A conversation with Jean Katambayi Mukendi

Published on: 20.07.2022
Images by Kristof Vrancken
Interview by Ils Huygens reading time: 6 minutes

Artist Jean Katambayi, as a member of the On-Trade-Off collective, shows new creative works in the exhibition Charging Myths. Ils Huygens interviews him about his work, about Picha in Lubumbashi and about his aspirations for a new equilibrium in the world.

A striking aspect of this exhibition is that the works are created by an artists collective, On-Trade-Off, rather than by individual artists. You work with a steady group of artists but also form alliances with producers, academics and institutions around a central theme, the planned lithium extraction in Manono.

You have worked and presented your work in many international contexts already. Is working in a collective such as the On-Trade-Off group different?

What I appreciate in working as a collective is particularly the power of shared knowledge, but also the importance of clear communication. Everyone shares their own knowledge and develops the central concern of extraction and postcolonial trade from their own vantage point. The exchange of knowledge and the international network are big assets, for me as artist as well as for Picha.

The exchange of knowledge and the international network are big assets for me

Jean Katambayi Mukendi

Picha is the art organization in Lubumbashi of which you also serve as co-director and which instigated the On-Trade-Off project. What, exactly, does Picha do and which role, in your view, does it have in Lubumbashi?

Picha organizes among other things the Biennale of Lubumbashi. In addition, we invite artists and experts, do workshops and teach people artistic skills or how they can work autonomously as an artist. We consider our work as a form of education, but also as a form of resilience.

We can sponsor projects especially thanks to foreign funding and our international network, since the Congolese government does not put culture high on its agenda. The government allocates little unchecked budget to the cultural and artistic sector. But what matters is to have the courage to invest in human power. What Picha does should actually be part of the university of Lubumbashi, but for the time being it has no advanced curriculum in the arts. As long as this is the case, we will take on this role.

The Biennale is a very important element of that effort. It represents a moment for inviting and meeting people, but it also allows us to develop contacts abroad. For this same reason, this exhibition in Z33, here in Belgium, is also greatly important.

Can you say more about the story behind the drawing you show in this exhibition, the M13, a drawing of an impossible bolt having 13 sides in combination with mathematical formulas?

When we first came to Manono, we saw huge rusty metal parts lying around everywhere, as the remnants, the ghosts, of the former cassiterite industry. Manono is a big open-air museum, so to speak. I made this M13 for this imaginary museum.

The M refers to the universal sizes of bolts. Mostly the size is something like M6 or M14. The M13 is an imaginary screw, which does not fit any standard system but represents sustainability. I wanted to make something beyond the standard, in order thus to ask whether history would repeat itself. Will this history repeat itself? And why is it such a sad history?

Right on the wall: the M13

This work is also about autonomy?

We do not teach our children enough about what autonomy is, how to achieve it. The common school curriculum teaches us skills and knowledge, but subsequently we put these at the service of something else or someone else. And this also translates to the larger system in Congo. People come and go, they appropriate things and become rich but do not leave anything behind for the local population to build on.

Today we send our children to schools of architecture, but all the actual construction is done by Indians, Chinese. Why are we merely found at the production lines of factories? History repeats itself; we fail to let our children gain a sense of autonomy.

In his film, Hercule de Lubumbashi, also on view at this expo, Dorine Mokha speaks about your generation as the last of ‘les enfants de Gécamines’. During or right after your childhood days, the large Gécamines factory and its interrelated social system in Lubumbashi basically came to a standstill. How did you experience this?

Things suddenly stopped, but nothing disappeared. Many of the former houses of Gécamines, as well as parts of the factory buildings, are now in the hands of private investors. The district lost its cohesion, the factory is in ruins.

But those private investors do have a lot of money. This means they are capable of quickly putting in infrastructure, while the local population continues to live next to the site in their dilapidated homes. The state fails to organize things. Everything is bought up by private parties, but they subsequently privatize public utilities as well, such as access to energy or water.

People come and go, they appropriate things and become rich but do not leave anything behind for the local population to build on.

Jean Katambayi Mukendi

You have often been in Belgium and you also visited the mining regions here. What are differences or similarities in your view?

To me it is a matter of nuances. There is a politics here to reconfigure the infrastructure and the image of the mining sites as museum, as heritage. This is of course a large difference. At the same time, many of the same issues are at work, the dire labour conditions underground, the stress… This is precisely the concern Alain Nsenga tries to pursue in his work by zooming in on the stories of the miners.

The work of Alain Nsenga in Charging Myths

Can you also tell us something about the machine you constructed for this expo, the Concentrator, also a machine which originated in the mining industry?

There is a common language we developed between Belgium and Congo. One example is the term ‘Be careful’ (‘Pas op’). We would hear that phrase continuously, ‘Pas op, pas op’. It is an expression we took over in Swahili, one coming straight from the factories.

In those factories you would find machines which were like gods. You had to handle them very carefully. Those machines were not allowed to break down, for they were necessary for earning profits. Whenever there was a break-down, everyone in the neighbourhood knew about it, and all engineers in Belgium would receive a phone call. One of those ‘gods-machines’ was the Concentrator. I never saw it myself, but its name fired my imagination. It is something that concentrates, but what does it concentrate? It is actually a machine that has to separate the minerals from the residue and various impurities. I do not exactly know what it is, but it fascinates me, as well as the interrelated mythology of ‘pas op’.

The machines must continue to run always, so there has to be electricity for the factory, while the same does not apply for the nearby neighbourhoods. One line, then, is absent from that triangle.

The Concentrator in Charging Myths
The Concentrator in Charging Myths

This is also an important element of your work, to reflect on the missing link?

Of course. If a worker works in a factory that uses a lot of electricity, while at home he has none, something is wrong in a fundamental way. Those imaginary speculative machines serve as a way, for me as artist, to bring those discussions to the table. This is why algorithmic thinking is so important to me. It is an abstract aspect that I integrate into my own work in a very concrete manner.

Jean Katambayi Mukendi in Z33

In the Concentrator, just like in many of your works, we see the principle of balance and imbalance return. From whence this recurring metaphor?

When something is out of balance, you have to change the balance, push it into a new direction. This is in the DNA of my work. I show balance based on symmetry, gravitation. It is something that’s physically present in the machines which inspire me, but to me it is also about the transformation of a discourse, [be it] political, economic or educational.

It can be hard sometimes to move into a new direction, but this is acceptable; there is no weight without counterweight, after all. In the realm of education, for instance, we evolve and progress all the time and yet our society does not sufficiently benefit from that. The gap between rich and poor persists. There is a discontinuity, an imbalance. In my work I try to repair that circuitry. Yet resistance is a beautiful thing as well. It is disturbing, but beautiful.

And this applies not only to art, but also to everyday life. When I talk with you or with my colleagues of On-Trade-Off, I know that we agree on many points, but whenever I talk with mothers, teachers or priests it often happens that we are not in accordance with each other. And they are precisely the ones who make the machine function.

It can be hard sometimes to move into a new direction, but this is acceptable; there is no weight without counterweight, after all.

Jean Katambayi Mukendi

Is this why often you also work with salvaged and recycled materials like cardboard or copper?  

It is as if my soul says no to my searching for precious materials, [telling me] to remain faithful to my own theory. If education is important, it is always possible for you to start working with the materials available to you. Do what you can do by starting from the situation you’re in. You do not so much give shape to your work; you give shape to yourself.

It is not because you don’t have a well-equipped lab that you cannot do any research. I do research with a pen, paper and my brain. This enables me to go as far as Planet Mars. All I need, after all, I can find inside of me or in my immediate surroundings. I have no need for a laboratory. Even more, a laboratory comes with the risk of blinding you, while it will also push your research towards a certain perspective. There is less freedom.

My mother worked as a typist, and she regularly took home sheets of paper. In this way, as a child, I became expert at cutting paper and cardboard. My father taught me about the DNA of electricity and now I mix these two elements, without having needed any special education for it. Human energy suffices when it comes to making art.

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