The Democratic Republic of Congo is the world’s largest exporter of coltan—a raw material used in computer chips and mobile phones. Keeping this in mind, Congolese artist Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga (born 1991) inscribes circuit patterns onto the black skin of his characters. What does it mean? Interpretations are many. The circuit design could be a source of pride, illustrating contemporary DRC’s connection with and role in global modernity. It could also be a rebuke, a matter of great annoyance and perhaps, even anger—bringing into focus the extremity of exploitation, of both human and mineral for the sake of unrestrained capitalism.
The artist broadly explores the seismic shifts in the economic, political and social identity of the DRC that have taken place since colonialism. His style, which seamlessly blends the past and present together, is distinctively his own. For a while, Ilunga studied at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Kinshasa, where he learnt strict, 19th-century European formal figuration that you can find in his work. But he ultimately found the programme conceptually stifling, and abandoned his studies in 2011 to form M’Pongo, a group studio where a diverse set of young artists shared ideas and exhibited together to generate their own vibrant scene, which tapped into the high-energy creativity of contemporary Kinshasa.
Technology is one area. Ilunga also references the slave trade—through ceramic bowls. Porcelain was a tragic item of barter, exchanged by 17th- and 18th-century Portuguese merchants for what was looked upon as unfree flesh in the Kingdom of Kongo. In a Financial Times interview given to acclaimed British cultural journalist Maya Jaggi, Ilunga explains: “Porcelain was not only used to pay for slaves, but to buy land and influence—a system of corruption established by the Portuguese and Belgians. The same thing happens today with American, European, Chinese, Pakistani, Lebanese businesses exploiting mines without giving any benefits—reducing society to forced labour. I try to question the responsibility of our leaders who make corrupt agreements, and also ours as a society.”
Next, clothes. The bright African fabrics upon circuited skin go back to the plantations and textile mills of the 1920s and 30s in Belgian Congo—the preceding Congo Free State (1885-1908) under Leopold II (1835-1909) is particularly infamous for its brutality. The rich drapery and objects in Ilunga’s paintings also indicate a certain yearning for the multi-ethnic indigenous heritage of the country—that is considered pagan, backward and dangerous, and keeps getting rejected by much of its population, as it attempts to assert a more Christian and global position.
Ilunga’s characters are heavy and loaded with weight of colour and computing yet appear listless and often, mournful. They clutch onto ritual objects whose functions seem less and less apparent. They are in discomfort and anguish, wondering what their identity really is, what have they gained and what have they lost. The splendour of the artist’s work lies in the fact that he can take these uncertainties and confusions as they are and give us these grand visions to reflect upon and come to our own conclusions.
Ilunga’s work has been exhibited across Africa, notably at Dak’Art; Biennale OFF Senegal in 2014, and made its London debut at the Saatchi Gallery’s Panagaea II in 2015. The enormous excitement around the 24-year-old artist at London’s 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in 2015 and at New York’s Armory Show in 2016 was emphasised by an article in the FT’s How to Spend It, which employed his work ‘Lost’ to represent The Best of New York Armory, 2016. Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga was longlisted for the FT/Oppenheimer Funds Emerging Voices Awards 2016, and in 2017 his work was included in the exhibitions: African-Print Fashion Now! at the Fowler Museum, UCLA; I want! I want! Art and Technology at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, UK; and in the 249th Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London.