Giving hope in a dark, mysterious manner
Patrick Bongoy’s art encapsulates the political situation and survivalist ethos in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Patrick Bongoy’s art at the Ebony-Curated gallery in Cape Town appears as though it is born from a struggle to survive. There is a dehumanisation theme at the core of the work and the materials — recycling rubber — reinforce this impression.
So it is surprising to discover that he was raised in a middle-class family. Artists do tend to be middle class — making art is a privilege mostly afforded to the educated class.
He has been living in Cape Town for five years, and left his native Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) after being involved in a protest art performance that got him in hot water.
He has had to remake himself and struggle to survive, but his life story has to be separated from his tortured rubber figures. Art is not always biographical.
Bongoy’s art is not a product of survival but an expression of it — there is a difference. His sculptures and hanging pieces that make up the show entitled Where are we / Where are we going? are fashioned from disused rubber, echoing the way in which impoverished people recycle throwaway items.
He wanted to relay the survivalist ethos and recycling economy that is so prevalent in the DRC in the face of a failing economy and state.
"Even though I came from a wealthy family, most of my friends were living in a totally different situation. I could see it [poverty] wherever I went. I could feel it," says Bongoy.
He was drawn to working with disused materials as they are freely available. Mostly, however, it was because he needed to settle on a visual language that sat well with him and expressed his interest and connection to the society in which he lives. Political art has become a necessary route, he says.
I’m not telling people what they know; I’m offering them the way I’m seeing life through death
"Since 2003, artists in Kinshasa have been having a movement, discussions and making art about what is taking place in the country," he says.
Bongoy’s form of sociopolitical commentary on the state of affairs in the DRC is not overtly expressed in his art.
The series dubbed Resistance presents woven rubber compositions confined to a picture frame, though strands protrude and hang from it. Bongoy doesn’t depict the eponymous "resistance", but rather suggests that in reusing a material for an unintended art product embodies an act of resistance, mirroring the way people in the DRC survive — making "lemonade out of lemons".
The disruption of a traditional western art language (the
painted canvas) becomes a shorthand for the erosion of
values and ethics, though to assume that a Eurocentric norm represents functionality is probably problematic.
Bongoy started out in an abstract mode with hessian as his preferred "canvas" and tar his "paint". Ordered and procured in advance of the government’s plan to build and rebuild roads in Kinshasa, tar could be found all over the city. It was never used, and so enterprising locals treated the tar as a waste product, extracting stones from it and the liquid rubber.
"I was always fascinated by recycling," he says.
There is no need to depict the state of affairs in the DRC literally; locals will make the connection with the tar, Bongoy says. The abstract mode he embraced may have also been in line with a form of self-censorship artists worked under in the DRC, fearful of attracting too much attention through their political commentary.
His artist statement for the exhibition at Ebony/Curated compensates for the subtle approach in his art. In a diatribe he outlines the failures and corruption of the Congolese government whose members have "focused primarily on their own economic enrichment and only occasionally prioritising and giving sporadic media attention to these disasters to pacify people’s discontent instead of real compensation or useful intervention". He makes clear his frustrations with the way the Congolese are locked in what he terms a state of victimhood.
"People are treated like trash. If the government cared or valued the lives of its citizens, it would not conduct itself like it does," he writes.
Over the past year, he has represented this condition through rubber figures. Disused mannequins are covered in rubber blocks. With hoofed feet, metal levers and rubber chains, they appear like half-human-animal-cyborg beings from a dystopian posthuman society.
People are treated like trash. If the government cared or valued the lives of its citizens, it would not conduct itself like it does
The rubber flaps extrude from their frames as if they are falling apart or changing shape. The blocked rubber surface is meant to read like marks on the skin, he says. "Like those left on the bodies of slaves who have been tortured or whipped."
Traditional fetish figures punctured with nails also provided some of the inspiration, he suggests. Traditional African and colonial violence and fears about the future, coalesce into his distinctive language.
Revenant III presents a pregnant figure with a head emerging from a hessian sack — most likely used in an act of torture. It’s a disturbing work. Bongoy has taken a disused fashion mannequin to use as the basis for the figure and taken it into a dark and macabre place.
Yet he insists that his art exudes hope. The square totem-like sculptural works, also fashioned from disused rubber "skin", might be in service of this sentiment. Entitled Still Breathing, they represent trees and speak of the human or natural drive to exist no matter how terrible conditions may be.
"You are not dead yet, so you have to come up with something," he says.
For Bongoy, art has been his lifeline. It has allowed him to maintain a strong connection to his country of birth. It has operated as a tool to connect to South Africans too; it’s quite a conversation starter, allowing him to draw attention to the political situation in the DRC, he says.
It also seems likely to catapult him into the global art world, which is hungry for art from the continent.
"I’m not telling people what they know; I’m offering them my world of possibilities and the way I’m seeing life through death, the process of transformation," Bongoy says.
• Where are we / Where are we going? Shows at Ebony/Curated in Cape Town until May 26.