The world was reborn in Kinshasa’s nuclear reactors. While the United Nations sorted through the world’s fractured postwar landscape, Belgium — believing it would hold onto its colonies — began construction of its nuclear facilities in the Congo’s capital city in 1958. Two years later, the country had won its independence and the keys to Africa’s only nuclear reactor. Artist Bodys Isek Kingelez was only 12 at the time; the vision of an African continent firmly in African hands still looked like a beautiful pipe dream.
Today, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has fallen into a state of woeful disrepair, besieged by civil war and violence. Somewhat sequestered from the region’s violence, Kinshasa now functions somewhat like an autonomous zone, while its nuclear reactor is now in tatters. Currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams captures the unflagging optimism that the Congolese artist had for his country, before dying in 2015. It is the museum’s first solo exhibition of an African artist. Expertly curated by Sarah Suzuki, it surveys Kingelez’s vibrantly celebratory “extreme maquettes” as intricate visualizations of an Afrofuturist utopia just beyond the horizon.
Even when considered under the shadow of his country’s collapse, there is something so unassailably aspirational about the artist’s work that it transcends the importance of any one nation. In fact, Kingelez once wrote that “without a model, you are nowhere. A nation that can’t make models is a nation that doesn’t understand things, a nation that doesn’t live,” according to the exhibition’s catalogue. Looking at his models, one gets the sense that he was speaking to the world. His work directly addresses the problems of rapid urbanization and the sudden advent of megacities in developing countries. Urban planning and infrastructure, the scourge of economic inequity and society dysfunction: these were just some of his targets.
A keen observer of international politics, Kingelez creates sculptures that often appeared to comment on or coincide with current events. Ostensibly constructed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations’ founding, “U.N.” (1995) is a brash redesign of the organization’s modernist headquarters in New York. Star-spangled in blue and purple, the artist’s structure foregoes rectilinear geometries in favor of more circular swivel shapes. Its celebratory mood brings to mind another major event in the United Nations’ history from 1995. That year the UN convened its Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing — the very same conference at which then-First Lady Hillary Clinton gave her famous “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights” speech.
Because of the general backlash against globalization today, we easily forget how transformative the ideology was for the socioeconomics of the 1990s. As a child of the 1990s, I remember the cartoon depictions of world peace in virtually every classroom, in which smiling children from different nations encircled the Earth, hand-in-hand. Kingelez captures that same image of global citizenship, but on an adult level. There is nothing geo-distinctive about his cities. Instead, they recall Italo Calvino’s novel, Invisible Cities, which sews together fragments of other locales with a fantastical visual vocabulary. Peer into “Ville Fantôme” (1996) and you’ll find a swirl of English and French, tall industrial skyscrapers and too-elegant carparks, pinwheel gardens, and firework plazas. Curiously, one building here is labeled, “SEOUL.” Small details like this are what constantly draw me back to Kingelez’s work when thinking about the future of cities. Although he may have never visited South Korea, an image of the city (or at the very least, a concept of it) occupied his mind. By integrating the real with the imagined, Kingelez works toward a topography of unity, a world without boundaries.
For the exhibition, MoMA has included a virtual reality experience that allows visitors to explore “Ville Fantôme” firsthand. Created in collaboration with German artist Carsten Höller, the VR component is a logical extension of Kingelez’s detailed designs. (Thankfully, Höller understands his materials very well; he has previously curated Kingelez’s work.) Höller translates Kingelez’s exuberance into a quirky video game aesthetic, which essentially functions as a point-and-click adventure.
If he were still alive, I imagine that Kingelez would have been tickled by this idiosyncratic way to view his sculptures. For almost a decade at the beginning of his career, he supported himself by teaching secondary school. (He also restored old tribal masks at Kinshasa’s National Museum.) And as any good teacher knows, humor is the best way to cut through didacticism.
Encompassing the lighthearted nature of Kingelez’s work, “Canada Dry” (1991) plays with the extremities of aspirational design while spoofing the famous ginger ale brand. Although the artist introduces comedy elsewhere through the use of recycled materials (e.g., Coca-Cola cans stacked alongside a model skyscraper), here he seems to go out of his way to make a particularly delightful spectacle. Taking shape as a roadside motel, “Canada Dry” contains a large Canadian flag and — why not? — a cardboard cut-out of a peacock. (A strange detail, although Vancouver is currently experiencing a feral peacock problem.)
Nearby, the museum includes a facsimile of a handwritten note by Kingelez describing “Canada Dry” in orgiastic terms. “The kingdom of Golf … friend of folklore … very advanced Gastronomy … CANADA DRY, land of leisure, shows an escalation of original adventure, and conveys the rather remarkable power of knowledge, to the point of bringing humanity to its rendezvous with twenty-first-century modern construction.” If only the future, like ginger ale, could be so effervescent.