Popular Painting

"J'aime Chéri Samba," on view at the University Museum at Texas Southern University, presents 29 paintings by Congolese artist Chéri Samba, who has a larger-than-life personality and immense talent. Samba makes figurative and slightly surreal paintings that are gorgeous, pointed and witty. The works are drawn from Jean Pigozzi's Contemporary African Art Collection, selections of which are also on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Not unlike Warhol's art, Samba's paintings grew out of his advertising work. But as Samba has said, his project is serious. "I play with humor, of course, but the real point is to give a critical portrayal of the way people live." He addresses a broad scope of issues, touching on politics, littering, AIDS, women, the art world, sexuality, race, Western attitudes toward Africa...Samba paints commentary in French and Lingala directly onto his works, and he himself appears in most of them as well, as subject or participant.

Born in 1956, Samba grew up in Kinto M'Vuila, a small village 80 kilometers from Kinshasa. His father was a blacksmith, his mother a farmer. Samba drew incessantly as a kid, first in the dirt and then in the notebooks he was given in the sixth grade. His father wanted him to become a blacksmith, but Samba had other ideas. Confident in his artistic abilities, he left school at 16 and took off for the big city of Kinshasa, slipping away without his father's knowledge and hopping a train. He eventually found work with an advertising agency that wouldn't pay him until he proved his "ability for three months without pay."

Samba lasted three days before telling them he wouldn't accept being exploited and going off to a rival firm. Several months later, the first company hired him back at three times the price. The artist played the firms against each other, bouncing back and forth until he went out on his own to start a studio.

At an early age, Samba became a presence on the Kinshasa scene, displaying his paintings on the street outside his studio for visitors to see and comment upon. He dubbed his vividly hued and socially relevant style of painting peinture populaire. In 1975, the 19-year-old painted a self-portrait bearing the text and title Son Éminence-Dessinateur Samba, ("His Eminence-Draughtsman Samba"). It depicts the young artist in au courant '70s fashions -- a wide lapel, black-and-white plaid jacket and yellow vest over red-and-white-striped shirt -- and his face surrounded by a halolike Afro. It is a wonderful, careful self-portrait by a determined young man, and its power goes far beyond '70s kitsch appeal. In 1979, the 23-year-old, born Samba wa Mbimba N'zingo Nuni Masi Ndo Mbasi, changed his name to Chéri Samba.

And while the cult of personality is a part of Samba's work, what is paramount is his desire to address the larger world. In Le sida ne sera guérissable que dans 10 ou 20 ans ("AIDS won't be cured for another 10 or 20 years") (1997), he presents a public service message that is humorous and visually dynamic. A band of people march along carrying signs that advocate condom usage while they wave lacy bras in the air.

Other works address more prosaic issues, such as the availability of public garbage cans. In Lutte contre l'insalubrité ("Struggle Against Insalubrity"), the words of the title are painted in large capital typefaces. We see the back of the artist as he glues trash to the canvas. But it's actually collaged onto the painting; aluminum yogurt lids coexist with old condoms, bottle caps and candy wrappers.

While other artists in the world may share a social focus, few present their ideas as effectively, skillfully or beautifully as Samba. Within the paintings are dynamically abstract and richly decorative passages (he makes stunning use of glitter). Patterns on clothing, folds of fabric, stylized earth and trees, wallpaper...all become fascinating tiny paintings within paintings.

Gas Masks

Slavery, contemporary and historic, is the focus of Romuald Hazoumé's solo show at the Menil Collection. Hazoumé is from Benin, a country with an enormous black-market trade in gasoline. But that trade isn't just illegal -- it produces a new class of slaves. Compelled by poverty, young men drive minibikes, transporting vast quantities of gas in plastic containers strapped to their bodies. These men can easily become unintentional suicide bombers, laden with gallons and gallons of flammable liquid.

Hazoumé finds and uses these plastic containers as material for his art. He fashions them into masks, mournfully transforming them into individuals. His installation at the Menil, "La Bouche du Roi (The Mouth of the King)," refers to an oft-reproduced, always disturbing 17th-century diagram that plotted out just exactly how many human beings you could pack and chain into a cargo hold -- apparently around 300.

Hazoumé arranged 304 of his masks, made from dark gas containers, into the shape of a boat. To create the masks, he cuts off the top half the container, and the handle becomes a nose. The opening of the container looks like a mouth, open in a silent cry. They have a worn, grubby patina that evokes hardship and suffering, and they bear symbols, names and objects related to an African god -- pleas for salvation from their fate. In overlapping audio tracks, slave names in Wémé, Yoruba and Mahi blend with sung lamentations.

The artist placed two crowned masks -- one pale yellow, the other black -- at the head of the boat. Hazoumé is addressing joint exploitation. During the hundreds of years of the slave trade, rival tribes would sell prisoners of war to Western slavers. Today, western oil companies and corrupt governments continue the exploitation. A video by Hazoumé plays in the same room, documenting the grinding process of the collection and transport of the gas. It allows the viewer to contextualize the issues Hazoumé is addressing.

Both Samba and Hazoumé present comment and seek change. Samba pursues his agenda through joyous color and pointed wit. Hazoumé draws on traditional culture to give us a contemporary lament channeling centuries of grief. Each artist powerfully manipulates the visual, prodding us to see, feel and think new things.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer