Strange is the second exhibition of the talented well-traveled Congolese artist Vitshois Mwilambwe Bondo at Primo Marella Gallery. Frequently citing French poet and art critic Claude Baudelaire as a primary reference, his first exhibition curator Sandra Skurvida commented: "Underneath both style and art, lies body politic" and elaborated on the genesis of the sapeurs "the subversive dandies of the Congo (. . .) whose hyper dapper style and performatively elegant manners . . . metabolize the 'gentille' appearances of colonialism as it stripped the Congo of its own customs and resources."
Of his current exhibition, the artist maintains: "Strange refers to a primary antagonist, an aggressive alien creature who abuses and attempts to kill the Earthlings, and its parallels to our politicians who are also our executioners." An analogous sentiment is evoked in the popular cartoon Pogo in which a character pronounces: "We have met the enemy, and he is us." It is a journey into the strange and fictive world in which society is transformed by the Alien and its collusion with multinational organizations and their self-serving interests. The artist invites the audience "to fly in the free painting spaces" that he has created to experience the chaos and disorder of contemporary society.
He further alleges, "My new body of work deals with the economic, social dependence and absolute policy that our politicians and multinationals maintains with respect to their people or populations used for their selfish interest. This project shows the daily practices of some of the largest multinationals and world leaders. Their profit is achieved thanks to the poor."
The works encourage different levels of appreciation and pivoting perspectives, from the political to the personal. In an overview of both exhibitions at Primo Marella Gallery, the unexpectedly linked triad of beauty-fashion-pain is a thread in Mwilambwe's art production. Historically, the shift from the traditional Congolese liputa attire to sapology finds theater in the Congolese sartorial attitudes of the sapeurs in the Kinshasa versus Brazzaville steam-venting posturings that are veritable nonbloody conflict resolutions. Kinshasa sapeurs tend towards garish and daring color clashing; those from Brazzaville prefer to match and accessorise. In one of the works in the exhibition with unclothed paired figures, one is barefoot; the other is elevated with multicolored stilettos festooned with red bows.
The figures in this exhibition are largely unclothed, and it's their nakedness, revealing secondary sexual characteristics, that is noticeable in contrast to the first exhibition. In one image, against a black background, a body has vacated its red-jacketed, white-shirted garb, remaining upright. Its hollowed-out absence, abandonment, or disappearance, makes as strong a statement as a despot's bronze statue. Garments can make powerful and empowering political statements that reflect a characteristic African modernity. In Fashioning Africa, a conference whose proceedings were published in a book, a group of international scholars brought their perspectives to the topic of "clothing as an expression of freedom in early colonial Zanzibar to Somali women's headcovering in inner city Minneapolis. Nationalist and diasporic identities, as well as their histories and politics, are examined at the level of what is put on the body every day.
Citing Homer, Plato, and Proust, among others, Elaine Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just, "not only defends beauty from the political arguments against it but also argues that beauty does indeed press us toward a greater concern for justice." Mwilambwe's images lend their nuances to the term "naked truths." The concept of beauty aids us in paying attention to that which is just by invoking fairness and fostering its perception sensorially. The neuro-physiologic basis for empathy provides the de-centering of the self-concerned individual leading to a heightened concern for others in the contexts of conviction, morality, alerts to injustice, ethical fairness, and verity. Ultimately, this segues and translates into social justice.
The strategies by which the sensate body is displayed and re-presented by Mwilambwe disengage and dismantle fossilised parameters that straightjacket our abilities to imagine the potentials of other worlds, re-organised. The recent history of the DRC is marked by civil war and corruption, and the Congolese media operate against systems of warring political powers and violent turmoil. In this artist's brilliant approach through art, imagination blossoms, hopes grow; the borders become the center, and the interstices, the essence. In a notable video interview, the artist asserts that his works show "the confrontation between reality and the dream" as he personifies the Alien and definitively underscores the indomitable resilience of the Congolese people.