not know, as if they were not artists… But André Magnin saw that this misunderstanding should not continue to exist. He said that he found many other artists more interesting. Why not include them in this exhibition? Frankly, like the word said, “magicians”, people who presented incredible things but who were not recognised as artists. The exhibition pissed off a few artists, it has been said, but we will not talk about that. It was the artists at that time that André Magnin and his colleagues had found who really made the difference in that year.
Naidoo: Are you a strategist and politician as well as an artist? I’m thinking of your inclusion of Europeans in your paintings, also of other artists such as Picasso, to broaden your audience.
Samba: It’s true, I’m an artist, what I say and what people seem to ignore. Whether we are in politics or not, we are in the water. Artists also help politicians to change their position. In my work, in my country, it has paid off. Art has helped to make sense of politics.
You know, our policies had instituted the system of learning only foreign languages and we ignore our languages… Everyone speaks English or German. We do not know our languages. When I was given an award by the Prince Claus Fund in 2005 in Amsterdam, it was for my satire and the recognition of the languages in my paintings. I spoke about it during my presentation, and consequently saw in the schools at home that language learning was initiated at the source. This is what I mean when I say that the artist helps the politician to improve himself. Whether we play politics or not, we are in it.
Naidoo: This artwork is fun, J’aime le jeu de relais (I like the relay game), 2018.
Samba: The relay game, yes. I like it because you don’t want old people to spend all the time in the positions they hold. They would still have to have the spirit of wanting to leave room for young people, too. Why have children if we do not allow time for them to move on in life as well? That’s why I like the relay game. Let children take the place that adults have previously occupied.
Naidoo: The universal themes in your paintings – the everyday, education, politics, sexuality, humour – are part of this strategy to reach more collectors or a wider audience?
Samba: Yes, all these themes are universal. If I look at my recent painting On est tous pareils (We are all the same), 2020, I think it’s universal. In J’aime la couleur, I told people that we should turn our heads a bit like in the spiral to know everything around us, which is only colour. Whereas there are people who ignore the notion of colours so there is only one colour, black. I say that I am not black, even though I can dress in black. We were told this is a conventional colour, as if there are no other colours.
Naidoo: Why do you often depict yourself in your paintings?
Samba: First, I think it’s a joy in yourself to know how to achieve perfect things, in their exactness. If I represent a rooster, a hen, we do not see a pigeon, so there is a pride in knowing how to succeed in things that can surprise others. It is this representation that makes me happy and not to annoy people unnecessarily. When you present the face of yourself, you eliminate the risks. I once presented a painting with the face of a stranger. Everyone who saw the artwork said it was another stranger that I had captured in the painting, which was false. For that I paid fines and I said to myself that I don’t need this kind of bullshit again. I don’t paint animals, so if I have to present a face then it would have to be my own face. Whether I succeed or not but it should be me.
Naidoo: How has the technique in your work evolved over all these years?
Samba: At the time, I was able to do five or 10 paintings in a week, and today when I see the paintings done several years ago I cannot believe it. Without knowing it, I saw that the technique has changed a lot, not to say improved. My production is a lot less now. I finish a painting after a few breaks because I focus on doing small details, and this takes a lot of my time. In the past, I didn’t worry too much about depicting details, but now I do. I think that has changed a lot, in a good way.
Naidoo: And for the themes?
Samba: I have suitcases full of ideas that I can take at any time, but it’s not so easy anymore because I work a bit like a journalist. They work on a daily basis. I don’t have to resort to things that happened years ago because there are always new things happening. I have had a hard time dipping into my suitcase and the suitcase fills up all the time. So, I take things that affect me from everyday life.
Naidoo: I’ve read that Escher and Picasso are references in your work. Are there any African artists who inspire you, living or dead?
Samba: Léger, Picasso, Magritte or anyone else are not my references. I went into this painter’s adventure without any knowledge of other artists. It was while I was in the profession that I heard about these artists and my eyes did not prevent me from seeing what they were doing, but it was much later, so they were not my [initial] references.
I saw their work… and saw that it wasn’t bad, that there were things that interested me also in their technique. To satisfy myself, to cheer myself up, I thought to myself that what they did, I can do, too. I might not be able to compete with them but I thought, I too can do this. At the beginning [of this interview], I was talking about other paintings at the art fair. Those did not impress me, these artists whose works cost millions. I will not mention their names…
The artists you mentioned are not my models, but I appreciated their work after I got into art, into this adventure. There are a lot of artists in my country who were not my role models but whose work I admired, such as Pili Pili Mulongoy, Albert Lubaki, Pierre Bodo. There are also young people such as JP Mika. The work he presents; I had the impression that things were moving. There was a client who asked me, “Can you create something that moves?” I said but how can you do something that moves in painting, like something that gives you the chills?
Don’t tell me [about] the Légers, the Picassos. They existed before me and did a good job that I admired, but that does not mean that they were my models. I am my own role model.
You know, I had three bosses before I set out on my own, but they didn’t draw paintings like me. They were people who were writing [signboards]. I don’t even know if I can call them artists. And those gentlemen there, when I was doing a painting, when I was doing a portrait, if the customer refused [the work], my bosses weren’t able to correct where I had gone wrong. We artists used to say that we couldn’t work well there because we are on the main artery, there is too much noise from vehicles [on the road]. This is why we took the work home to work quietly. And when it came back we could see the difference. That’s why I say I didn’t have a master. It was only I who pushed myself.