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Common People

Martin Germann on the work of Jean Katambayi Mukendi

In the one short conversation I was able to have with the recently elusive Congolese artist, director, engineer, mathematician, teacher, and poet Jean Katambayi Mukendi (*1974), one term came up repeatedly, at least five or six times: “common people”. It was the expression at the center of our chat, around which the circular, spiraling conversation moved like a whirlwind, carrying me from his childhood, to living with the socioeconomic realities of the Congo, to his family, daughters, the school he was teaching in, and back again. Yet we didn’t specifically discuss his works of art. Rather, we were navigating the wellsprings of his creative process: the people – common people – living and working around him.

Katambayi stood in backyard surroundings somewhere in his hometown Lubumbashi, and most of the time I could only see the upper half of his face due to the way he held his mobile phone. His eyes were observing the street life around him while talking to me; I could hear him but not follow his lips. It was probably his way of concentrating, which made me curious to see more of that area. His double focus, talking into the phone while looking elsewhere, fits well with the special way he approaches technology: not as a tool to be used with straightforward mechanical rationality, but rather as one context amongst the many in which our lives are embedded. For him, technology should be seen as an open source field from which new algorithms might arise, and forgotten ones might be retrieved. But above all, it showed Jean’s major focus on his immediate surroundings.

Lithium batteries make all our phones run, while the lithium itself most likely comes from the area around Lubumbashi. Here, decades of industrial colonization has produced many brutal wrongs of all kinds. To name just one current economic and ecological problem, from time to time so much energy is needed for mining and production that the workers’ homes cannot be supplied with energy. This leads occasionally to total blackouts of the city and its surrounding area. One could not draft a better metaphor for the conflict between the localities of material production on the one side versus the constant immaterial consumption of a digitalized global world on the other – and I was connected with the first of those worlds for this call. The works in this new gallery exhibition refer above all to the history and present of Gécamines, a former nationally-owned, now privatized (since 2010) large scale mining company, which, in Jean’s childhood memory, “turned 25 hours a day (...) and the social life of an entire city depended on its rhythmic siren.” It should be mentioned that both of the artist’s parents worked for the mining company as well.

Batteries do not only power our mobile phones, but also the millions of Tesla cars populating the streets these days. These ubiquitous cars are the four-wheeled manifestation of the relentless technological innovation we also see in smartphone manufacture – driven by the demand for higher screen resolutions, accelerating processor speeds, and so on. But also, the concept of this electronic car is quintessentially rooted in early 20th century fantasies connected to endless growth: conquering space, total individual mobility, being anywhere at any time. This ongoing motif of the expansion of Western enlightenment discretely turns into symbolic oppression in Katambayi’s work, such as in the copper-cabled Tesla Crash – a speculation – a sculpture the artist, who also enjoys collaborating, produced together with Daddy Tshikaya and Sammy Baloji. It is inspired by a 1:1 version of the Tesla made of copper cable but at the same time by miniature replicas of cars produced by the children of workers living in mining camps in Lubumbashi – those common people, who would hardly be able to afford such a car, the epitome of what one could call Western “Green Capitalism”.

Whereas the principles of steady, continuous innovation seem to have fully taken over the world, real progress on a global scale fails to materialize: witness the ever-worsening levels of social inequality. Exactly at this point Katambayi interferes, metaphorically, in the role of a poetic engineer who drafts plans for a necessary reboot to stop the relentless updating. His drawing series “Afrolamps” takes light as its subject, or rather, goes one step back: it uses the shape of a basic analogue light source, namely the bulb, which dramatically transformed lives not only in Europe but across the world. Notions of transparency and clarity became the dominant forces, whereas darkness and opacity became repressed as inferior, since they didn’t support permanent production. In reconsidering the bulb as an open-source concept, which happens in this transformation of the object in a technical drawing, he reveals any innovation in engineering and technology to be a blank field.

Basic tools or machines, occasionally referring to industrial remnants, thus serve as an entry point to freely navigate the field anew, to employ remnants to build upon and to learn from. Perhaps this applies for those common people we spoke about before, but it is more likely to be applicable for common people here: not only me but also all others who stubbornly keep using all technologies described above, in the full awareness of the cognitive dissonance they induce. A drawing entitled M13 (2019) represents a paradigm shift in response to the old process of blindly updating over and over again. This multilayered technical drawing is the draft for a new bolt with 13 sides which eschews the old universal standards. It doesn’t fit anywhere and doesn’t adapt anymore. As such it is the benchmark for a new standard – one of disconnection – representing the hope for a reboot. It was inspired by a visit to the mining city of Manono in the East of Congo, where huge remnants of old machinery from colonial times lay discarded, devoid of purpose, both for the local population and for new and existing industry.

But still, Katambayi believes in flow, in the capacity of humans to go beyond all-too-easy linear thinking – to regain something vital such as social equilibrium. The Concentrator (2022) is the center of this exhibition – a machine in which he imagines the separation of minerals from residue and various impurities. As with all Katambayi’s sculptures this one was produced with simple material at hand, since the aim to depart into the unknown must start from what is there and what is common. By making an imagined process of separation visible, all parts have the same weight, and with that this machine turns into a metaphor for connection. At some point the artist has noted that the simple material his work consists of might decay, but the formulas he employs are for everyone’s use.

Martin Germann, Curator, Cologne; Adjunct Curator, Mori Art Museum Tokyo

September 8 - October 22, 2022

f'low - Jean Katambayi Mukendi

Jean Katambayi Mukendi

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