photos by: A.W. Itambo & R. Barret
Contemporary art, when done right, has no rules. It’s pretty much detached from any kind of categories as well. It’s a free-floating beast with a healthy disregard for any kind of classic value system. It’s about finding your very own voice regardless of what people think of it. Pretty much the same things can be said about activism, right? Now, combine these ideas about contemporary art and activism, and you’re pretty close to getting an idea on why Kinshasa’s street art scene feels so urgent, vibrant and overall spectacular.
Garbage. Machetes. Wax. Scrapped electronic parts. Bullet casings. Dirt. Paint. Fire. Blood. “Système K”, the latest documentary from acclaimed filmmaker Renaud Barret, follows a dozen local artists through the trash-lined streets of the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, showcasing their thought-provoking work and performances that will not only put Kinshasa’s street art scene on the map - but the medium itself on a different level. The portrayed artists go by street-names like Kongo Astronaut, Majestic or Strombo, fearless performers that use their often disturbing acts and installations to protest against the alarming circumstances their coup d’état-plagued country gives birth to on a daily basis. Lodown had the opportunity to throw a few questions in Monsieur Barret’s direction after the world premiere of “Système K“ at this year’s Berlinale.
You’ve realized the very majority of your films in Kinshasa... what made you fall in love with this city in particular?
I had the opportunity to visit Kinshasa for the first time in 2003, and it was a major shock. This encounter instantly changed my life... I fell in love with the vibrant humanity and the amazing creativity of this city - even though a lot of it was driven by the basic need for survival. In Kinshasa art is everywhere, the same with music, and there are basically no limits to creative experiments. I decided to settle there, open my eyes and ears and do something meaningful with my life. I became a director thanks to Kinshasa and its artists because I wanted to transmit the energy I felt. What I love the most is that I still don’t know anything about this city, regardless of how much time I’ve spent there. Kinshasa remains a true mystery to me.
How do the local artists perceive your presence on site and your willingness to showcase their vision to the world?
After 15 years on the street I imagine that I’ve become part of the cultural landscape by now. I’ve been casting and filming almost everywhere in the city. Most importantly, local artists don’t mistake me for a journalist, they know that I’m not going to betray their vision or impose mine instead. They know my filming is a slow, long-term immersion process in which I always try my very best to stay invisible.
These days, quite a few artists are aware of the previous movies I did... and the good things that occurred to the people who were in these movies. This gives me a sort of legitimacy and helps me a great deal when I start to work on a new project. People are eager to follow me in many crazy directions now.
I’m actually curious if your films are also shown in DRC... or are they banned because of the very critical point of view of most artists?
So far, my films have been shown freely in DRC on TV - Congolese censorship doesn’t care about what you do as long as you don’t mention names of the politicians in charge. Rightfully so, the characters portrayed in “Système K” would protest against a global system because they are well aware that their presidents, even the worst, are only puppets in the hand of foreign mining companies. The contemporary artists introduced in the film are true rebels in a very conservative society - but their protests are more like coded messages than frontal attacks.
I found it fascinating to see that street art/urban art in Kinshasa is strongly connected to performance art... why is that in your opinion? I can imagine it’s definitely not too safe for artists to perform since the audience is sometimes really frightened.
Living and surviving in Kinshasa is a performance in itself. In the streets, the population has no option but to constantly create the conditions of its own survival. Each day, when you walk the streets, you'll meet hundreds of natural performers or spontaneous ready-made creators - the distance between art and real life is so very blurred in Kinshasa. The new generation of artists is deeply anchored in this reality of the city. They don’t work in secluded studios but directly on the streets, sometimes they’d just eat once a day. Kinshasa is a major inspiration for their work. That’s why they want to give it back to the street, exposing themselves in the ghetto to an audience that is mostly uneducated. So the body is a natural and direct way for the artists to express their anger and to pass messages to the people... plus it’s free.
The reactions of the population/audience is sometimes extreme, as the culture of fear still prevails in the general mentality. Many artists are called “witches” - by far the worst revilement in Kinshasa - and sometimes they get arrested by the police and heavily beaten up. Performers over there truly put their bodies in danger.
Would you say that you’re part of the local community by now?
I guess I am well accepted... like anyone who would live and work for more than a decade in the same city. I’ve learnt Lingala and can understand what’s going on - that’s a great privilege in fact! Let’s say that I’ve became a Kinois in Kinshasa, just like a Congolese who’d spend ten years in Paris would become a Parisian.
But one of the big differences is that if I got dangerously sick in Kinshasa, I can still get treated abroad, while my friends from the ghetto are locked inside and left dying. That’s why I’m not a full part of the local community: I don’t share the daily dose of suffering of Kinshasa like most locals.
Système K / documentary / directed by Renaud Barret / France 2019 / 94 minutes