Published: September 2013
Kinshasa, Urban Pulse of the Congo
In this chaotic capital, art is one way to survive.
By Robert Draper

Behold the artist. He emerges from a shed that is no bigger than a jail cell, though it is brightly painted and a sign above its door announces, Place de la Culture et des Arts. The artist lives here, works here. He is 32, with a Mohawk, gold earrings, oversize black-framed glasses, cowboy boots, a Dolce & Gabbana belt, and a flowing copper hooded silk shirt. His name is Dario, and he wishes to inform us, “I am the king of this neighborhood.”

The neighborhood in question is Matete: cramped, impoverished, rough, known for its athletes and its thieves. (Not so much for its fashion-conscious artists. Once, in another neighborhood, Dario was mugged and robbed of his fancy clothes, compelling him to take up boxing so he could defend himself.) Beside Dario’s shed, an elderly woman sits in the dust and sells piles of charcoal. Up the street sprawls a tangled market where vendors peddle hammers and bananas and cigarettes. Down the street a couple of policemen are attempting to restrain a distraught woman as she rips the clothes from her own body. We are in the quickening heart of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo—where metrics like per capita nutrition levels and water quality would suggest a near-death state of being. In fact, Kinshasa is all too alive.

“Step inside,” offers Dario. There’s no bed in the shed. Its walls are covered with Dario’s paintings, which are not what you would expect from the prancing and boastful fellow I first met at a sape contest, a gathering where male Kinois, as Kinshasa’s residents are known, strut the pricey threads they’ve managed to procure through everyday cunning. From this strange sea of impoverished poseurs, he had lunged out at me, pointing at himself and crowing, “Yohji Yamamoto pants! El Paso boots! My Kassamoto cap is worth 455 euros!” And so on, until it somehow came out that in addition to being a committed sapeur, or fashionista—“When I die, my clothes will be buried with me”—Dario had studied at Kinshasa’s Academy of Fine Arts. “I’ve been painting since I was ten,” he told me.

Dario’s paintings are irrepressible and dreamy and wistful all at once. They evoke cluttered street scenes and the solitary toil of daily life—a Sisyphean yet exuberant cityscape, one that has produced some of Africa’s greatest artists. Many of them—the painters Pierre Bodo and Chéri Samba, musicians Papa Wemba and Koffi Olomide, sculptors Bodys Isek Kingelez and Freddy Tsimba, to name a few—are known around the world. Dario himself may never be. Still, this is his life’s commitment, to find beauty in struggle. I ask him to paint something for me, and describe what I have in mind. We agree on a price, which includes a hundred dollars up front for painting supplies. I hand him the cash, which he discreetly tucks into a Bible on his shelf.

“I don’t have money,” he says. “But people like me are never discouraged. We’re fighters. We die with honor.”

Behold the city of art. Kinshasa seethes like primordial ooze across a 250-square-mile patch of tropics on the south bank of the Congo River. Some ten million live in what the Belgian colonizers once called Léopoldville, and each year another half million join Kinshasa’s population. How they will survive is anyone’s guess. The city is anything but a breadbasket: Even wheat for bread is imported from overseas, with the result that, according to one veteran Kinshasa-based aid adviser, “You can buy a calorie in America cheaper than they can here. This is one of the most malnourished populations in Africa, if not the world.” All of the city’s water comes from the Congo River and its tributaries, which is also where all of the city’s sewage goes. Only a few of Kinshasa’s roads are paved. Its schools are unaffordable for most Kinois. Despite its status as the capital city of the second largest country in all of Africa, Kinshasa is a marvel of dysfunction. Each of the government ministries has to be, as one U.S. official tactfully puts it, “basically self-financing”—meaning much of the money it has is generated by bribery and extortion. This is especially true of the police, who, says the aid adviser, “are one hundred percent on the take. Every one of them is an officer for one reason: to collect for himself.”

You would be right to expect anarchy from this collision of burgeoning poverty and state failure. But the West’s faith in institutions happens to be irrelevant in this slapdash confluence of metropolis and village. Nor is Kinshasa’s story the familiar African tale of woe, oppression, and no way out. Having first gained independence in 1960 from their Belgian colonizers, who left behind no governing capacity to speak of, and having then been deceived and plundered by the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, the Congolese have long since discarded expectations that their civil institutions and elected leaders will perform as promised. The miracle of Kinshasa is that it has not discarded hope along the way. On the contrary: This is a city of frenzied entrepreneurship, where everyone is a salesman of whatever merchandise comes along, an uncertified specialist—self-employed, self-styled—a creator amid chaos, an artist in a shed.

I sought out a local author who once wrote of his native city, “Kinshasa is a city where students do not study, workers do not work, ministers do not administrate.” The author’s name is Lye M. Yoka. He is the general director of the National Institute of the Arts, and he grinned when I read this quote back to him. “The strength of Kinshasa can be found in two places,” he told me. “The first is the melting pot: You find a mixture of all the tribes, and there is no friction between local tribes in the capital city.” There were wars between military leaders, he said, but “tribal communities have never suffered civil war.”

The second source of the city’s strength, he went on, is its “great creativity and improvisation. To the outsider the perception is chaos. For me it is not chaos at all. We’ve developed an informal system. And within this informal system, there’s an organization. We use what we have, and we negotiate everything.”

Yoka was, of course, describing the very nature of artistic sensibility. “Artists notoriously do not rely on government,” he said. “Their artistic activity becomes a way of withstanding their daily crisis, and also a means of dreaming. The bottom line is that passion motivates them to create—and passion has two meanings. It means to suffer, and it means enthusiasm.”

This is Kinshasa, city of art, where travail is muse.

I find Freddy Tsimba standing a few feet behind a corrugated metal door, using an oxyacetylene torch to weld a machete to a sculpture of a pregnant woman made entirely of spoons. Tsimba pays the street children of Kinshasa, the sheges, to find discarded spoons in the street and bring them to him. “They don’t know what I’m doing here—they just think I’m a crazy guy in the neighborhood who collects spoons,” he tells me. “We’ve got a lot of spoons [in Kinshasa], but unfortunately, nothing for them to eat.”

The sculpture, Tsimba explains to me, symbolizes the epidemic of rape in the eastern Congo. “You see the woman has her arm extended out,” he says. “She’s protecting the children inside. She’s fighting the soldier. She’s doing her best. The machete, of course, expresses power and violence.”

Machetes are all too easy to find in the Congo, I observe.

“Unfortunately, yes. Recently I found many, and the military stopped me, and I told them I was just using them for works of art. I said, ‘This is a message to convince people not to kill.’ Instead, they arrested me. We argued, and I think I finally convinced them, because they let me go. The government knows I’m a committed artist. The work I do doesn’t help the country’s image. If anything, it shows the government’s weakness.”

“Do people ever ask you why you don’t focus on more positive images?”

Laughing, Tsimba says, “The older artists—the ones who paint women with big butts dancing and people drinking—don’t approve. But the majority of Congolese are suffering, and that’s what I represent. I don’t wish to flatter the authorities. I prefer to focus on what’s real.”

The lithe and charming man with the Rastafarian mane ushers me down the dusty roads of Matonge, the neighborhood where he has lived for all of his 45 years. A few dusty sheges follow to see what the crazy spoon collector with the white guy is up to. We pass by a wide creek bed brimming with garbage. Tsimba stops at a metal door, unlocks it, and takes me inside his warehouse. Inside are perhaps 50 other sculptures: some pregnant, many with their legs spread and their hands against the wall. An underworld of gleaming victims made out of spoons, machetes, and bullets.

“I met an eastern Congo woman here in 1998, a pregnant rape victim,” Tsimba tells me. “I asked her if she would keep the kid. She said, ‘Yes, he’s innocent.’ This became my inspiration. I showed her the sculpture when I was done. She was excited, even delighted, that someone was telling this to the world. She said, ‘Yes, this is how I suffered.’ I sold the sculpture and used the money to pay for the hospital and for clothes, so that she and her baby could go back to Goma.”

Since that time, Freddy Tsimba’s sculptures have been exhibited across Africa and Europe, in China, in Washington, D.C. He was recently given an artist’s residency by the authorities in Strasbourg, where he erected a 20-foot-tall structure memorializing Alsace’s many recent eastern European refugees. The proceeds cover his welding-torch fuel, his warehouse, the spoons, and the discarded weaponry.

In other countries an artist of Tsimba’s searing humanity would garner fellowship after grant after honorary professorship. Mobutu, for all his kleptocracy, was highly supportive of Kinshasa’s artists, especially those who propagandized on his behalf. But the dictator’s successors, Laurent Kabila (who overthrew Mobutu in 1997) and Joseph Kabila (who replaced his father after his assassination in 2001), have offered only indifference. The purpose of the government’s art ministry is a source of ongoing puzzlement. Kinshasa’s two arts schools are in great part funded by tuition from the students’ parents. “There’s a lack of vision on the part of the government,” says Joseph Ibongo Gilungula, the director of the National Museums of Congo in Kinshasa. With a despairing laugh, he refers to the museum of which he is custodian: “How else do you explain the fact that here we have 40,000 pieces of fine art just locked up in a warehouse?”

And so to become an artist like Tsimba, you do what any Kinois would do. You accept that your government is there only to take, not to give. You improvise. You throw yourself into the pursuit of art with such conviction that your parents are persuaded to send you to the Academy of Fine Arts (where you later meet a persistent kid named Dario, who shows promise with a paintbrush). You learn the craft of welding by hanging out with metal artisans who’ve surreptitiously taken up residency in a former auto parts factory that went bankrupt. You find your material and your inspiration from the streets. What money you make, you make from wealthy clients outside the Congo. You live each day by your wits, by self-reliance, in a turbulent mélange of urban Darwinism and tribal provincialism where the kind of artistic risks taken by a Freddy Tsimba may invite misinterpretation. “The work I’m doing, some people connect it to evil,” he acknowledges. “They think my art is devil-like. My own relatives think I’m a witch. I don’t eat with my extended family anymore, because I’m afraid they’ll try to poison me.”

Communing with the spirits, to the Kinois, is a source of devilry but also of strength—the elixir stirring their shadow economy, the wild card on which a struggling soul’s luck can turn at a moment’s notice. I’ve read this many times, that Kinois believe that the spirits of the dead can alter one’s life. I feel it for the first time one night in the Matonge neighborhood, the stronghold of Kinshasa’s music scene.

The internationally renowned rumba star Papa Wemba, who hails from Matonge, is properly swarmed by the locals whenever he returns in his natty suit with a fat cigar jutting from his mouth. At night the streets of Matonge erupt with disembodied melodies and ecstatic clubgoers. Passing by the cramped little venues, you hear a torrent of drumbeats, rocketing harmonies—and, of course, the languid sensuality of rumba, which made its improbable journey to Kinshasa from Cuba in the 1930s and ’40s via West African sailors and Caribbean laborers and records sold by European merchants, and was instantly seized upon by the colonized Kinois as a rhythm after their own heart.

One evening I meet Tsimba at a Matonge club called La Porte Rouge to see the house band, Basokin. The club is a garage, illuminated by a string of four dangling lightbulbs, with a car parked inside, leaving only enough room for a makeshift stage and a half dozen plastic tables. Vendors shuffle in to sell Congolese beer, grilled beef brochettes, and cups of peanuts whose shells litter the concrete floor. The band members, all male, file onstage: three vocalists, two electric guitarists, one bass guitarist, three tom-tom players, and a percussionist who diligently raps a drumstick against an empty beer bottle throughout the performance. Through a grungy and reverb-heavy sound system, the music commences at a slow trot with soft drumbeats and a loopy guitar riff. The lead singer, a middle-aged man in a faux-silk shirt who calls himself Mi Amor, bellows out a few syllables. Then the other two vocalists punch their way in—a distinctly guttural and polyphonic harmony from the Songye ethnic group, from which the band’s name originates. The song ambles on: the singer forcefully sermonizing, the drumbeats gaining power, the guitar loop corkscrewing ever tighter, an almost imperceptible building of intensity. So it goes for eight minutes until, from somewhere behind the parked car, dancers materialize and head slowly toward the stage.

There are four of them, all women, all young, all barefoot. Tonight they are dressed in simple skirts and tank tops; later that week, when I return to La Porte Rouge with the crazed fervor of a celebrity stalker, they are clad in brilliant yellow-and-red tribal dresses. The singers have now receded into a chanting and grunting support role, while the dancers whirl, swirling into the swirling whirl of a guitar improvisation that has assumed a mad wall-of-sound gallop. Heeding the locomotion of the drums, the young women stand before the audience and proceed to simulate a rhythmic hybrid of sex and childbirth: from the waist down, laboring in unfathomable motion; from the neck up, utterly trancelike. The audience, Freddy Tsimba and myself included, is locked in what feels like a state of shared hallucination.

One of the percussionists begins to beat on a tall instrument that, I later learn, is called an etumba, a drum that emits a bell-like tone. Another drummer leaps to the front of the stage and batters away at his tom-tom with Keith Moon-like fury while blowing on a whistle. The two backup singers maintain a stuttering chant over Mi Amor’s gusting vocals. The dancers grind on, slick with sweat. The young woman in the center has her eyes closed, her mouth slack with surrender, her hands extended in offering.

And then, suddenly, the lights go out and the guitars fall silent. The generator providing the electricity for La Porte Rouge has sucked up its last drop of gas. Basokin disappears into darkness, while someone grabs a plastic container and runs down the street to fetch more fuel. A half hour later the nightclub is alight, the band returns to the stage with stoic composure, and a new 20-minute spiral of sound and motion fills the garage and, I find myself believing, the city beyond.

A few days later I meet the singer Mi Amor for a beer in Matonge. The streets are tame in the sunlight, and the band leader is, like Freddy Tsimba, both amiable and gravely earnest about his art. He tells me that Basokin has performed together for 30 years. Two of the dancers are daughters of the musicians. Since 1987 Basokin has played at La Porte Rouge every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Mi Amor and one of the other members have government jobs; the rest, he explained to me, “work in the informal structure,” which is to say that like the vast majority of Kinois, they scrape by however they can, including on tips from the audience.

The pressure to survive as an artist in Kinshasa has compelled even famous musicians like Papa Wemba to accept corporate sponsors and insert commercial jingles into their repertoire. (In the case of Papa Wemba: “Drink Mützig beer!”) Basokin has resisted such impulses. “The band members are all from the tribes that represent Songye culture, and what we try to do is preserve basic folk traditions,” Mi Amor tells me. “Folk songs are static, not dynamic. We replace a few words, and we replace a traditional instrument like the xylophone with a modern one like the guitar. But our songs talk about returning to the traditional values that we’re losing. For example, one of the songs you heard us play talks about a poor man, and how you shouldn’t mock him for his poverty, because you can never tell where he’ll be tomorrow. We are all granted wealth, each person in his own time.”

The music itself, the singer tells me, is intended to evoke the supernatural—the bedrock of Songye spirituality, replete with sorcery and veneration of the dead. “When the dancers join in, and we’re improvising, it’s a mix of forces,” he says. “We’re addressing ourselves to the deceased Songye elders. It’s as if we’re back in our villages, talking to the people in the world of the dead, and they’re listening.”

A Belgian music producer and manager, Michel Winter, has been to Kinshasa numerous times and plucked from obscurity remarkable acts such as Konono No. 1 (a band that employs in its music an electronic version of the traditional thumb piano known as the likembe) and Staff Benda Bilili (a group featuring several paraplegic street singers that became an international sensation and that spawned an engaging offshoot band of physically challenged musicians called Handi-Folk). Winter discovered Basokin back in 2002 and has since toured the band throughout Europe. “For me, Basokin is just incredible, hypnotic,” Winter says. “They make no money, and they show a lot of courage playing three times a week. Kinshasa is full of crazy dreamers like Basokin and Staff—rehearsing and rehearsing day after day. I think there is no other place on Earth like that.”

The problem, says Winter, is how to convey to a wider audience the primal intensity Freddy Tsimba and I witnessed at La Porte Rouge. “I don’t know how you can reproduce the impact you feel when you’re there on a clean and pure recording system,” he sighs. “I don’t know the solution. I just know that we need to get them on a recording before it’s too late.”

It is possible to overly rhapsodize the city’s magic—to conjure up Kinshasa, as Yoka does, as “sexy and unpredictable, like a woman,” as a landscape of “breakers of stones and artists of struggle, who confront misfortune with a smile, taking it in their own style—that is, with humor and satire.” But the author admits that the “informal system” is far from an ideal one. “I’m not apologizing for our city,” he says. “We’re in the modern era, and there are modern standards we need to adapt to.”

Because the raw and rich tableau of Kinshasa’s compulsive entrepreneurship can quickly darken. These things happened to me and could just as easily happen to you: You will be in an SUV driving through Matonge, and suddenly a man will jump onto the running board of your car. He will bang on the window. He will say that your car sideswiped his and that he demands immediate compensation. Your guide will deny this and accelerate the vehicle. The man will hang on, mile after mile, until a traffic cop witnesses the situation and signals for you to pull over—and will also demand money. If your guide does not happen to have the cell number of the chief of police, as ours did, then you will spend the next several hours in a state of detention until you agree to cough up sufficient money to ensure your freedom.

Or: You are driving at dusk to the outlying neighborhood of Ndjili to see a band. The pavement has given out to badly pocked dirt thoroughfares. Then all traffic stops. Somebody’s car has stalled. And now every vehicle turns sideways, trying to find a way out, thereby sealing any way out, and all sense of order disintegrates into a pulsing, unpoliced hell. Passengers leak out of the dingy commuter buses and swarm the roads. Mothers cradling infants. Dogs. Bodies and dust engulf all light. Horns blast. Men shout and pound their fists against cars like yours. You are swallowed up by the ten million and growing, and there is no escape.

Somehow you do escape, because you’re lucky and can afford a skilled driver. You’re not one of the tens of thousands of street children, many thrown out by parents who decided that their ill luck as Kinois must be due to the presence of witchcraft in the household. “In traditional societies, whenever a kid loses his parents, automatically he’s taken in by others in the extended family,” says Henry Bundjoko Banyata, a Kinshasa-based art history professor who as a 12-year-old boy in his rural birthplace was ritually initiated to practice tribal medicine—what we think of as a healer. “But ever since the economic meltdown of Kinshasa which began under Mobutu, some families, due to lack of means, got rid of their kids. Or the families joined a church for protection against evil forces, and the pastor at the church confirmed that these kids were sorcerers. In the village you don’t find such practices. It’s like respect for elders and for the environment—they’re neglected here as well. In the city we’ve lost such values.”

Behold the city reimagined. Its gateway is a multicolored wheel. Beyond the wheel stretches a ribbonlike boulevard that crosses a Garden of Eden and concludes at a metropolis jutting out of a large body of water. The skyscrapers are bright and fantastically proportioned, a cross between Dubai and Legoland. Some of the buildings bear the emblem of a commercial product like toothpaste or beer; others, a place: Libya, U.S.A., Himalaya. The city is spotless, fiercely original. Also completely uninhabited.

The creator of the intricate cardboard-and-Plexiglas model city is Bodys Isek Kingelez. He looms over it, a bantamlike, middle-aged Kinois dressed entirely in red, from his sunglasses to his leather shoes. “Why don’t we build on water? There’s lots of space! It’s because we are afraid,” the artist declares. “Architects and builders worldwide can try to learn from my perception so as to help the forthcoming generations. I’m dreaming cities of peace. As a self-made intellectual, I haven’t yet reached the point I wish to reach. I’d like to help the Earth above all. Voilà.”

To be in the presence of the reclusive artist and his carnival-like models is to understand that he is not really compelled by altruism. Instead, he embodies the human audacity to reorder and wholly reinvent. To be God, as Kingelez himself observes: “When God created the world, it was Solomon who created the first great buildings. Today I’m just following God’s creation. I never sketch first. Academicians draw. I’m a creator. I rely on my vision.”

The vision came to him, the artist says, in 1979, while he was teaching economics in Kinshasa. “I had a revelation—it was like I was ill,” he recalls. “The voice said, ‘You have much to do. Find scissors, glue, and paper.’ I asked, ‘What can I do with these?’ The spirit told me, ‘Simply begin. You will see.’ I stayed at home with nothing to eat. The small model was finished in two weeks. Someone from my family came to visit and saw it. He said, ‘You must sell it!’”

He has been exhibiting and selling his models across Europe and the U.S. ever since. Today the great Kingelez lives in a walled compound, though he claims to own 30 houses scattered throughout the city. He keeps five cars in his garage; two of them serve as storage for his deconstructed models. His house is small, and one room is devoted to the $30,000 worth of Plexiglas and other art supplies he has imported from Europe. The house is otherwise filled with dozens of suitcases containing his multitude of clothes. “I wear the same clothes only once every six months,” he explains. “The shirt, jacket, and shoes need to be harmonious. For me, being well dressed is part of the human power. Sometimes my wife feels like we’re suffocating with all these suitcases. Women are weak creatures. The logic I was born with is sometimes difficult for others. Even my children stay inside the compound and don’t go out. The people around here say, ‘Why are they living like white people, never going out into the streets?’ But Europeans who visit, they feel at home here in my compound. They tell me, ‘You’re as white as we are.’”

He is a fervid admirer of the U.S. “The American President, the first thing he does is put his hand on the Bible, and his first pledge is ‘so help me God,’ not ‘so help me man.’” Kingelez notes. “This is why Americans are unique. They will never be stopped, in the way a river can never be stopped. I’d like to finish my life there, to make America stronger still.” Correspondingly, Kingelez is appalled by Kinshasa, the city he lives in but had no part in constructing. “It’s a city full of musicians who chase the ladies but don’t do anything for the benefit of society,” he says. “This is why the Congo will stay poor. I deeply detest all this noise, this music. You can’t think about the future when this loud music is playing. If you spend all night shouting and jumping and dancing, in the morning you won’t be able to do anything of value.”

Kingelez’s low regard for the decadence of Kinshasa is no doubt exacerbated by the city’s disregard of him. “Here in Kinshasa, I’ve never done any exhibition,” he observes. “Let me tell you, no one knows who I am or what I do. Two weeks ago I was very sick, and I was about to die in front of my wife. No one in Kinshasa would have known. Nothing on the radio or TV or the newspapers. That’s the way it goes in the Congo.”

Behind his imperial scowl, an ample ego bleeds a little. Still, Bodys Isek Kingelez has it wrong. He is not a displaced American. He is not distinct from his city. He is, if anything, quintessentially Kinois—and indeed the city’s culmination: An African Picasso of such brazen optimism that he needs no one, nothing, only his inhuman determination along with the human detritus of paper and plastic to construct his heaven on Earth, his model kingdom. He is King! He is Kingelez! He is Kinshasa!

Inside his artist’s shed, Dario holds up the painting I’ve commissioned. It is a wood-framed portrait of my dog, Bill—a creditable rendition (including the one ice-blue eye), with some unusual flourishes: Bill appears to be standing on the banks of the Congo River, and seashells are glued to the surface of the water.

“I painted it at nights, when I was alone,” Dario says. “That’s when God provides inspiration to artists. He lays his divine hand on us at night.”

I pay him the balance, but Dario is not through with me yet. Another surprise awaits, and he leads me there, sashaying in his cowboy boots down the gritty, sweltering catwalk of the Matete market, with children once again falling in behind the self-anointed king of the neighborhood. He comes to a halt at a metal door, knocks. A large Congolese woman wearing gold hoop earrings and an NYPD cap lets us in. Now we’re on a verdant little patio. Two acoustic guitarists and two drummers are in mid-song. Dario, it turns out, is also a musician, and this is his band.

“I dedicate this song to the Congo,” he announces to the patio, “where there is war and suffering and starvation. My country.” And as the music churns, Dario proceeds to chant, “Africa is a sun pointed upside down”—the artist uninhibited, undaunted, and for all we know, unstoppable.

Writer Robert Draper and photographer Pascal Maitre often report together from Africa. Their next story will take us inland along the Congo River.