PRINT March 1990


AS THE SELF-PORTRAIT-CUM-AUTOBIOGRAPHY hung smack at the entrance to his recent Paris show announced, Samba Wa Mbimba N’Zinga Nurimasi Mdombasi, known as Chéri Samba, is a 33-year-old self-taught artist from southern Zaire. In two columns of green and pink type that frame his beaming face and its blue-sky background, the artist tells us that he is the son of a blacksmith, that he dropped out of school at the age of 16 for lack of money, and that he made his way to the capital city of Kinshasa to become an apprentice sign painter. Three years later he opened his own workshop, and before long, business was good enough for him to leave the signs to assistants and devote himself to painting, with the result, he tells us in/on the right-hand panel of his self-portrait, and in his spicily unorthodox syntax and spelling:

1978, 1980, THE CONGO AGAIN
1984, 1985, SHABA/ZAIRE
(1990, GERMANY . . . . ETC . . . . GOD WILLING)

In France, where he has been known since he came to decorate the office walls of the monthly cultural magazine Actuel in 1982, Samba has been compared to such youthful iconoclasts as Robert Combas and Hervé DiRosa, leading lights of the Figuration Libre movement of the early 1980s, whose work is likewise inspired by comic strips and advertising techniques infused by a large dose of underclass narcissism. Should he get to New York (a show is apparently in the offing), he will undoubtedly be aligned with the graffitists and other East Village insurgents for similar reasons—despite overriding differences. For in fact, at this moment, when the art world is still puzzling over its “first worldwide exhibition of contemporary art,” as last summer’s “Magiciens de la terre” in Paris was billed, the interest of Chéri Samba (whose work was already among the most interesting in that global mishmash) has less to do with the post-Modern eclecticism of the West than with what might be called the postcolonial synthesis of the Rest. Samba’s innovative transformations of popular sign paintings into medium high art, via the mixed metaphors of photorealism, surrealism, and kitsch, emerge out of the same blend of tradition and high tech found in the various waves of music, film, and literature coming out of Africa, Asia, and Latin America in recent decades. Springing up from the cracks of colonial history to transcend a legacy of truncated traditions, failed revivals, and European imports, these forms represent a genuine appropriation of the instruments of mass culture for the transmission of popular tradition. As the Malian musician Mory Kanté has noted, “With slavery, blacks lost everything except for their cultural heritage. In modernizing their music, the Africans are only modernizing their capital.”1 If post-Modernism’s “end of history,” as so many dissatisfied customers have noted, is a perfect expression of the “Me” generation mentality, the best of postcolonial culture remains the product of a collective wisdom.

In this sense, Chéri Samba, like the popular West African singers Kanté and Youssou N’Dour, or the filmmakers Ousmene Sembène and Souleymane Cissé, is a kind of modern griot or storyteller who gives out news and views of the world around him with conviction, audacity, and no small dose of humor. “I paint with a moral,” Samba says, “to educate the general public about art and ideas .”2 Here, then, even the narcissism has a different edge to it. Like Sembène, who always puts in an appearance in his films and for many years trucked them around the Senegalese countryside himself, and like Youssou N’Dour and his group Superstar of Dakar, who likewise made the rounds of Senegal last year with drums and synthesizer, Samba insists on maintaining contact with his public. This is the function, he says, of his self-portrait. “First thing, I introduce myself . . . . That’s really important to me. If I’m not there, people will know who I am. Before the other paintings, they’ll see my self-portrait.”3 I n the same spirit, when he travels, he hangs a sign outside his workshop in Kinshasa to spread the word that he’s away, and for how long. Th at way, potential customers “won’t make the trip for nothing and take me for a fraud.”4

In keeping with his mission to educate, much of Samba’s work is topical, but if the subjects are serious, they are never treated as sacred. Le SIDA (AIDS, 1989), for example, focuses attention on AIDS prevention via a mock-heroic homage to the condom. Three superwomen line the path of preventive virtue; equipped with personal toothbrushes and syringes, and razor blades clenched between their legs, they literally exalt their condoms to the sky. The path of careless vice, meanwhile, leads one disease-ridden figure to the edge of a cliff where, below, another figure is bound to a cross that reads “NOUS SOMMES TOUS CONCERNES” (We are all at risk). In the lengthy text at the bottom of the painting, Samba reminds us that “AIDS IS STILL INCURABLE BUT PREVENTABLE.”

On a more anecdotal level, La Désolation (Grief, 1989) serves up an object lesson in the form of Monsieur Very-Busy, who finds himself surrounded by letters of condolence and excuse after the death of his son, clearly because all of his acquaintances have followed his example and decided they were too busy to pay him a visit. In a more lyrical vein—although there’s always an ironic twist somewhere—La Sagesse du savoir (The wisdom of learning, 1989) gives us two schoolboys, the drudge and the dreamer, with the former poring over his books while the latter receives his enlightenment direct from a glitter-bedecked version of the Holy Ghost. Moral, according to Samba in the accompanying text: “The wisdom of learning is not necessarily the fruit of knowledge but, rather, the product of imagination.”

Nearly all of the 20 Samba paintings exhibited in Paris last fall were done while he was living there, on a five-month stay, during the run of “Magiciens de la terre.” That the artist was story-telling with a Parisian audience in mind was clear in his predominant use of French captions (as opposed to his own Lingala, which still turns up here and there). In addition to addressing gallery-goers in their native language, Samba offered them a few pointed observations on their native culture. With a glowing Eiffel Tower set at the vanishing point of what would be a classic picture-postcard view—were it not for the three African street-cleaners who have unceremoniously made their way into the foreground to sweep up after the dogs—Samba’s Paris est propre, 1989, is a half-joking reminder that “Paris is clean” because black sanitation workers keep it that way. Souvenir d’un africain (Souvenir of an African, 1989), on the other hand, offers a scenic view of two young lovers going at it on a Parisian subway platform, while the African observer of the title asks, "Do these people in the West have no shame? . . . ”

Samba’s West-Rest dialogue is played out on formal levels as well. If the influence of comic strips and movie posters is most obvious—in the combination of word and image, in the body language, and the use of (Day-Glo) color and (out)line—there is also more than a fleeting trace of the venerable Renaissance tradition in these receding landscapes and architectural perspectives. But what makes these paintings walk and talk, and what sets them apart from those of other African sign-painters proper, and even from earlier works by Samba as well—renderings, in a fairly naive idiom, of episodes in a meandering fairy-tale space—is his now seamless juxtaposition of ideas and images on multiple registers of artistic invention. The self-portrait, for example, could hardly be packed with more detail, both visual and verbal, from the alligator on Samba’s Lacoste sweater to his 33-year itinerary through life and art. But with a subtle mix of pastiche and parody, Samba adopts the streamlined graphic punch of a Dewar’s Scotch profile to hold it all together. Alternately, and with the same irreverent attitude, the conventions of Western painting are simultaneously invoked and debunked in his ambitious social panoramas. In La Lutte contre les moustiques (The battle against the mosquitoes, 1989), Samba’s commentary on the ravages of malaria (which, his text tells us, “KILLS MORE [PEOPLE] THAN AIDS, AND ESPECIALLY AMONG SMALL CHILDREN”), the couple in combat strikes a movie-poster pose in an interior space rendered with a neoclassical clarity and drama worthy of Poussin or David. But on closer inspection, the starlike pattern of the bedroom wallpaper turns out to be the imprint of vanquished mosquitos. “HONEY, YOU KILL THE ONES ON THE RIGHT WHILE I TAKE ON THE LEFTISTS,” the husband declares in four deadpan rows of white letters set against the black floor.

Notwithstanding these nods, such as they are, toward European tradition, there is clearly much in Samba’s paintings that remains inaccessible to the Westerner: not only in the captions that appear in his native Lingala, but in the more subtle language of gesture, clothing, situation, place. Yet even this becomes a kind of object lesson in West-Rest relations and in the one-way street called Universality. It is, after all, neither chance nor inherent superiority that accounts for the world domination of certain Western cultural icons, be they literature or hamburgers (or Lacoste sweaters), and if it is reasonable to assume that everyone from Kalamazoo to Kinshasa is familiar with McDonald’s, we can still only wonder what the B.A.T. snack-bar in Samba’s Le Respect de l’heure (Respect of the time, 1989) has to offer.

More important, Samba’s paintings provide a timely reminder that inspiration also goes both ways: if for most of this century African art and music have been pressed into service as the storehouse of eternal primitivism for the West, Chéri Samba and the rest of the Rest are starting to turn things around as they cash in on the resources of Western mass culture to express their own identity and values. The question, of course, is how long it is possible to be the griot of Kinshasa and Paris at the same time.

Miriam Rosen is a writer who lives in Paris. She contributes regularly to Artforum.



1. Quoted in Agnès Barratt, “La Musique et la jeunesse s’éclatent Alger,” in J.A. Magazine no. 19, Paris, September 1985, p. 57.

2. Quoted in Anne-Marie Morice, “Les Couches laborieuses” in Télérama no. 2071, Paris, 20 September 1989, n.p.

3. Quoted in “Chéri Samba: un peintre zaïrois moraliste,” AFP Dispatch, Paris, 18 September 1989, n.p.

4. Quoted in Philippe Carteron, “Chéri Samba,” Obs de Paris, 21–27 September 1989, n.p.

All translations from the French by the author.