Chéri Samba

Musée national des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie

Paris likes to brag about being the capital of African art, ahead of London, Tokyo, and New York. African art flourishes on the Left Bank: there are antique shops on Rue de la Seine, and this summer brought shows of Ouattara at Gallerie Boulakia at the Rue Bonaparte and a combined photography and mask exhibit entitled “Les Dogons” on Rue des Beaux-Arts. The Musée National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie recently showed 276 traditional pieces from Nigeria—a stunning exhibition including some of the most beautiful Igbo masks I have ever seen along with Benin, Yoruba, and Ogoni statutes and masks. Chéri Samba’s retrospective of thirty-eight works at the Paris museum could not have been better timed. Never mind the fact that the French have shut the doors to African immigration—an image often found in his narrative paintings. The artist is as popular as ever.

Since 1989, when he was included in the Pompidou’s controversial “primitivist” blockbuster “Magiciens de la terre,” Chéri Samba has never ceased to surprise and tease the imagination of the French with his “naive” paintings. A jealous filmmaker friend of mine even describes him as the new chouchou de la ville. Samba emerged as a street artist in Kinshasa, Zaire, in the late ’70s, painting tableaux of market scenes, prostitution, and anecdotes about power and corruption. Like other market artists in urban Africa, his paintings, influenced by narrative techniques borrowed from comic books, movie posters, and cartoons, deal, often humorously, with the faits divers of modernity and its impact on life on the continent. They combine images that are accessible to a wide audience with narrative prose written largely in Lingala and colloquial French. Like advertising slogans, his language often takes a shortcut to meaning, making use of a popularized expression like “conjoncture,” for example, which means economic crisis, belt tightening, and resourcefulness all at once. In 1982, Ngangura Mweze’s short film Kin Kiese (Kinshasa the Beautiful) featured the artist and his tableaux as a way of revealing the contradictory colors of the city.

To reach the Chéri Samba show, one first had to traverse the arresting exhibition of Nigerian masks and statues (the size and quality of which make one realize why some people felt that the Guggenheim Africa show underserved the continent). Somehow this was appropriate. It seemed impossible to avoid retaining the impressions of the tribal art, its beautiful, terrifying, and abstract symbolism, as one entered the gallery devoted to Chéri Samba’s paintings (the first show of the work of a single contemporary African artist in the museum’s history). More than most contemporary artists, his art treats head-on those same questions of power, fear, morality, and overt sexuality in representation found in the larger exhibition.

The Chéri Samba gallery was aflame with the artist’s palette of hot reds and yellows amid life-giving greens, sea blues, and flowery violets. I found myself transported to Africa by these strong colors and the primacy of their exotic denotations. The depicted human figures were rendered in such a dark chocolate hue that they seemed to melt under the light. I found myself thinking, Chéri Samba is the Amos Tutuola of African art—the stereotype that strikes back. His reclaiming of the stereotype of Africa in the modern imagination is one clue to his success. Chéri Samba works within such tribal concepts as witchcraft, ancestor worship, and magic. In L’Espoir fait vivre (Hope allows for life, 1989), a painting about his own success story, he explains that he made it to the top through diligence, patience, and the blessing of the ancestors and without resorting to witchcraft. The text in Self-portrait, 1989, also concerns the theme of creativity. Along with a recounting of his exhibition history, Chéri Samba tells competitor artists who accuse him of casting a spell on them that his success is due not to witchcraft or hysterics but to simplicity in life and hard work.

But, of course, Chéri Samba is not a simple artist. He raises the question of witchcraft in his painting not only because power in contemporary Zaire is inextricably linked to it but also because witchcraft fits into the West’s way of knowing Africa. To Western eyes, his work appears quite literal, yet every one of his paintings is reflexive and narrated from a distinct point of view, one that is often quite arrogant. In Hommage aux anciens créateurs (Praise for the ancient creators, 1995), tribal carvings are set in front of a large self-portrait. The figure seems to be repossessing the masks and statues, which are in fact now locked up in a Swiss museum in Zurich. Chéri Samba criticizes the museum for isolating the objects, which still have their supernatural powers, from people such as him, those who are the reincarnation of the tribal sculptors.

Chéri Samba’s allegorical paintings also deal with the reappropriation of the ownership of the work of art by the artist, a theme he explores in numerous canvases. In Oreilles au ventre (Ears on the stomach, 1991), the artist is famished while the wheeling-and-dealing contractor has a big stomach with ears sticking out on either side of his navel. In Pourquoi ai-je signé un contrat? (Why did I sign a contract?, 1990), the artist, clad in an elegant blue suit, sits on a red couch by a cliff with a padlock around his knees and a rope around his neck; the rope is being pulled on either side by critics, artists, curators, collectors, and dealers. Yet the artist declares himself the winner because the contract seemed a necessary step in his career. The rope and the padlock, as well as the blue suit and red couch, seem not so much burdens on the painted subject as signature stylistic devices.

Finally, in Une peinture à défendre (A painting to defend, 1993), in my opinion his masterpiece, Chéri Samba raises the ante on the relations between art and politics by using a painting as a metaphor of Africa to be defended. The composition bears witness to the artist’s reflexive approach: space and movement are delineated by a superimposition of frames within frames, repetition of actions, and contrasting colors and gestures. The figure of Chéri Samba himself, a brush in one hand and a can of paint in the other, is positioned in the middle facing the spectator. The red rope around his waist is being pulled on the left by two hands, and the green rope on his leg is pulled on the right by two more hands. There are two men in the foreground, one grabbing him by the waist, and the other by the leg. They all say, “I must defend this painting.” In the background is a traditional popular painting that the artist is trying to protect. The painting depicts a woman, with a baby tied on her back, braiding another woman’s hair. The background images include houses, a child bathing in a tub, and a wagon. This painting within the tableau is described as an “Ekomi popular painting, a few years later.” Behind this well-lit, contrasting tableau is a still night with trees overshadowed by a dark sky.

Clearly, Chéri Samba is commenting on the demand for his own work, which, only a few years ago, was just another item for sale in the market in Kinshasa. Now white critics and dealers all claim ownership of it. But more important is the coarticulation of the artist’s visions of his painting and of Africa. In other words, Chéri Samba takes his work as a metaphor for Africa and proposes a militant action through art to reappropriate it. The same reflexive preoccupation runs through all his work, whether the theme involves the planter’s relation to his produce, that of the artist to his art, or Africans to Africa. In the 1994 triptych Grand tort de la colonisation et grosse erreur de l’Afrique indépendante (The fault of colonization and the error of independent Africa), he represents precolonial Africa as Edenic, and the colonizers as greedy and evil men who divided up the continent among themselves, with no regard to kinship or tribal unity. The final panel shows the error of “independent Africans” who fail to recognize that the nation-states are an inheritance from the former colonizers and who continue to divide ethnic groups and create a false sense of alliance between people. The Africa that Chéri Samba defends in this triptych is the same one as in the “Ekomi popular painting.” It is an Africa beyond nation-states, but also a stereotypical and romantic Africa, lacking boundaries and lacking history. But as always Chéri Samba has the last laugh. He has signed a contract that everyone worries whether he’ll fulfill. But by the time we think we’ve pinned him down, he is elsewhere.

Manthia Diawara