Saturday, July 28, 2018


By Stephanie Amata 
Fragile 1, 2018. Acrylic and oil on canvas. 

One way to look at Eddy Kamuanga-Ilunga's work is as a deeply personal retelling of history. Kamuanga-Ilunga hails from The Congo and in the heart of his work is his perception of his country, a history lesson from his eyes.

Upon the first examination of his work, there is so much that greets you. The richly-colored fabrics jump out first, the deep black skin imprinted with circuits, the soft grey holding it all together. All these elements are not foreign in his oeuvre but there is something that sticks out in his recent body of work from his newly concluded exhibition at October Gallery in London, Fragile Responsibility. In this set, there's a new presence; a white face in the form of ceramic jugs, "Tunvas" that sits on the tables of the lamenting subjects in Kamuanga-Ilunga's set. The imagery is simple, plain as day, jolly, grinning white men overlook forlorn black bodies, but that is not all, Kamuanga-Ilunga has worked to fit in so much more in these pieces.

There's something about the space that I find compelling. It seems like it inherently belongs to the black subjects in these paintings. Maybe it is the familiar placements of lace-covered tables, the red coca-cola-like crates used as seats and the wooden stools that recall the settings of an African home or maybe it is how the subjects languish in anguish so comfortably; a safe space to cry. Which makes the intrusion of the grinning white man all the more sinister, echoing colonization in itself. The ceramic jugs also go beyond a mere presence of the white man but they also serve as a substitute for black bodies as these objects have their own history. During the slave trade, they were given in exchange for black bodies, also summing up another step in The Congo's history.

Fragile 7, 2018. Acrylic and oil on canvas.
But beyond the obvious presence of the white man as the ceramic Tunva, they exist in the presence of the most prominent feature of Kamuanga-Ilunga's paintings, the fabrics. In a talk, I attended with him, he thoroughly explained the history of the fabric as colonial merchandise, how Belgian cotton was made in Congo by the Congolese slaves. There are a few oddities that appear in the work, which Kamuanga-Ilunga uses to remind us that this is not just history but also the present. During the talk, one of the oddities was pointed out; the new presence of silk, while cotton is a familiar face in the work, silk was a new addition. He explained that silk and cotton have the same colonial relationship calling it "different timelines in the same history" as silk is also produced in Congo under similar duress.

Fragile 6, 2018. Acrylic and oil on canvas.
Then there's the grey that the subjects sit on top of. A vague, soft, untouchable grey. Quite poetically, Kamuanga-Ilunga likened the grey of the imagery to the actual far-fetched history of his home country. He knows it is there, it is present but just can't quite be reached or changed or touched. In a similar way, the text in the form of symbols that plague the background and occasionally hop into the foreground serve as another indicator of a lost and distant history. The lost language of a community with only gathered scraps of meaning left behind after being eroded away by colonizers. The layout of these symbols in Kamuanga-Ilunga's work recalls the style of the hieroglyphics on Egyptian relief relics, another strong tie into African history especially considering the relationship between Europeans and Egyptian history, its writing or rewriting and power.

To bring it all together to the present, I recall one of my first ever thoughts when I came across a Kamuanga-Ilunga piece. It had struck me as afro-futuristic which isn't the case now that I know more but somehow I can't seem to shake the reference. Maybe it was the cheap link between the black bodies and the motherboard-like circuits that flank them that made me arrive at my futuristic conclusion but I think there may be more. Excuse my film buff reference but I'd like to draw another link, hopefully not so cheap this time, between the Blade Runner franchise, specifically the replicants themselves and Kamuanga-Ilunga's black subjects. There's something quite deterministic about both sets of characters. Kamuanga-Ilunga's subjects are living lives doomed by their colonial history, caught in a cycle of forever addressing and facing this history, caused by (the white,though not unassisted) man. Similarly, the Replicants made by man are doomed to face their preordained fate (of expiration/being retired i.e. death), which they try to escape and be free from. In both cases, the subjects are trying to escape their fate arranged either via history or sheer manufacturing of ruin and continual destruction and erosion, unfortunately, this seems to forever haunt them and never really proves inescapable.

I've come to deeply appreciate this body of work. It is incredibly profound and striking. It is also worth noting the master craftsmanship that goes into the production of these pieces, some taking up to 3 months to be completed. These paintings are rich enough and beyond worthy of being in history classrooms as Kamuanga-Ilunga has provided, with his work, an education. 

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