Critics’ Picks

Bodys Isek Kingelez, Kimbembele Ihunga, 1994, paper, paperboard, plastic, various materials, 51“ x 73” x 10' 5".

New York

Bodys Isek Kingelez

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
May 26 - January 1

There are three key moments that keep the legend of Bodys Isek Kingelez burning. One is when the Congolese sculptor—maker of intricate paper objects known as “extrêmes maquettes”—quit his job as a schoolteacher in Kinshasa and began making art, feverishly, from paper, scissors, a razor, and glue. The second came when a Kingelez sculpture arrived at the Institut des Musées Nationaux du Zaire. The staff there refused to believe he’d made it himself and demanded he create another one onsite. He did, and they immediately hired him as a restorer. The third was his participation in the 1989 exhibition “Magiciens de la terre” (Magicians of the Earth), which catapulted Kingelez to international acclaim.

His first US retrospective here turns on three similar moments, illuminating formal shifts in the work that subtly reflect changes in the artist’s life. Soon after “Magiciens,” Kingelez, who had been making singular buildings such as Allemagne An 2000 (Germany Year 2000), 1988, and Paris Nouvel (New Paris), 1989, began to construct entire cities, such as Kimbembele Ihunga, 1994, named after the artist’s birthplace. Some years later, he started incorporating lights and transparent materials, which give Ville de Sète 3009 (City of Sète 3009), 2000, for example, its majestic glow. And then, toward the end of his life (Kingelez died in 2015), he returned to the found packaging materials he began with, using mint boxes and lightbulb cartons in Nippon Tower, 2005.

By turns playful and austere, rigidly chronological and blessedly open to what art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu has termed the artist’s “ecstatic imagination,” “City Dreams” moves lightly through thirty-three examples of Kingelez’s work. Lines of thought about colonialism, liberation, repression, health, and the realities of life that find welcome relief in utopian propositions arise naturally from the sculptures themselves. Curator Sarah Suzuki, whose accompanying catalogue is exceptional, deserves credit for lending astringent analysis to Kinglez’s context without ever dampening his magic.