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Public Talk: Bambi Ceuppens. Remembering Congolese Popular Painting and the Long History of Drawing in Congo

Public program Congo Art Works: Popular Painting
21 May 2017


Bambi Ceuppens questions the idea that Congolese popular painting is a colonial genre, arguing that it forms part of a much longer history of inscribing meaning onto surfaces, from rocks, sand, material objects, and bodies to wall paintings.

The identification of three-dimensional “ethnographic” masks and statues as “typically” African and two-dimensional popular paintings as “colonial” on the grounds that painting was introduced by Europeans tells us more about the Western appreciation of African masks and statues than about the history of African cultural production. Generally speaking, “real” African three-dimensional objects are identified with figurative representations and “real” African two-dimensional objects are associated with geometric motifs. In reality, many three-dimensional objects contain geometric motifs and figurative designs feature in sand drawings, rock art (which in Congo dates from at least the seventh century), and initiation houses. Historically, Congolese tended to inscribe figurative and geometric meanings onto flat services—such as rocks, sand (drawings), human skin (scarification), masks, statues, gourds—in a religious/ritual context, often linked to rites of passage. Rock art in caves which may have been used for initiation rites was not freely accessible and inscriptions on the inside walls of initiation houses were only accessible to the initiated, but tended to endure. By contrast, sand drawings are wholly ephemeral, and while they may be performed in the public sphere, their meaning may only be understood by the initiated. Contacts with Europeans at the end of the nineteenth century led to inscriptions which served a different purpose, be it for the benefit of local users or for European “customers.” In this context, the distinction between “traditional” and “colonial” inscriptions becomes complicated.

Like sand drawings, popular paintings are not created to last over time or to be transmitted from one generation to the next, but to serve in the context of a performance or another type of communication with human beings. Musician and educator Christopher Small introduced the term “musicking” to counter the idea that people listen to popular music passively and to do justice to the ways in which they engage with it actively through discussion, dancing, etc. Popular painting, like popular music, is both process and product.


Bambi Ceuppens studied African Languages and History at Ghent University and Social Anthropology at the Catholic University of Leuven, both in Belgium. She received her PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, taught in the universities of Edinburgh, Manchester, and St. Andrews, and was a postdoctoral researcher at Ghent University and the Catholic University of Leuven. Currently a senior researcher at the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA), Bambi Ceuppens focuses on the colonial history the Congo and Belgium share, Congolese popular and contemporary culture and arts, the Congolese diaspora in Belgium, museum representations of Africa and Africans, and autochthony. She curated the exhibition Indépendance! at the RMCA in 2010, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Congolese independence. For the past two years, she has curated the photographic exhibition africamuseum@matonge in the windows of shops in Matonge, the African neighbourhood in Brussels. She is curator (human sciences) for the new permanent exhibition of the RMCA, which is due to open in 2018.


Free admission with advance registration

The lecture is in English with simultaneous translation into Russian.

The lecture will be accessible for deaf and hard of hearing visitors and will be interpreted into Russian Sign Language.


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