For one short month, the October Gallery has become a site of radiantly unabashed colour amidst the definitive grey of the London cityscape with its hosting of Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga’s first UK solo show.
Confronted by the fusion of bold colours, sharp contrasts, and a splendid and seemingly endless array of patterns that grace the large-scale works selected from his present Mangbetu series, it seems hardly possible to not be drawn into what is happening in the October Gallery’s exhibition space. Upon being faced with the magnitude of Kamuanga Ilunga’s work, it is also abundantly clear why the Financial Times’ How To Spend it included his Lost as one of ‘The Best of New York Armory 2016’.
Kamuanga Ilunga’s work is, however, not only a conglomeration of bright hues and striking silhouettes – it is also a sensitively rendered critique on tradition and modernity in his native Democratic Republic Congo. Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga was born in the DRC in 1991 and trained at the National Institute of Arts and the Academy of Fine Arts of Kinshasa, where he refined the artistic style that fits into a long and monumental Congolese tradition of bold, large-scale works charged with socio-political critique and relevance. Indeed, while Kamuanga Ilunga’s work is definitively novel in style and concept, it is not difficult to imagine the paintings selected for his show at the October Gallery comfortably exhibited next to art works by esteemed Congolese masters such as Chéri Samba, Chéri Chérin, Moke, and Cheik Ledy.
Hailing from Kinshasa – Africa’s third-largest city with approximately eleven million residents – it is evident that his work is deeply connected to the problems, triumphs, and paradigms of his city and his country. At first glance, the exuberance of this African capital’s culture is clearly expressed through the vibrant colours and use of the boldly decorated pagnes hanging in voluptuous drapes in each painting. The unmistakable graphic patterns adorning the black figures referring to the wiring on electronic circuit boards point to another aspect of the DRC’s rapid modernisation as the world’s largest exporter of coltan, the raw material used for computer chips and cellphones. Kamuanga Ilunga juxtaposes this apparent modernity with the concerns of the systematic erasure of traditional heritage and spiritual practices, a globalisation that was fast-tracked under the rule of Mobutu Sese Seko. The Mangbetu series highlights this uneasy friction by considering the lives and traditions of the Mangbetu people, an ethnic warrior group from the DRC’s north-eastern territories that is potentially facing a cultural extinction because of the rapid process of globalisation. Guided by more clear notions of traditional heritage versus modernity, for example the elongated heads – a tradition practiced by the Mangbetu people by tightly wrapping their infants’ heads – and customary objects held by some of the figures, Kamuanga Ilunga also challenges the viewer with more ambiguous elements – such as the prevalent and striking textile motif, which communicates both tradition and ‘a globalised signifier of Africanness itself’.
As a collective, Mangbetu is at once magnificently simple and strikingly intricate, gracing October Gallery with monumental elegance. Also included in the exhibition is a short documentary of street life in Kinshasa, which, while it may easily be overlooked among the bright and immense paintings, provides perfect context by allowing the viewer in London to connect Kamuanga Ilunga’s paintings in London to a reality, be it however brief, of a complex and nuanced Kinshasa vacillating between modernity and tradition.
After the success of not only his appearance at last year’s 1:54 and this year’s Armory, and now also his first solo show in the UK at October Gallery, it is exciting to consider that this is the emergence of of a giant career in the art world for Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga.