‘The work’s effect demands an oxymoron: daintily powerful, say, or deliriously serene. Kinships with craftwork, toys, folk or outsider art, and bricolage inevitably suggest themselves, only to be plowed under by the rigor of an aesthetic as sophisticated as that of an Alexander Calder or a Joseph Cornell’
‘A building without color is like a naked person.’
-Bodys Isek Kingelez
Constructed of paper and cardboard, Bodys Isek Kingelez’s Kinshasa Label, 1989, is a cosmic structure of a fantastical city. Rising out of forest green cylinders is a white tower crowned by a medallion announcing a new future; the sculpture was included in the 2002 exhibition The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994, curated by Okwui Enwezor, which toured internationally at institutions including MoMA PS1, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and Museum Villa Stuck, Munich. Although this building suggests an architecture in miniature, Kingelez’s structure belongs to no country and no history. The artist lived most of his life in Kinshasa, referenced in the work’s title. He moved to the capital of the newly independent Democratic Republic of Congro in 1970, and it was against the backdrop of Kinshasa’s efforts to reimagine itself that the artist developed his striking visual vocabulary. Kingelez used the idioms of a national architectural language to create what art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu called ‘symbolic texts on the state of our global, postcolonial world’ (C. Okeke-Agulu, ‘On Kingelez’s Audacious Objects’, in Bodys Isek Kingelez, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018, p. 24).
1989 was a pivotal year for Kingelez, during which his work was included in the exhibition Magiciens de la terre at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris; this was the first time his art was given such a significant international platform. For the catalogue, Kingelez responded to the question ‘what is art?’ by saying: ‘Art, the rare product of great reflexive values, accompanied by serious movements of imagination, that the author of such invention turns toward the promises of dearer sacrifices of a better and hoped-for future’ (B. Kingelez quoted in S. Suzuki, ‘Kingelez Visionnaire’, in Bodys Isek Kingelez, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018, p.21). This was nothing short of a personal manifesto, and Kingelez’s maquettes were underpinned by a passionate social critique that yearned for the utopian. In Kinshasa Label, the artist proposes a vision for a new tomorrow, an understanding of the city as imaginative and exultant. Kingelez was the subject of a recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, for which Carsten Höller collaborated on the exhibition’s design.