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Zaire School of Popular Painting

1975 — 2010

Art as history, protest and education in the DRC

In the late 1950's a wave of independence swept through Africa. A continent that had been divided up and exploited by European imperialists for nearly 80 years was winning itself back. Decolonization would last almost two decades, and required couragous political leadership, public outcry, riots and in some cases, guerrilla-style warefare. The independent countries that emerged needed a voice to process their pain, their strengh, and their hope. In the newly created Democratic Republic of the Congo, called the Republic of Zaire until 1997, that took the form of the Zaire School of Popular Painting.

The Zaire School started small. A young artist named Chéri Samba opened a studio in the DNC's capital city of Kinshasa, painting billboards, making comic-strips, and combining these graphic styles in paintings on burlap. In Kinshasa, Samba was joined by the self-taught local artists Moké and Bodo, brought together by the desire to capture the day-to-day struggles, joys and politics of life in the Congo.

The result was an artistic style unlike any other—raw, colorful, and intensely didactic. Zaire School artworks are often extremely literal, depicting specific people and events and using painted text to label key information about the scene. This is not art to interpreted or speculated on, it is education. Samba described the use of labels saying, "The texts that I introduce on my canvases translate the thoughts of the people I depict in a given situation. It is a way of not allowing freedom of interpretation to a person who looks at my painting." Fitting for artwork that emerged from a country held hostage and voiceless for so long.

But the Zaire School wasn't exclusively political. Moké documented the social life in Kinshasa's outdoor bars, and Bodo became a Pentacostal Christian and created surreal compositions intended to decry the local practice of sorcery. 

In 1970, perhaps the most influential body of Zaire School work was created by Tshibumba Kanda Matulu. Matulu was comissioned by Johannes Fabian, a professor of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam, to create a visual history of the Congo. The final collection of 101 artworks is an enourmously powerful record of colonial abuse, post-independence conflicts and Congo's pre-colonial past. 

The Zaire School of Popular Painting is no longer a formal group, since Kanda Matulu disappeared in the early 1980s and Moké and Bodo died in 2001 and 2015. But the bold colors, honest language and energetic visions of Chéri Samba, Chéri Chérin, and other Congolese artists continue to share the populist voice of the DR Congo with the world.

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Chéri SambaPortrait of Chéri Samba

Chéri Samba

...and now we go to Samba, live in Kinshasa

1956-
Biblical scenes

Biblical scenes

Bodo1953
Belgian Colony 1885–1959

Belgian Colony 1885–1959

Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu1973-1974
Governor General Pétillon pelted with tomatoes

Governor General Pétillon pelted with tomatoes

Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu1973-1974
Lumumba Speaks in Kinshasa

Lumumba Speaks in Kinshasa

Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu1973-1974
The house of the alarm clock

The house of the alarm clock

Bodo1978
The False Preachers

The False Preachers

Bodo1978
Tshibumba Kanda-MatuluPortrait of Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu

Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu

Who carries the memory of the people?

1947-1981
Condemnation without Trial

Condemnation without Trial

Chéri Samba1989-1990
What future for our art?

What future for our art?

Chéri Samba1997
Chronomonde

Chronomonde

Bodo2000
Animated Fantastic Landscape

Animated Fantastic Landscape

Bodo2001
The début of Chéri Samba

The début of Chéri Samba

Chéri Samba2003
Overworked Woman

Overworked Woman

Bodo2005
Golden Brush of Africa

Golden Brush of Africa

Bodo2010
I love the color

I love the color

Chéri Samba2010
The real map of the world (N°1)

The real map of the world (N°1)

Chéri Samba2011
La Sape 1

La Sape 1

Bodo2012
La Sape 2

La Sape 2

Bodo2012
Vieux Chinois

Vieux Chinois

Bodo2012
Sapeur

Sapeur

Bodo2013
I'm not enlightened, I'm not clear

I'm not enlightened, I'm not clear

Chéri Samba2013
True Love

True Love

Bodo2013
The real map of the world

The real map of the world

Chéri Samba2014
BodoPortrait of Bodo

Bodo

Many souls to save

1953-2015