all photos by the author except where otherwise noted
The year is 1956. The First International Conference of Negro Writers and Artists is taking place at the Sorbonne in Paris. Madame Alioune Diop is photographed as she presents the conference poster, which is designed not by an African artist, but by Pablo Picasso: It is the head of a young African man in a rather Grecian profile, crowned with a wreath of flowers (Enwonwu 1956: photo opposite p. 88). The fact that a world-famous European artist was commissioned to design this poster may be seen as symptomatic of colonial politics of art. However, also at this conference, Ben Enwonwu spoke on the problems of the African artist under colonial rule. He argued that educated young people “bear the burden of having to bridge the gap between the ancient and the modern in art … the preservation and continuity of the characteristic quality of African Art, depends largely on how modern African artists can borrow the techniques of the West without copying European art” (Enwonwu 1956: 178–79). This condition of African art at the threshold of independence and the challenge of being an African artist trained to conceptualize his art in foreign paradigms and techniques during the late colonial period apply to the Congolese carver Bakala Kalundi Daniel (1939–2012).
At the same time Enwonwu was speaking in Paris, seventeen-year old Bakala was in the midst of his training at the Académie des Beaux Arts in Kinshasa (then Léopoldville), capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then the Belgian Congo). Among his assignments were naturalistic figure drawing and carved objects that echo traditional arts of the Congo. The two earliest extant works by Bakala, both signed and dated, illustrate the two parallel modes of his academic training. One is his variation on the theme of a cephalomorphic Kuba cup (Fig. 1), the other a preparatory naturalistic portrait sketch of a young man whose parents had commissioned Bakala for a painted portrait of their deceased son (Fig. 2). Both works illustrate the training agenda set by Kinshasa's Academy of Fine Arts since its beginnings in the 1940s: the ability to create works in the visual language of what was then considered the canon of traditional arts of the Congo and the ability to master naturalistic representation in the tradition of the European Academy. There was, and continues to be a market for both.
The subject of this article is how a rural, traditionally apprenticed, then academy-trained Congolese sculptor decided to reidentify with his home region, bridging what Enwonwu had seen as “the gap between the ancient and the modern,” and developed his own, life-affirming visual language. Because very little field research in art history has been done in recent years in rural Congo (as opposed to Kinshasa or other large urbanities), Filip de Boeck sees a return to the rural “hinterland” as necessary “to keep track of the continuities and transformations that define [it] today in order to understand economic, social, and cultural changes within the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a whole.”1 Over the course of more than fifty years, until his death in 2012, Bakala produced a body of several hundred carvings in wood and stone that bear testimony to his development as an artist who captured rural life in his home region of the Lower Congo, the Manianga (Fig. 3).
Bakala's generation of artists, who received academic training but chose to move away from the art market and patronage possibilities of Kinshasa back to their rural roots, has barely been documented. This account is one such contribution to the history of art of postcolonial Congo. I have documented 105 of Bakala's works, likely only a third or a half of his total oeuvre. This constitutes a significant reappearance of sculpture in a region where the tradition was deep and very rich until the indigenous iconoclastic prophet movements of the 1920s and concomitant rejection by Catholic and Protestant missionaries destroyed the creation of sculpture that did not express Christian spiritual realities.
I encountered Bakala's work, his widow, and some of his patrons in 2013, when I lived for several months in the town of Luozi on the Congo river, halfway between Kinshasa and Boma, the old port on the Atlantic Coast.2 Two large relief sculptures of very heavy, dark wood signed “Bakala” hung on the walls that framed the dining table in the home of our Congolese host. One of these (Fig. 4) acted as constant visual reminder of the sources of the foods we enjoyed. His climbing belt of vine (ngodi) slung over his shoulder, this man carries home a bountiful cluster of oil-rich palm nuts as well as a large fish from the Congo River. A few houses down our red-dirt road stood the kiln-dried brick house where sculptor/teacher Bakala had lived and worked and where I met his widow Eugénie Lemba Bakala. The door to his studio and the wooden shutters on its window openings had been carved by the artist with images of women, children, and men, working the fields with their short hoes and bringing home a catch of fish.
BAKALA'S LIFE STORY: APPRENTICE, STUDENT, TEACHER, ARTIST, FREE SPIRIT
The artist's widow, his teaching colleagues, patrons, and friends in Sundi Lutete, Luozi, and Kinshasa—many of them now in Sweden, Belgium, and the United States—shared with me in conversations and emails their memories of Bakala Kalundi Daniel. This allowed me to piece together his story. He was born in 1939 in a village of the Lower Congo's region of Kinkenge, part of the larger region of the Manianga which also comprises the town of Luozi. Bakala was baptized a Protestant and began his education at a Protestant primary school. Eugénie explained how Bakala came to know that he wanted to be a sculptor: “His father decorated wooden objects, such as trays or platters, spoons, mortars, and other things.” He watched his father's work growing up and was apprenticed by him. Bakala and Eugénie had owned many of Bakala's father's carved objects, but they were all stolen from their home, Eugénie said, during her husband's funeral, during the hours the family was at the wake and the cemetery “to cry” [sic].3 But it is likely that some of Bakala's father's work has survived elsewhere in the Manianga that gives us an idea what his young son might have watched being made. When we visited Cornelia Kiangebeni, regional chief (Chef Coûtumier) in Kingila, she held her scepter of authority (Fig. 5), inherited along with her raffia mpu—her prestige cap—from her maternal aunt. She thought that her staff of office dated to “some forty–fiftyy years” ago. Her assistant, the old village chief of Kingila, added that it had been made “by a carver in Luozi who had died a few years ago.” No-one present remembered the carver's name.4 Since Kingila is located very close to Bakala's father's home village and considering the revitalization of traditional chiefships after Congo's independence, there is a strong probability that the carver from whom this staff was commissioned by Chief Kiangebeni's predecessor was Bakala's father, if not Bakala himself.
After his mother's death, nine-year-old Bakala was sent to the Congo River port city of Matadi to continue primary school, followed by training in electrical work. He then went to live in an orphanage in colonial Léopoldville (today's Kinshasa) where, as Eugénie put it, “he ate with other orphans” and attended the Académie des Beaux Arts for seven years. Its program included secondary school. During this time he converted to Catholicism.5 In order to be accepted into the Académie, young Bakala would have had to furnish proof that he had attended six years of primary school and be tested on his ability to draw. For students majoring in sculpture, as he had chosen to do, one of the graduation requirements at the Académie was a monumental or life-size outdoor sculpture (Mount 1973: 82–83). Many of these can be seen on the grounds of the Académie. Eugénie remembered that Bakala's wood sculpture of a man symbolizing “Freedom” was among these (Fig. 6). This bust, head raised looking toward the future, is found today in the reception area of the Academy's Director General.6
After completing his studies, Bakala asked one of his uncles—in his widow's words—“to find him an educated wife.” The uncle chose Eugénie, a primary school teacher of third and fourth grades at the Catholic Mission Bandakini, in northwestern Kongo. They married in 1968 and taught school in two of Kinshasa's many urban communes: she in a primary school in N'djili and he in the Humanities Division of the secondary school in Lemba, where he taught economics, political science, pedagogy, and aesthetics. While on a trip to Kinshasa, the then principal (Préfet des Etudes) Dianzungu José at the Swedish Protestant schools at Sundi-Lutete persuaded Bakala to come to the brousse, join the staff at Sundi-Lutete, and teach art and aesthetics in the mission's secondary school. Here, starting in 1971, he taught studio classes in drawing and technical drawing and humanities courses that were part of the Cycle d'Orientation et Humanités.7 At that time, under President Mobutu's regime, a teacher's salary of about $300 a month was considered good, especially compared to 2013, when a teacher's monthly payment in the Manianga was as low as $50, without any benefits.8
Swedish missionary teacher and pastor Curt Olofson, a colleague of Bakala's at Sundi Lutete, remembered that Bakala wanted to leave the capital city “mostly because he did not want his children to grow up in a destructive and hard environment.”9 To his neighbor and teaching colleague Sandra Mahaniah, Bakala explained that “clan tensions caused him to flee to the countryside where he could work in peace” (Mahaniah 1981: 151). Thus Bakala became the first public school art teacher at Sundi Lutete, the first in the Manianga region. By chance I had been there seven years prior, in 1965, teaching a short course in art history at the same school for the first time, while living for nine months in the nearby village of Kisisasia. The school's American and Belgian teachers had asked me to include at least two sessions on African art history. My visual aids were my own black-and-white photographs taken from books and clippings from European and American newspapers. The students had absolutely no previous exposure to Africa's, let alone the Congo's rich history of visual culture, and they were embarrassed at the levels of abstraction of these works. Their idea of “good art” was the photographic realism they knew from advertisements, calendars, photos, and Bible illustrations by Western artists.10
Curt Olofson sat in on several of Bakala's classes and was impressed with his teaching and his “great knowledge in the field of art.” Bakala told him that what he loved most was to sculpt in wood and stone, much more so than drawing and painting.11 Olofson showed him the different kinds of woods stored in the mission's carpentry workshop, inviting him to help himself. Bakala responded, “I can do something—but who wants to buy it? There is no interest in that kind of art here so how will I be able to sell it?” Olofson replied: “Make a wood relief sculpture, whatever motif you like and I will buy it,” thus becoming one of Bakala's first patrons. The artist had chosen a piece of his preferred wood, nkamba (kambala), working it during all his free time. Olofson watched, step by step, the emergence of a vivid tableau of the Crucifixion, women surrounding Jesus nailed to the cross, arms raised in the familiar Kongo gesture of lament (Fig. 7). Olofson was much impressed with the finished relief. Having promised to secure customers, he encouraged Bakala to carve as many sculptures as he could. He took about ten works of different sizes and motifs to the next missionary conference and came back without them but with money instead. Everything was sold.12
Bakala's and Eugénie's neighbors at Sundi-Lutete were the school's principal, Kimpianga Mahaniah, his wife Sandra Mahaniah, and their young son. Shortly after their arrival in 1972, Sandra Mahaniah discovered that her next-door neighbor, in addition to teaching, was also a sculptor:
I woke up one morning puzzled by the sound of a chisel on wood: chink, chink, pause, chink, chink, chink, pause. I wondered who could be splitting wood in this strange way, and when I passed on my way to class, I saw Bakala at a crude table in front of his house [Fig. 8] plying chisel and mallet on a piece of wood …. He did not seem to mind an audience, and this early misty morning was the first of many times I spent happily watching him work. He used only one size of chisel, and he worked only from a rough pencil sketch directly on the wood. After a few strokes of the chisel, he ran his hand quickly over the wood to feel the grain and the knots, revising his design as if the wood were dictating it to him. He always worked rapidly, but he stopped often to look at the piece from various angles. Sometimes he continued carving; other times he put the piece away and took out another, while waiting for an idea. Now and then he gave up altogether. Sometimes he started a piece and seemed to lose the inspiration. It might sit unfinished for days in the crawl space under his house, or a piece of wood proved recalcitrant: one piece sat there for weeks as he tried to figure his way around a big knot in the middle. He always worked in the early morning, as soon as it was light, until time for his first class, and in the late afternoon, from four until dark at six…. He was not very articulate about his art. He was definitely of the “my art speaks for itself “ school, although he would never have put it quite like that. [Peace Corps fellow] Paul tried to engage him in serious discussions about art, but Bakala wouldn't bite. He just wasn't interested in theories. Paul gave up. I tried a couple of times, too, to get him to talk about his own art, to no avail (Mahaniah 1981: 151–53).
Principal Kimpianga Mahaniah also took great interest in Bakala's carvings and soon became his major patron (see Mahaniah 2015). He gave Bakala reading materials about Kongo history and culture, such as writings by Swedish ethnographer, linguist, and missionary Karl Laman, by way of encouraging him to depict not only Christian themes but also everyday life, work, as well as “joie de vivre.” The first relief carving Mahaniah commissioned, in 1973, was on the theme of the healer using ritual medicines (nganga nkisi), ministering to a sick man surrounded by his personal caregiver and his community (Fig. 9). This theme was very close to Mahaniah's heart because he had descended from the tradition of banganga nkisi (healers of consecrated medicines).13 Additional buyers were other colleagues and visitors from Sweden, Belgium, and the Netherlands, and Kinshasa functionaries. During summer vacations Bakala took carvings to Kinshasa to sell in the gallery/gift shop of the Académie des Beaux Arts. But at Sundi-Lutete both Bakala and Eugénie were perceived as “outsiders” for two reasons: they were the only Catholics there, and furthermore he was a “bon vivant” who on payday liked to go and drink with his friends at the Catholic mission at Mangembo. Consumption of alcohol was shunned by the Protestants. And neither Bakala nor Eugénie were Sundi, but originated in the Manianga sector of Kinkenge (also Kikenge) where they often went to visit (Mahaniah 1981: 153).
Around 1975 Bakala and his family moved to Luozi, where Bakala taught at the secondary schools Vibidila, Maduma, Mwanda, and the Collège Ndwenga and continued his art practice. Here hiaki wood (Lovoa Trichilioides), also known as African walnut, Congowood, or tigerwood, harvested in Upper Congo, was readily available. Highly prized, it is listed now as an endangered species. According to Father Hugo Gotink, priest at Luozi's church of Notre Dame du Perpétuel Secours during the 1980s, fishermen along the Congo River would retrieve logs of hiaki that had come loose from their chains on the barges as they were loaded onto trucks at Kinshasa, to circumvent the rapids, for export at the port of Matadi. Stray logs came over the rapids and floated on to Luozi. Here they were sawed into boards to be sold locally.14 In Luozi Bakala had also easy access to limestone from the Luozi River and a type of marble from the shore of the Congo River. When, in 1984, the Collège Ndwenga celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of its founding, Bakala set up a makeshift sales stand featuring a selection of his smaller-scale carvings for the visitors from Belgium.15
Meanwhile, also in Luozi, Kimpianga Mahaniah had founded the Centre de Vulgarisation Agricole (CVA), a nongovernmental organization for agricultural development that organized seminars and conferences on sustainable development for the region. Not only did these events bring visitors to Luozi who eventually became Bakala's clients, but he also was an avid participant, and thus he himself became an agent for economic and spiritual development. Mahaniah planned to transform Bakala's workshop into a center for training sculptors. To this end, his organization supported in part the construction of Bakala's home and adjoining atelier (Fig. 10). But Kimpianga Mahaniah's plan for a training center for visual artists did not materialize because, except for his oldest son Dady (Daniel Bakala, Jr.), Bakala never had a single apprentice.16
In 1994, at age 55, Bakala left the Catholic Church to join the Baha'i faith community. Kimpianga Mahaniah remembers that Bakala gave himself “body and soul” to the Baha'i religion, whose representative he became in the Manianga.17 This required him to travel frequently to the Baha'i community's headquarters in Kinshasa, where he became an important figure, according to his teaching colleague Ruth Diyabanza. Neither his widow Eugénie nor anyone else I asked knew exactly why he had converted. Dianzungu José thought that it was part of Bakala being “free spirited,” an “homme libre“ (Fig. 11).18 Kimpianga Mahaniah observed that Kongo intellectuals who were converted Catholics are often dissatisfied with the Catholic faith, hence their tendency to join the Masons or lodges, or other religions such as Baha'i or Pentecostalism. In his later years Bakala spent more time at Kinkenge, where he owned land and a plantation of fruit trees. He grew frail and sickly. When he came to the hospital in Luozi in 2012, it was too late. One cause of his death is said to have been typhoid fever. The story goes that the night before Bakala died in the hospital he told a Swedish pastor that he was a believer in Jesus Christ and His Church.19
Eugénie showed me the few carvings that remained in her house, hoping that she could sell them. She was nearly destitute, surviving by running a small sales stand at the market while also caring for two grandchildren. When I asked her whether there was any writing, books, or related paper documentation of her husband's work as an artist, she found about a dozen drawings, mostly done in black and blue ballpoint on small bits of paper, now weathered, stained, and frayed. All were signed and dated, permitting me to establish the course of his ideas and preliminary sketches for carvings from 1961 through 2009 (see Figs. 2 and 17). His works can be organized around the themes of the artist's practice in response to his roots in rural life of the Manianga, the prevailing cultural politics during early independence, and the expression of his and his patrons' Christian beliefs.
RHYTHMS AND RITUALS OF DAILY LIFE: LE FLEUVE DE LA VIE
Bakala's many renderings of village life; mothers and children; men hunting antelope and monkeys, fishing in the Congo River, harvesting palm nuts; celebrations with music and dance; the work of healers; women working their fields or pounding manioc in wooden mortars: all this Bakala saw as embedded in the rhythms and rituals of daily life. When he began teaching art at Sundi-Lutete in the early 1970s, President Mobutu had called for and implemented what he termed recours à l'authenticité. This was his cultural policy aimed at creating a specifically Zairian nationalism. Bakala's teaching colleague Dianzungu José recalled how strongly Bakala was affected by and how deeply he embraced authenticité, visible in the subject matter of his art.20 The “authentic” Zairian, in Mobutu's sense of the term, now was to draw his strength from his own identity, his own culture, and his own traditions (Van Reybrook 2012: 417). This affected naming, dress, food, and music as well as the style and subject matter of the visual arts. Mobutu “laid claim to the Congolese artistic heritage” just as he had nationalized Belgian land holdings, commercial and agricultural enterprises, and all schools (Munro 1975: 23–25). Public sculptures in the cities and towns were to express “authentic” values and replace those of colonialism. The style of European modernists such as Zadkine, Picasso, and Brancusi “was permitted because these artists had in turn been strongly influenced by African art” (Munro 1975: 418). In conjunction with Mobutu's hosting the 1973 International Art Critics Association (AICA) in Kinshasa, the Institut des Musées Nationaux du Zaïre (IMNZ) held its first public exhibition. The IMNZ's first curator of modern art, Badi-Banga, was hired in 1975 and charged with collecting contemporary—that is, “modern”—Zairian art. Among these was Bakala's Likembe Player (Fig. 12), one of sixty-nine modern sculptures that had been acquired by 1980 (Van Beurden 2015: 175, 195). The inventory sheets with black-and-white photographs showing Bakala's Likembe Player from three different angles were in fact completed, signed, and dated by Badi-Banga. The work is part of a series of reliefs featuring musicians, often with dancers, who play with abandon many of the Lower Congo's traditional musical instruments—still played to this day—foremost among them drums and gourd rattles, as in Old Drummer and Dancer (Fig. 13), but also the mpungi (antelope horn), the xylophone, the harp.
Particularly poignant is the high relief panel of a father presenting his daughter—or a maternal uncle his niece—with a hoe (Fig. 14). Rural women's work in the Manianga is honored here, as well as their role as mothers and guarantors of life's continuity. Honored also is the role of the elder to teach and to support the next generation. The kneeling posture of the young mother is one of respect for the elder. Both are dressed in traditional clothing—the pagne (wrapper) and braided hair of the young mother, the old man's loincloth—all prescribed by Mobutu's “recourse to authenticity” that opposed acculturation to Western styles. The emotional tenor of the image is heightened by the realistic contrast between waning and flowering life: the hollow cheeks, furrowed brows, and stooping shoulder of the elder and the smooth, round flesh of the young mother. The expression of caring and giving, trusting and receiving is touching.
Mother and child—the iconic image of the continuity of life, and the basic family unit of mother, father, child—are leitmotifs throughout Bakala's oeuvre. For example, a small, double-sided stone relief carving (Fig. 15 recto and verso) celebrates on one side the joy of the parents at the birth of their child, here in terms of the iconography of the birth of the Christ child. Since this was carved after Bakala embraced the Baha'i faith, the nine-pointed star or sun laid over a five-pointed star to signify divine presence may well reference the five-pointed and nine-pointed stars that are symbols of the Baha'i faith.
On the reverse side, a mother nurses her infant twins, one at each breast. She is surrounded by two drummers and three women dancing and singing. To my knowledge, Bakala is the first Bakongo carver to portray in stone a mother of twins. The birth of twins is understood as an extraordinary event in Congo culture and religion. Not only is the nursing of twins an image of female fecundity, but “twins are an auspicious birth, because they represent two in one. By this very fact, parents must become mediators of the supernatural. Twins signify the threshold between the visible and the invisible” (Janzen and MacGaffey 1974: 34–35, 57–61). Rituals surrounding twin births call for drumming, singing, and dancing, just as the artist shows.
Two-sided stone or wood relief carvings with thematically complementary narratives were uniquely Bakala's invention, although one could consider ritually used late nineteenth-century wooden double bells, carved front and back with different but complementary motifs, as a precedent. Did Bakala want to offer his customers “two-for-one,” a special deal, or was he fastidious with his materials, not wanting to waste the storytelling potential inherent in a blank surface? The panel's notepad size had been suggested by his patron Curt Olofson, because that format fits easily into a carry-on suitcase, a size likely to be favored by visitors from abroad looking for a memento of their Kongo experience.21
The year before he died, Bakala carved a series of double-sided reliefs on nlimba (limba) wood (Terminalia superba), which has a light, slightly yellowish color, known as “white limba,” and is easy to work with. One such panel features two parallel but different contemporary healthcare options in Manianga. One side tells the story of a very pregnant woman draped in the traditional wrapper (pagne) being received and welcomed by a male nurse wearing a Red Cross armband (Fig. 16 recto). A simple, sun-dried brick building behind him is identified as a clinic by the Red Cross symbol above the door. The expectant mother is accompanied by her personal caregiver, who carries the necessary foodstuffs in her mpidi (field basket) on her back. Such field baskets, custom-made by specialized women basket weavers, were still very much in use in the Manianga in 2013. In the background, a sick man is transported by four helpers to or from the clinic. He too is accompanied by a personal caregiver, who carries her load of supplies on her head. The rolling hills on the distant horizon clearly identify the setting as the Manianga region. The whole scene is pervaded by dynamic movement that exudes great energy. The gestures and faces are expressive, especially that of the woman who seems to joyfully anticipate the birth of her child.
On the reverse surface Bakala shows a traditional healer (nganga), who wears a feathered headdress that signifies his role. He is administering a medicinal drink to his patient, who in turn is supported by his personal caregiver, perhaps his wife or a female relative. Five musicians surround the afflicted, drumming, shaking a gourd rattle (nsakala) and playing the antelope horn (mpungi) (Fig. 16 verso). The same instruments and singing accompany today's healing worship services in the Church of the Holy Spirit in Africa (Eglise du Saint Esprit en Afrique). In the lower right a small human form sits next to the healer on the ground. It is the latter's nkisi, or power figure, emblem and tool of his efficacy. The purpose of the small cavity in its stomach is to hold healing substances that the nganga knows how to activate. Three small, masklike faces on the healer's clothing lend additional powers to his special healing abilities. As in the village-clinic scene, here too the expressive, exaggerated movements of all participants create a complex linear rhythm that communicates the intense psychic energy of this healing moment. The focal point in both scenes is the caring gesture and touch of the respective health specialists. When compared with Bakala's very first relief carving of a traditional healer at work (Fig. 9), his change in style from an academic, idealizing naturalism to heightened emotional expression and a far greater urgency of action becomes evident. In this late work, the relationship between healer and sufferer becomes the dominant concern.
Among Bakala's small sketches were preliminary drawings for large wood relief sculptures, dealing with complex belief systems. The demand each story poses for simultaneous representation led Bakala to employ a three-tiered sequence of events. One of these tells the Lower Congo myth, firmly believed by many, of crocodile-man or homme croco, a part of the moral universe of people whose livelihood depends on harvesting fish from the Congo River (Fig. 17). Mahaniah Kimpianga had commissioned this work from Bakala and gave him his book on Luozi's crocodile problem to read (Mahaniah 1989). The town had experienced many deaths of fishermen and women washing by the river who were attacked and eaten by crocodiles. Luozi's one public cement sculpture represents a crocodile standing on its hind legs. John M. Janzen explains crocodile-man as “a human with magical powers who can take on the form of a crocodile to attack an enemy or rival in a way that resembles a crocodile attack.”22 The top register shows two men fighting each other in the village square while their wives, with field baskets on their backs and their babies in cloth slings on their bellies, attempt to pull the men apart to stop the fight. Eugénie explained, “One of the men is jealous of the other, who is a very successful fisherman, catching many fish.” The jealous one is a ndoki, a witch who transforms himself into a crocodile-man. The central register shows a large crocodile with a man's head who is threatening a fisherman in his canoe below. The small human bust visible on the back of crocodile-man symbolizes the ndoki, the jealous fisherman's witchcraft. The third and lowest register shows how crocodile-man, that is, the jealous fisherman, sent a crocodile to pull the successful rival—he has already caught many fish—out of his boat and into the river to eat him. In the carving that is based on this sketch, Bakala added distraught women and men on the shore, throwing their arms up in terror, yelling and running to tell the people in the village what has happened.
For display in Luozi's Free University, its founder and director Kimpianga Mahaniah commissioned Bakala to visualize Mahaniah's plan for introducing the use of cattle in the Manianga region's agriculture. This was to alleviate the hard physical labor of women's agricultural work, as well as for meat production23 (Fig. 18). The central motif is a woman on her way to her fields. She is loaded down with an infant and a toddler, a full field basket on her back, on her head a gourd filled with water, in her right hand her short hoe, a scene repeated thousands of times in rural women's lives to this day. All around, the Manianga's hilly countryside is densely packed with vignettes showing women hard at work in various phases of food production, assisted by oxen, pulling a plow or heavily laden carts, being taken to water by a herder. At center left a teacher (animateur), with the help of a chart, teaches a group mostly of women, children tied to heir backs, all crowded together on a bench and paying close attention. While in 2013 I saw in the Manianga the occasional herd of cattle managed by men, at that time no women tilled their fields with the help of an ox pulling a plow, nor were there ox carts on the roads transporting loads, as pictured by Bakala. Instead the women continue to bend at the hip to work the soil with their short-handled hoes and to carry the kinds of loads just as pictured in the panel's central motif.24
VISUALIZING CHRISTIAN FAITH: RHYTHMS AND RITUALS OF SPIRITUAL REALITIES
While themes of daily life in rural Manianga, of work and celebration, of the Congo River as a central life-giving source are dominant in the artist's oeuvre, Bakala's many images of key moments in the life and teachings of Christ constitute the second major body of his oeuvre. With this he can be situated in the growing critical discourse on images of religious art in pre- and postcolonial African art in general and specifically within the body of those works that spring from the canon established by Western art history, “objects made as religious tools but also invested with aesthetic significance” (Nettleton 2011: 70).
Of Bakala's several renderings of the Last Supper theme, I chose the one that was commissioned by Kimpianga Mahaniah, Bakala's major patron, for the multipurpose hall at Luozi's Université Libre. It may be the artist's largest relief, fashioned from six long, joined planks, but it is unique because the patron specified a novel expansion of the customary iconography: He wanted the artist to create a picture of an entire community eating with Jesus, because, in his words, “I was dissatisfied with the usual representation of the Last Supper where Christ is shown only with the twelve disciples.”25 Jesus—identified by a halo, his central position, and his iconic gesture of serving the Eucharist—is host of a festive meal attended by women, children, men, and musicians (Fig. 19). Two of them play the mpungi (horn); a drummer and a boy beating a stick against the table add rhythm; opposite, a man plays the thumb piano (likembe or mbira). Gourds hold palm wine or water, and several platters hold an abundance of food for all. The image conflates the Last Supper at which Jesus instituted the ritual of Communion with the celebration of communion by an all-inclusive fellowship of believers. Hence Father Hugo Gotink's title for this work: La Dernière Cěne et La Table du Monde (The Last Supper and the Table of the World).26
In addition to fulfilling his major patron's request, one could argue that Bakala's emerging embrace of the Baha'i faith is manifest by his use of Baha'i core value in this work's iconography. The artist's variation on the theme of the Last Supper as communal celebration of believers represents the Baha'i teaching of the spiritual unity of all humankind, as here a whole community of faith—men, women, and children—celebrate God as source of all creation with music and the sharing of food. The Baha'i faith's inherent syncretism of the teachings of the prophets of many religions, including Jesus Christ, its emphasis on peaceful conflict resolution, gender equality, service to others, and support of scientific study and education would have been attractive to Bakala, as he himself worked to synthesize Kongo belief systems, Catholicism, and Protestantism during the birthing pangs of a newly independent nation.
In 1983, when Belgian Father Hugo Gotink was serving as priest for Luozi's church, Notre Dame du Perpétuel Secours, he enlarged its nave and commissioned Bakala, then a member of this church and, in his words, a “fervent believer,” to carve the Stations of the Cross. This cycle of fourteen images is based on the late medieval devotional practices of the Franciscans and remain standard devotional imagery in Catholic churches to this day. They mark a series of stopping places, each representing an incident in Christ's walk to his death, beginning with his condemnation by Pontius Pilate and ending with his entombment. Father Gotink ordered the fourteen panels of wenge wood (Milettia laurentii), each measuring 60 cm × 60 cm, from a wood mill along the dirt road leading from Luozi to Kimpese.27 Wenge wood is very durable and resistant to termites, the reason the carvings survive to this day. Then he gave Bakala a Belgian prayer missal with illustrations for each of the Stations, so “that Bakala would know well each subject.” Yet he also asked Bakala to sculpt the scenes according to his imagination and “to carve the figures in his very own style, à la Congolaise.”28 Bakala actualized the European-Catholic prototypes of the Stations in a Kongo cast. When the work was done, the artist did not submit a bill but would only accept a modest payment, saying that “it was done for nzo a Nzambi (the house of God).”29
The frame of each scene is an integral part of the panel of wood, creating the illusion of witnessing the story unfold through a window or door. This perspectival framing of the drama's actors might have been suggested by the missal's prototype images. From within these frames the action bursts into the viewer's space, beginning with the Roman governor Pontius Pilate's surrender of Jesus to the crowds that demand his death by crucifixion. Bakala shows Jesus bound and held firmly between two Roman soldiers in front of Pilate (Fig. 20). We see the moment when Pilate chooses political expediency over and against his personal conviction of Christ's innocence, washing his hands in a bowl of water to clear his guilty conscience. His brow furrowed, he looks straight out at the people, his mouth open as he declares “… I am innocent of the blood of this just person” (Matth. 27: 24). All participants bear African features. Pilate's high rank is indicated by his being seated, but here the seat is a low wooden stool and the bowl of purifying water sits on the ground, as in any Kongo household. Pilate wears a cap with the shape and texture of woven raffia or pineapple fiber, like the mpu (prestige caps) worn by Kongo regional chiefs to this day as emblems of their authority. Bakala creates strong textures and linear rhythms with the folds of clothing, the tiles on the floor, the swirling movement of the water into which Pilate dips his right hand.
In all fourteen Passion scenes everyone is barefoot. Gestures are expansive, bodies and limbs, knees and elbows often bent at sharp angles. Each scene is acted out with a great deal of physical energy and all this movement is compressed into the framed boundary of the picture plane to heighten the devotee's experience of emotional intensity. The twelfth station of the Passion cycle shows Jesus dying on the cross between the two thieves who were crucified with him (Fig. 21). Jesus's whole body is turned to the thief on his right, who recognized Christ's innocence and asked, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” and Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23: 41–43).
Bakala thoroughly studied the New Testament texts to better convey the message in his images30 and then situated them in the life of the Manianga. He often referenced his scriptural source, carving it right into the work, such as in the panel shown here: “Luke 3: 16–20” (Fig. 22). The theme, chosen not by the patron but by the artist, narrates Christ's explanation of his divine mission on earth. By writing the textual source into the very center of the image on the scroll from which Jesus reads Isaiah's words, the artist literally says that the words which Jesus pronounces are central to living faithfully, by acting on His teaching.
Luke's account is of Jesus teaching on a Sabbath in the synagogue of Nazareth. He was given the scroll of Isaiah to read and Jesus chose the passage that foretells his purpose of being among men on earth and “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed upon him.” Bakala makes the message “relevant” for Kongo believers by setting the scene outdoors in a village near the Congo River. Jesus—the central figure—and the people to whom he speaks are rendered in a scale much larger than the three small vignettes opposite Jesus, which illustrate the words that the assembly hears: “He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor”; “he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives”; “and recovery of the blind … to let the oppressed go free.” We see the poor to whom good news and the year of the Lord's favor is proclaimed, people bound that are about to be freed, and the healing of the blind. The dove signifying the Holy Spirit hovers above Jesus's head as he begins to read Isaiah's text: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” This work was one of three purchased by Kimpianga Mahaniah for the University of Luozi (see Figs. 18–19). In it Bakala visualizes his beliefs about Jesus's teaching on care for the poor, the captives, the sick.
Bakala's most extraordinary visualization of a New Testament text is based on the apocalyptic vision of the woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, and the seven-headed dragon in Revelations (Fig. 23). This was the artist's gift to Father Gotink in 1995 and was born entirely from his own conception. While the depiction of the pregnant woman “crying out in birth pangs in the agony of giving birth” (Revelations 12: 2) with the seven-headed dragon has centuries-old precedence in Christian art, Bakala's joining her with the story of the birth of Jesus is entirely new. The Nativity motif framed by the rolling hills of the Manianga is Bakala's interpretation of the theological meaning of John's portentous vision. In Father Gotink's words, Bakala shows us that “Mary is the Mother of the Church who gives us Jesus at Christmas and the Woman of the Apocalypse is the Church which must give us [the resurrected] Jesus.”31 But Bakala's visualization transcends the textual narrative, giving us a cosmic image of birth and rebirth.
Now I ask: Where does Bakala's oeuvre fit in the context of late twentieth and early twenty-first century Congo art? The artist's formative years span a spectrum of rural and urban experiences, from early apprenticeship with his carver-father in a Maniangaregion village to secondary school, to academic fine arts training, to secondary school teaching in late colonial/early independent Kinshasa. From here he decided to accept a position as art teacher in the humanities program of a Swedish Protestant mission school in his rural home region, and here he found—and was found by—a clientele and patronage of both Kongo and expatriate educated elite, his intellectual peers, which was to constitute his basic market throughout his life. He did not participate in any of the artists' associations forming in Kinshasa, nor did he seek recognition from the national and international art scene. At Sundi-Lutete and then in Luozi, while continuing to teach, Bakala's artistic vision came to foreground rural Kongo culture as a crucial aspect of his identity, his inspiration. His choice of themes—narratives of land and people and belief—as well as his medium of wood and stone relate in a new way to an older, deeply rooted cultural sensibility, such as the emphasis on the continuity of life, shown in his many images of women with children, “the emblematic image of Kongo art” (Cornet 1998: n.p.) and, by extension, the fertility of the land (Fig. 24). Bakala's metaphysical inspiration issued from the Gospel narratives that had been integral to his life and surroundings since childhood and “re-enforced” by his Protestant and Catholic patrons.
The dominance of relief carvings in his oeuvre is partly due to what might have been encouraged in his academic training, but more so to what patrons commissioned and what sold well on the open market, especially for customers who wished to transport the art in their luggage for air travel. The format of the relief offered more surface, more canvas as it were, for the stories he wanted to tell than sculptures in the round. Bakala often repeated themes that sold well. In this sense he, like many of his artist colleagues in the large cities, “embraced the commodity status of his work and did not adopt the Western notion of artistic authenticity as the product of creative singularity” (Van Beurden 2015: 197). Bakala's village scenes set in the Manianga landscape may be said to be idyllic representations of rural life, “purified” of all actual twenty-first century intrusions of industrialization and global commerce: no bicycles, cars, trucks, ambulances, no plastic canisters, no generators, no radios, no cellphones are there to pollute an idealized vision of rural existence. In this way, and in his exclusion of any social or political critique of his time, his oeuvre stands in complete contrast to the Congo's more internationally acclaimed practitioners of l'art populaire. This contrast struck me especially strongly when I first encountered his works in rural Luozi, because at the time I was deeply engaged in collecting l'art populaire paintings in Kinshasa for the permanent collection of the University of Kansas Spencer Museum of Art (Kauenhoven-Janzen 2015: 10–24).
Bakala's mature style is characterized by surging strength, both physical and spiritual, conveyed by muscular bodies flexed like tight springs latent with motion and highly emotive faces, all compressed in spaces wanting to burst beyond the bounds of the picture plane. The many musical instruments—above all, drums, rattles, and horns—the movement of people and animals, the flowing waters, the vigor of plant life all give shape to and add the dimension of time to Bakala's images (Meier 2013: 72). His works literally “throb with latent energy of birth, fertility, potentiality of new life” (Okeke-Augulo 2013: 60). In all this, his original, creative spark is most strongly manifest in his works made independently of a patron's wishes.
Note on the photographs of Bakala's carvings and drawings: The conditions in the field in Luozi, Lower Congo, DRC, were difficult and did not make professional photography possible. Circumstances at the various locations of many of the works were often challenging. Private collectors were gracious enough to send me photographs of their works from Sweden, Belgium, and the United States.
Philip de Boeck, personal communication, Nov. 2017.
I accompanied my husband, John M. Janzen, on a Senior Fulbright Research Fellowship, January through April 2013.
Author's journal, “Congo IV” (2013), p. 38a, and Father Hugo Gotink, personal communication, June 22, 2016, reporting on his June 2016 interview with Bakala's widow Eugénie in Luozi.
Author's journal, “Congo II” (2013), pp. 28–131.
Eugénie to Father Hugo Gotink in his June 2016 interview with her.
Lucien Lema Kusa, professor of painting at the Academy and Bakala's former classmate of there, found and identified this work as Bakala's and took the photograph.
Kimpianga Mahaniah, personal communication, May 17, 2016.
Interview with Dianzungu José, author's journal “Congo IV” (2013), pp. 62b–64.
Curt Olofson, personal communication, July 6, 2015. Curt Olofson was pastor, teacher, and liaison between the church in Sweden and the church in both the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Congo Brazzaville, beginning in 1966.
See Reinhild Kauenhoven Janzen, Briefe aus dem Kongo, unpublished typescript (1968), p. 205.
Curt Olofson, personal communication, March 24, 2016.
Curt Olofson, personal communication, March 24, 2016.
Kiame Mahaniah, son of Kimpianga Mahaniah, playmate of Bakala Kalundi's son Dady, personal communication, April 16, 2016.
Father Hugo Gotink, personal communication, May 3, 2016. In 1982 he established sawmills at Luozi's Catholic Mission and at the Protestant Mission.
One of the Belgian visitors videorecorded the festivities. A brief segment shows Bakala and his son Dady at the sales stand with sculptures, as buyers make selections. The original video is in possession of Father Hugo Gotink. Professor Kudada Banza, who was a student of Bakala's in Luozi, sent a copy to me from Brussels. Kudada Banza's letter of June 20, 2016, names the Belgian visitors seen in the video. He refers to Bakala as “Le grand artiste Muta Bakala.”
Kimpianga Mahaniah, personal communication, May 17, 2016.
Kimpianga Mahaniah, personal communication, May 17, 2016.
Interview with Dianzungu José, author's journal “Congo IV” (2013), pp.62b–64.
Interview with Dianzungu José, author's journal “Congo IV” (2013), pp.62b–64; also Kimpianga Mahaniah, personal communication, May 17, 2016.
Ruth Diyabanza, personal communication, June 14, 2015.
Ruth Diyabanza, personal communication, April 2013.
John M. Janzen, personal communication, March 2013.
Kimpianga Mahaniah, letter, May 17, 2016.
The white chalk marks on the lower part of the panel are cell phone numbers, notes, and graffiti made by students and/or university staff.
Kimpianga Mahaniah, personal communication, May 17 and July 4, 2016.
Father Hugo Gotink, May 3, 2016.
Father Hugo Gotink, personal communication, April 12, 2016.
Father Hugo Gotink, personal communication, April 13, 2016.
Father Hugo Gotink, personal communication, March 14, 2016. During his years in Luozi Father Hugo purchased about twenty works by Bakala for his own collection. He also bought many as gifts for the benefactors of his projects in Kongo.
Ruth Diyabanza, personal communication, June 15, 2015.
Father Hugo Gotink, personal communication, June 22, 2016.