New York

Jean Katambayi Mukendi, Covid 10 Afrolampe X Cyclone Avril 2020 13h34, 2020, pen on paper, 39 1/2 × 27 1/2". From the series “Afrolampe,” 2016–.

Jean Katambayi Mukendi, Covid 10 Afrolampe X Cyclone Avril 2020 13h34, 2020, pen on paper, 39 1/2 × 27 1/2". From the series “Afrolampe,” 2016–.

Jean Katambayi Mukendi

Ramiken #7

“Geometric acrobatics characterize our lines of thought,” writes Jean Katambayi Mukendi. “In order to get to the end of a process of thought or emotion, one could resort to revolution, translation, dilation, parabolas, hyperbolas, ellipses, straight lines, parallels, points, sequences, static, dynamic, recurrence, accumulation, and traces.” The Congolese artist’s solo show at Ramiken—his first in the United States—followed a similarly meandering path. Mukendi was set to begin a summer residency at the gallery’s warehouse space in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he was to construct in situ assemblages and sculptures, surrounded by panoramic views of a working recycling plant and, beyond it, the Manhattan skyline. Prohibited from leaving the Democratic Republic of the Congo because of the pandemic, he instead sent twelve large-format drawings from his “Afro-lampe” series, 2016–.

Made during the lockdown in the artist’s home city of Lubumbashi, each work is a diagrammatic depiction of a chimerical lightbulb, exactingly rendered in black ballpoint pen on gridded paper with the assistance of a ruler and a compass. A knotted cord, somehow both elegant and intestinal, snakes out of twin prongs in Afrolampe XI Accord Avril 2020 23h00 (all works 2020). In Covid 52 Afrolampe XXXIII Processus Juillet 2020 12h, a lantern’s glass globe encapsulates an amoeba-like form, while in Covid 10 Afrolampe X Cyclone Avril 2020 13h34, a similar sort of chamber ensnares a hypnotic spiral. At first glance, these nonfunctional yet coded apparatuses recall the famous mechanical portraits Francis Picabia made a little more than a century ago, with their randy innuendos and playful fetishizing of American industry. But Mukendi isn’t so concerned with the frisson of the machine, or with the kinds of shocks new technologies supposedly administered to the bourgeois sensorium. Rather, the arcane circuitry of the “Afrolampe” series obliquely suggests the machinations of global capital—veiled in an abstraction far more violent and nefarious than Mukendi’s—which produce uneven development and neocolonial dependence on local and hemispheric scales.

An electrical engineer by training, Mukendi studied mathematics before making art, and the filaments and wires that pervade these drawings refer to the raw materials unearthed in Lubumbashi, the DRC’s mining capital and a hub for some of the world’s largest copper and cobalt interests. These raw materials are used to power the world, even as Lubumbashi’s residents suffer regular blackouts. As the artist puts it plainly in the otherwise dense, philosophical texts that accompany his images, “This is why afrolamps exist, [to indicate] that the African continent still has trouble controlling its economy and vital energies.”

Mukendi’s lightbulb, like Marx’s commodity, sparks associations both grotesque and wonderful. In Covid 58 Afrolampe XL Fiction Juillet 2020 16h30, the bulb shape-shifts into a complex of fantastic monuments; in Covid 20 Afrolampe XVIII Cosmique Avril 2020 21h05, it becomes an elevation plan of Notre Dame Cathedral (the artist reimagines the edifice’s destroyed spire as an “antenna that could show or hide over time”). Meanwhile, Covid 56 Afrolampe XXXVII Mutation Juil 2020 2h30, reveals a “half-dinosaur wasp” that “will try to bring back the memory of cohabitation” with nature. A schematic of a circuitous plumbing system in Covid 44 Afrolampe XXIX Standard Mai 2020 2h30—an indictment of corrupt governments that fail to provide “access to water and electricity” to their constituents—also heralds an accelerationist “future in which different food and nonfood products will pass through stainless pipes into the households of the subscribers.”

A lightbulb, of course, is a clichéd symbol of epiphany and ingenious innovation. Yet in Mukendi’s hands it ceases to operate as a source of illumination and transparency and instead becomes a conduit that allows us to ponder the obscurity of the Gordian networks we plug into every day. “After all the theories that were developed around the world,” he writes, “the world is still in the dark when it comes to its history, its reflections and claims.”