all photos courtesy of the artist, except where otherwise noted
Over the past two decades, Michèle Magema has produced a body of work that is centered upon gender, power, and the nation, providing a counterpoint to the male-dominated contemporary artistic expressions created in and about the Democratic Republic of Congo. Her multimedia work reflects not only the machinations of state-level patriarchal power, but also women's positions within and outside it. The fragmented images of women, their disjointed moving parts which themselves create new formations, are potent reminders of the country she left behind. Magema's figurative imagery treats bodies as constitutive elements of memory and consciousness—the spectral lines of her personal history are remarkably present. While she does not shy away from engaging with the notion of global feminisms—in 2007, Magema shared a selection of her work at the Brooklyn Museum of Art's show Global Feminisms—she also challenges the impulse to universalize women's experiences. In addition to museum exhibitions at the Rochechouart Museum of Contemporary Art, the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA), and the Malmö Konsthall, as well as gallery shows in Brussels, Paris, Berlin, and Seoul, her work has been featured at both the Lubumbashi and Dakar Biennials. This article considers Michèle Magema'a artistic practice and her explorations of local understandings of circulating femininity, power, and leadership.
The Democratic Republic of Congo's fraught history of imperial domination, colonial rule, and political dictatorship continues to haunt this vast, mineral-laden land. Recently, Joseph Kabila, the country's president of nearly twenty years, reluctantly agreed to cede power and hold presidential elections. Indeed, strongmen are no exception in the contemporary world of politics. The most notorious strongman to have ruled the Congo for the longest is Mobutu Sese Seko. Among some of his more ambiguous legacies, he introduced a series of cultural and political policies intended to revalorize the country's precolonial history and instill a new sense of African identity to perform nationally as well as on the international stage. One of these policies, inspired by Léopold's Senghor's Négritude philosophy and implemented in the 1970s, when the country was renamed Zaire, was called authenticité: a program designated as animation culturelle et politique that showcased what Mobutu saw as the country's most valuable resource: dance performance.
Mobutu's revalorization of cultural traditions was perhaps most directly reflected in an official speech in which he declared, “It is when a people can communicate and say what is felt in his heart through song and dance that he is happy.” The deployment of the masculine pronoun here obscures women's presence, especially because women were visible political players during this era, and particularly in the realm of dance performance. It is the dynamic between visibility and invisibility that structures much of the artistic practice of Congolese-born visual and performance artist Michèle Magema.
Born in Zaire in 1977, at the height of authenticité, Michèle Magema vividly remembers, as do so many others, the evenings gathered around the television, watching the nightly national program that showed Mobutu's head descending from the clouds—a visual signal that marked the beginning of the mesmerizing animation politique televised dance performances.
HEADS OF POWER/FORMS OF POWER
Inspired by the elaborate political dance spectacles he saw during visits to China and North Korea, Mobutu was resolved to introduce in Zaire something similar, although decidedly “African” in flavor. Animation culturelle et politique culled dances from the country's far-reaching regions in efforts to establish a public creative expression representative of the postcolonial nation-state.1 Women selected to appear in televised and live performances were referred to as animatrices, dancing in rows in colorful printed textiles called pagnes—the official state-decreed “traditional” attire for women (Fig. 1). Choreographers, invariably men, were hired to stylize dance from villages across the country and restage them to suit televised formats.2 In these extravagant formations of dancing women, dancers sang songs to honor the nation and, more specifically, Mobutu.
Gazungil Sang'Amin Kapalanga's research (1989) specifically analyses animation culturelle et politique by describing the different characteristics of state performance troupes like Zaire's famous Kake troupe, which boasted some 500 performing members. Women were chosen for not only their dance ability, but also their beauty. Unmarried women were preferred. While on one level their bodies were instrumentalized in the state's political activities, women were nonetheless aware of their positions and strategically exploited their new visibility to benefit from new avenues of resources (Covington-Ward 2015: 181). In other words, women marshalled strategies linked to their visibility as performers in efforts to secure comfortable and dignified lives for themselves and for their families.
It is interesting to note the inverted specter of animation politique lurking in some of the performances based on European explorer chronicles. One engraving represents Munza, the dancer-king of the Mangbetu, located in what is now the northeastern part of the Congo region (Fig. 2). In this depiction, the king himself honors his wives with a dance, demonstrating his authority and charisma through virtuosic acrobatic displays. In this ritual display of power, it is the king's visibility—his own performance—that is privileged as he offers himself as a loyal subject.3 Georg Schweinfurth, one early German ethnographer, provided a vivid description:
Dancing there in the midst of it all, a wonderous sight, was the king himself. Munzu was as conspicuous in his vesture as he was in his movements […] His dancing was furious. His arms dashed themselves in every direction, though always marking the time of the music; whilst his legs exhibited all the contortions of an acrobat's, being at one moment stretched out horizontally to the ground, at the next pointed upwards and elevated in the air (Schweinfurth quoted in Thompson 1974: 37–38).
In contrast, Zairian people were tasked to celebrate and perform for the nation and for Mobutu, who consolidated his power partly by historizing modes of sovereignty and positioning women as “traditional praise singers.” The idea of traditional leadership informs Magema's work, as well as the ways in which power circulates and how women in particular develop techniques with which to maneuver in this contemporary patriarchal society. In Magema's words:
There is no [historical] return. The layers of Congo's history hide and reveal how women's bodies were both seen as needing control and emancipation. Our former dictator Mobutu sought a return, after him, another return. And with each new return to the past, a new flag was raised.4
Magema's Oyé Oyé (2002) (Fig. 3), which won the Prix du President de la republique Senegalaise at the 2004 Dakar Biennial, references a popular slogan uttered at the time of Congo's independence. The two-channel video installation features a marching woman (the artist herself) wearing a dress inspired by her school uniform, while the second screen presents viewers with a montage of historic images of dancing animatrices politiques and crowds of onlookers. The dancing women and marching girls highlight Congolese women's central roles in Zaire's political spectacle, one that intended to valorize women. Magema's confident, rhythmic strides, punctuated by swinging arms, appear juxtaposed with the archival footage, at different speeds, propelling her forward.
The rhythms of the nation-state literally and metaphorically contributed to a new momentum. But towards what end we did not know. And women were powerful visible performers of this momentum.5
On the right screen (Fig. 3b), the headless body of the marching woman leaves viewers to gaze at the woman's body in motion, gesturing toward the larger interplay between invisibility and visibility. A ghostly image of Mobutu, wearing his signature leopard hat, is present in the video (Fig. 3a), along with rows of parading young girls and women clad in raffia skirts performing African ballet in a stadium setting. Viewers must shift their attention continuously between the left and right—the disjuncture suggestive of the kaleidoscopic relationship within and across the mass of spectators. The loosely edited montage produces a disquieting effect: The sequences of bodies in motion, paired with anachronistic images, almost disorient, and it is within this blurred space that Magema offers a rumination on ritual displays of power.
The image of a headless woman sporting a sash across her school uniform is evocative of both the current flag (last flag in Figure 9) and sashes worn in beauty pageants, which are a potent symbol of femininity in Congo. While the woman marches without a head, the imagery does not necessarily imply an impression of powerlessness; on the contrary, her marching body conveys a sense of resolve, although to what end, we do not know. The missing head perhaps points less to the woman than to the state itself—with one single leader, determined to rule—in contrast to an acephalous society, in which there is literally no head.
In Like a Dream (Fig. 4), Magema's head reappears, only this time without a body. Here, her own head has been severed and is presented to us upside-down and imprinted with an ominous image of a soldier. Although faded, the soldier leaves an indelible trace, which casts a severe pall of gloom over the subject of power in her native country.
The archival visuals of animation politique featured in Dyé Dyé haunt contemporary politics, especially as the country contends with autocrats determined to assert themselves as sovereign rulers.6 The video synchronizes with rather than represents women's experiences within the matrices of political power at the time. Taken together, the headless marching woman featured in Dyé Dyé and Mobutu's head descending from the clouds summons the structural violence that characterized the country's grim experience under Belgian colonial rule (Fig. 5). The absent head on Magema's marching body is also evocative of Medusa's severed head, a totem subject for many French feminists like Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous, whose writings Magema encountered while she was a student in Paris.7 What threatening potentialities were wielded by these dancing animatrices politiques?
The Congo has invited the attention and multifarious concerns of feminists from around the world, and women's bodies once again are used, but this time in service to further humanitarian agendas. Humanitarian agencies of all stripes have been coming to the aid of Congolese women for well over a decade. Magema's work implicitly engages with the “turn to agency” in scholarship relating to women's issues in postcolonial contexts in which women are placeholders in dichotomous camps of victim and agent. For instance, Gill and Donaghue assert, “Aren't agents sometimes victims too?” (2013: 253). Women suffering the macabre atrocities of war in the Congo are indeed both victims and agents of the conflict. They are also inextricable from the NGO economy in the Congo, one in which women's empowerment remains at the top of the humanitarian agenda. Magema offers:
Women's empowerment is ambiguous in the context of the Congo. Take for instance the International Women's Day. There is so much rhetoric around this United Nations-created event, both from the nation-state and from NGOs. Yet what does it all mean for a country that has not come to terms with the many ways that women have been instrumentalized in male-dominated political games? Our bodies once again controlled, and a source of concern.8
Like the magic lantern slide shows in Belgium during the nefarious epoch of King Leopold, between 1890 and 1910, when millions of Congolese people were systematically exterminated, Magema illuminates histories of men making war, depicting images of violence inscribed onto women's bodies. In Like a Dream (Fig. 4), Magema oscillates in and between temporal periods, from the colonial to the postcolonial time space, and women are seldom presented as entirely physically whole. Bodily movements articulate a fragment, strategically obscuring themselves in a self-preserving gesture.
If there is a “propriety of woman,” it is paradoxically her capacity to depropriate unselfishly: body without end, without appendage, without principal “parts.” If she is a whole, it's a whole composed of parts that are wholes, not simple partial objects but a moving, limitlessly changing ensemble, a cosmos tirelessly traversed by Eros, an immense astral space not organized around any one sun that's any more of a star than the others (Cixous 1976).
These words seem apposite for Magema. Her photographic series Mémoire Hévéa, currently on display at the Belgian Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, symbolically reconstitutes the pieces of women's severed forms (Fig. 6). The triptych of portraits positions her grandmother at the head of this family lineage. In each portrait, her feet are firmly planted on the ground. “A lady's legs are never to be crossed,” she said. Hands are visibly displayed on laps. The assembled continuity within each photograph's history echoes the “acoustic register” of mutilated limbs that haunt the colonial archives and the museum itself.9
This piece perhaps also recalls Mary Nooter Robert's seminal work on Luba iconography from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, in which “the perpetuation of the Luba royal line was attributed not just to conception through the king's mother, but to the reincarnation of the king's spirit in a woman who became the king herself (Roberts 2013: 271–75) (Fig. 7). Here, spirit mediumship is a means through which power can circulate—women's bodies become vessels of action and commemoration.
RHYTHMS OF RETURN
Another important element in Magema's work is the use of repeating patterns of political power. Instead of communicating feelings of errancy, Magema engages with her landscapes by superimposing experiences of nationalism taken from her personal history. Settling in Paris in the early 1980s, the Magema family left their home country when it was still called Zaire. Looming in their new city's social imaginary is Marianne, the symbol of the Republic, standing in opposition to monarchy. In another work entitled The Triptych, Magema assumes the pose of Delacroix's iconic image of Marianne with the tricolored flag (Fig. 8, cover). She is majestically presented in the image with one arm outstretched while the other brandishes a gun, signaling sovereignty primarily through the use of flags. Both movement and motion motivate this photograph, for while movement entails a change in the position of an object in relation to a fixed point in space, motion is indicative of the change of location or position of an object with respect to time.
Nationalist symbols are further echoed in her later performances, in which color associated with the independence flag is incorporated in the service of reflecting upon and creating African national narratives. To date, there have been eight official flags associated with the region currently known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, each one becoming its own archive (Fig. 9).10 The repeating forms, particularly the dominant star, anchor the design and evoke a nostalgic return. Indeed, the Zairian flag starkly stands out as a punctuated singular expression within the design sequence, a visual break from the circling continuity of the past and present color configurations.
In 2017, Magema performed in Cameroon at the Doual'art 4th International Public Art Festival (Fig. 10). Appearing in the twilight hours, accompanied by the sound of indigenous flutes, she entered the open-air theater wearing a simple white dress. A military salute inaugurated her traverse over different layers of colored banners that lay unfurled, adorning the ground. The colors, resting flat and motionless, represented central Africa's former colonial powers—French, British, German, Portuguese, and Belgian. Her footsteps activated the space as she crossed over each strip of color—the performance drew to a close with the appearance of the rising moon and when the strips of color had been doused with buckets of water. Here, in this theater of ghosts, Magema mixed temporalities through her footsteps, suggesting a repetition that spans multiple worlds and shaped by overlapping nationalisms.
In December 2018, the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren reopened its doors to the public after several years of renovation (see van Hee 2016, Sullivan et al. 2020). Magema's work resides in their collection, now fraught with the controversies of restitution. Referred to as “a temple of pillage” by the Congolese poet Francois-Ménard Mayengo, the museum is attempting to acknowledge central Africa's painful history of brutal exploitation, partly by inviting Congolese artists to engage with the process of conceptualizing a new future for the objects.
There is a new ethnological museum being built in Kinshasa by the South Korean government (the country's artifacts currently are housed on the grounds of Mobutu's former palace in the capital), and there have been new calls for the return of objects that were dispossessed from the country. This is not an entirely singular political gesture, as Sarah Van Beurden elaborates in her monograph Authentically African (2015). In 1973, Mobutu's cultural and symbolic power was once again reasserted when he succeeded in bringing home some 1,042 objects from the Belgian Royal Museum for Central Africa after making a demand to the United Nations (Van Beurden 2015: 123).
Earlier this year, Magema and I visited the Tervuren museum while it was still under construction. The vitrines were shrink-wrapped, void of objects. All that was left to see were the stone statues permanently affixed to the museum's architectural skeleton. A few of the main attractions, like the majestic pirogue vessel, lay in the hallway, mummified, as if floating in a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey—a fitting image given that the museum itself can be thought of as a vessel, but also that African artifacts were perceived of as almost alien to Europeans at the turn of the century (Fig. 11).
Under its new guise, the reopened museum strives to showcase contemporary art that engages with the region's history. Magema's photographic triptych Mémoire Hévéa (Fig. 7), shown at the museum's reopening, conjures up the spirits of her maternal kin. Like some of the Janus-faced Luba sculptures and stools of kneeling women supporting the weight of past and future temporal authority, their bodies becoming vessels of ordained political power, Magema's lineage depicted in this triptych renders visible the polyphonic presence of women. Her engagement with visualizing circulating forms of postcolonial power structures yields new questions about where it leaves women in a country where women's bodies continue to be contested by various stakeholders. Like the women in motion featured in Oyé Oyé—the marching and dancing bodies—Magema shows us the ways in which women move in and through various matrices of authoritarian power in Congo and beyond.
One can see examples of these dance performances on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbMxc6069QA).
For a similar description of kingly dance in the Kongo Kingdom in the seventeenth century, see Fromont 2014.
Interview with the author, translated from French, March 2018, Nevers, France.
Interview with the author, translated from French, March 2018, Nevers, France.
White (2008) offers a compelling ethnography of the lasting legacy of Mobutu's leadership style and the ways in which it is embodied and performed by concert bands.
Men's severed heads have been prominent leitmotif in European art history; perhaps the most famous, Artemesia Genteleschi's masterpiece Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612–1613), was an imporant emblem in the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
Interview with the author, translated from French, March 2018, Nevers, France.
For a provocative discussion about this painful period in Congo's history see Hunt 2008.
The sequence of flags is not part of The Triptych.