By Dr. Chris Spring
As an artist who happens to be of African heritage, Gastineau Massamba shares some of the convictions, cares and concerns of many other so-called 'contemporary African artists', both of his and of older generations. Civil war and the destruction of the environment, as often as not sparked by the greed and exploitation of foreign oil and mining companies;the insistence of the international art market on categorising artists of African heritage as either 'traditional' or 'contemporary'; the notion of the vast continent of Africa as somehow a single country and of its extraordinarily diverse peoples as homogeneous and displaying a common 'African' identity are just a few of the subjects which have concerned Massambaand other artists and writers of African heritage for many years. However, it is the signature means by which Massamba addresses these issues in his art which set him apart from others and which make him a highly distinctive 'contemporary' artist, albeit one who is working within long standing 'traditions' from central Africa and from Congo in particular.
In a recent interview with Anaïs Angelo for africavivre (Gastineau Massamba, artiste aux mille outils, 12/2/2019), Massamba relates how he turned away from painting on canvas partly because he already knew how to sew and weave, partly because it gave him greater and more intimate contact with his materials, but also because weaving and embroidery appealed to him as a less polluting and less ecologically damaging art form than oil paints, solvents and acrylics.
Massamba is wary of being labelled by one of the art market's definitions, recognising that terms like 'contemporary African art' are in some ways meaningless constructs. "Contemporary art in Africa," he observes, "exists in everyday life - although I do not want to confine that observation solely to Africa."His work is part of this theatre of daily life, yet it is also a contemporary manifestation of ancient traditions which do not have their roots in European or Western art history. When the Portuguese navigator Pacheco Pereira arrived at the mouth of the Congo river in 1506 he was presented with exquisite woven and embroidered cloth made entirely from raffia, causing him to remark that "In this kingdom of Congo they make some cloth of palm trees with a surface like velvet … so beautiful that those made in Italy do not surpass them in workmanship."
Cloth in many parts of Africa represents a means of telling a story, conveying a message and recording history. In his recent Chaos Project, divided into three discrete sub-series (Massamba Town,The Oil War by the French company TOTAL in Brazzaville, Congo (5 June 1997) and Travel (Vanity at SBM Series), Massamba references other artistic traditions from around the world to convey his ideas, though I would argue that the medium he uses is distinctively African, perhaps even distinctively Congolese. For example, in his Travel (Vanity at SBM Series) sub-series he depicts skulls embroidered with flowers and strung together as if on a daisy chain. Here he seems to be making reference to the papier maché skulls of the Mexican Day of the Dead festival as well as the European vanitas tradition of still life painting in which skulls were depicted together with flowers, candles and fruit to suggest the transitorynature of life and the understanding of death as a great leveller that doesn't distinguish between rich or poor.
Massamba's relationship with death as expressed in his art is nuanced and subtle, as is his symbolic use of the skull. At one moment he recounts the horror of walking over the skulls of his countrymen scattered in the street during the "wars of petrol" (the Congo civil war, 1993-7) and the next he states that "Death can be a joy," and something to be celebrated. In Africa, perhaps more than any other continent in the world, funerals are an occasion to celebrate the living as well as - and perhaps more than -mourning for the dead. Men of the Kuba people of the southern Congo basin accumulate large collections of fine raffia cloth during their lives with the sole intention of displaying them at their funerals so that their true wealth and status may only be revealed to the living after their death.
The heavily armed soldiers Massamba depicts in his work, The Oil War by the French company TOTAL in Brazzaville, Congo (5 June 1997) appear to be literally dancing on the graves - the skulls and bones - of his countrymen. Yet there is another sense in which they are simply marionettes, dancing to the tune of their political masters, who in turn are puppets controlled and manipulated by huge multinationals such as the Total oil company. Massamba's signature technique of embroidery includes the leaving of numerous loose threads hanging from his images. Throughout his works, these loose threads may be seen as symbolic of unfinished business and an incomplete picture, though in different series they seem to have additional significance. In the case of the soldiers in his work The Oil War by the French company TOTAL in Brazzaville, Congo (5 June 1997), the loose, hanging threads add to the impression that they are puppets, albeit puppets dripping with blood. In his work, Massamba Town, the loose threads hanging from the jumble of high-rise buildings of giant letters which make up Massamba Town suggest something else, perhaps the creepers and lianas which would grow in a deserted and abandoned city which is gradually being overtaken by the power of nature.
In Massamba's art, nature or the natural world is also portrayed as fragile and vulnerable, as in his tender and moving depiction of the Okapi, an endangered species which is both a national icon of his country, Congo, and a symbol of the fragility of the African continent ravaged by exploitation and greed during the colonial and post-colonial periods. But in the end Massamba sees death and the cycle of life as a powerful force and as a trusted friend to be embraced, not feared:
"Death can be a joy. I think we must also celebrate death. In Congo today, when death is celebrated during a prolonged wake, everyone dresses up and puts on their finest shoes! It may seem like a contradiction, but it's also a very heartfelt and personal reaction…It is part of the cycle of life, recognising a new life just begun."
Dr. Chris Spring
Dr. Chris Spring is an artist, writer and former curator of the African Galleries at the British Museum, specialising in contemporary art and the textile traditions of Africa.