Kinshasa — Painter Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga’s tiny, sweltering Kinshasa studio seems worlds away from his glittering, well-received foreign exhibitions.
The 25-year-old painter says he is inspired by his country’s vast cultural and mineral wealth — but also by the region's painful colonial history.
That message shines through in his captivating, dizzyingly bright paintings of figures garbed in bright Congolese and French textiles, their dark skin scarred by the signature markings of computer circuit boards, which are often made of Congolese-mined cobalt. Ilunga’s work has been exhibited in South Africa, Europe and the United States, as African art has grown increasingly more popular.
One of his pieces can fetch up to $30,000 in an international auction.
But that figure is far from his daily reality. He rents this space for $300 a month. His paints have to be imported from Germany. And, art industry experts say, while those seemingly high prices make him one of Congo’s most lucrative artists, his extraordinary work only fetches average prices by international standards.
“African artists are regarded differently on the international art scene,” he said. “And I think it’s a struggle of many artists in Africa to get the same recognition.”
Celebrated sculptor Freddy Tsimba notes that one problem is the lack of support at home. His captivating works of haunting human figures shaped of discarded items like bullet casings, keys and spoons are shown internationally, but get little notice inside Congo.
But there’s no shortage of artwork and creativity in Congo — original pieces and antique crafts sell for a song at the bustling Kinshasa art market, but high-end art is rare, says local art promoter Fabrice Bashonga.
“Congolese art is going very cheap in the international market, mainly because of the lack of consideration locally,” he told VOA.
Artists coming home
Artist Vitshois Mwilambwe Bondo has exhibited — and lived — around the world, gathering acclaim for his complex collages, which are reminiscent of the work of French painter Henri Matisse.
But he chose to return home, despite the challenges. He now works at a recently established incubator for young Congolese talent in Kinshasa.
“We need to build the art scene and to make something since the people can buy artwork in Congo,” he told VOA. “And now, people are starting to buy, but it’s a big process, it’s a big challenge.”
The studio also features a rare sight on the Congolese art landscape: Women artists. Dina Ekanga, who creates images by pounding nails into a board to make the shape of human figures, is one of two women among the 10 artists in residence here.
“It is not easy at all,” she said. “Because the men they push you around a bit from all sides, and especially in the Congolese art scene, the market is rather difficult.”
Younger artists trying to make a mark
And younger artists like painter Romario Lukau say they struggle to establish themselves on the scene. He is part of Collective Takeyi, a group of four young painters represented by Bashonga. Their works shimmer with color and vitality and sell for about $1,000 apiece.
For now, the group works from a modest house in a Kinshasa suburb, but they are dreaming big.
“My biggest dream is that I would like for people to talk about Congolese art the way we talk about American art, the way we talk about German art, the way we talk about Belgian art,” he said.