'Jean Katambayi Mukendi grew up in the southeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo in Lubumbashi, the “capital of copper”. His father was an electrician, his mother the secretary of a metal extraction company, which is why Mukendi was surrounded by all kinds of metals from an early age. A passion for logic, geometry, mechanics and electricity now defines the art of the autodidact who, after gradu- ating as an electrician and studying mathematics, remained “puzzled by creation” until he met the art world a few years later.
Mukendi seeks to understand the qualities of the materials and tools that are available or that he happens to find, in order to get the best out of them. This includes integrating production waste: Nothing is lost, nothing is newly created, everything is transformed. Mukendi’s works convey a political pragmatism. Also because they are inhabited by the artist’s everyday life in his immediate environ- ment.
Probably his best-known series, Afrolampes, shows light bulbs of all kinds drawn on paper with a self-made compass, sometimes assembled with 3D objects. They are a winking reminder of the fate of millions of residents of Lubumbashi, the artist’s hometown, whose nights are often lit only by candlelight because of prob- lems with electricity distribution. European energy-saving lamps are of no help.
Humorous irony permeates Mukendi’s work. Asked about this by art critic Piero Bisello, the artist recalls a time before his international activity: “When I worked as a math teacher in secondary school, people asked me why I was making all these jokes with my students. Math was supposed to be serious. I took it differently and it served us well.” His artworks are similar. “They might be ironic, but they address serious matters – like the responsibility of foreign countries in the Congo.”
Jean Katambayi Mukendi was not only a math teacher, but is also a licensed electrician. Like his four siblings, he attended one of the technical schools that ensured that European companies never lacked cheap labor during the Belgian occupation. Accordingly, the artist is interested in technology less in its function than in its context. Many works are inspired by the technical drawings of those companies that exploit his region. The source material of everyday life expands far beyond the personal horizon into worldwide responsibilities and currently reflects not least the unjust Covid vaccination policy on a global scale. More personally, the artist comments on his bridging to art. “My mother taught me that I had to study to understand life rather than to understand electricity.” Thus, Mukendi’s work offers not so much technical instructions or mathematical solu- tions, but rather commentaries on life.
Jean Katambayi Mukendi’s performance on the opening evening (7:30 PM) re- mains in the exhibition as a sculpture: the artist writes mathematical derivations on a car windshield attached to the water tank before having the windshield smashed by an exhibition visitor. Pare-Brise, 2022, (Windshield) tells the fictional story of a broken car windshield, shattered by an accident, the course of which the artist-mathematician has subsequently deciphered in writing on the object. The fact that the production process took place in exactly the opposite way dis- solves the boundaries between incident and accident, between staging and loss of control. When the cracks seek their way through the glass like rivers.
The same loss of control is embodied in the work Re-Flex, 2022, in the center of the room. Mukendi calls the work itself a water tank. Clean water, along with electricity, is another inconstant in Lubumbashi. Through its process of creation, Mukendi’s water tank represents a counter-statement in a world riddled with pre- dictability and pigeonholing. The artist pours a mixture of glue and color pigments into a plastic tube filled with trash and lets the river carve its own path. Choosing its own colors. Codes dissolve and recompose themselves. All calculation disap- pears, the incident becomes an accident, the artist gives up all control.'
Exhibition text and curated by Benedikt Wyss
JEAN KATAMBAYI MUKENDI - Re-Flex
until September 30, 2022
at SALTS, Basel, CH
(photo credits Nicolas Gysin & Gunnar Meier)