Aristide Maillol receives the "King of Kinshasa
About the exhibition "Chéri Samba in the Jean Pigozzi collection", on show at the Musée Maillol in Paris until 7 April 2024.
His large, figurative acrylic paintings in bright, sometimes even glittery, colours, often punctuated with text, are not likely to go unnoticed! This is because Chéri Samba has done everything to get himself noticed, ever since he opened his own painter's studio in Kinshasa in 1975. Outside, he hung his huge, colourful paintings for all to see, while inside he took on commissions for billboards and illustrations to earn a living. Not without, by his own admission, bypassing the clients of his last employer, whom he considered to be much less talented than he was! It was impossible for Belgian and French expatriates not to spot them, and they helped to make him known beyond his borders.
He, the son of a blacksmith and a farmer, born in 1956 in a small Congolese village 80 km from the capital, had seen his future in the sand from an early age. Since he was admired by everyone for the drawings he drew on it with the tip of a stick, one day he would use canvas, pencils and brushes. One day, he would be famous. There was no doubt about it. His drawings and paintings were bound to be known the world over, because he was the best! All he had to do was move to the capital, which he did from the age of 16, working as a draughtsman for advertising sign painters.
Admittedly, modesty never stifled the artist, who chose to swap his long name (Samba wa Mbimba N'zingo Nezumi Masi Ndo Mbassi) for a nickname mischievously inspired by the many female conquests he boasted about. But the story of Chéri Samba proves, to anyone who still doubts it, that success and wealth smile on those who have great self-confidence...
The very popular works of art by Chéri Samba, a self-taught artist, are currently strutting their stuff at the Musée Maillol, in the heart of Paris, alongside the very chic and classic sculptures by Aristide Maillol (1861-1944), who trained at the Beaux-Arts de Paris. But we love the mix of genres! There's no doubt that contemporary artists from the Democratic Republic of Congo will take great pride in this fine exhibition. Not to mention the fact that it's not all that incongruous, as journalist Annick Colonna-Césari explains in her article for Connaissance des arts. "It's true that, just a few decades apart, both artists shared an identical love of the female form, although they approached the subject from different angles - Aristide Maillol from the angle of sensuality, Chéri Samba with an ostentatious truculence. Above all, as Jérôme Neutres, co-curator of the exhibition, points out, "if this institution, located in a bourgeois Parisian district, welcomes Chéri Samba as part of its temporary exhibitions, it is because he is now part of the international pantheon". The exhibition brings together some sixty paintings spanning forty years of creative work, all on loan from Jean Pigozzi, the world's foremost collector of contemporary African art".
It has to be said that Chéri Samba hit the jackpot when his work caught the eye of the heir to Simca automobiles, known as "Johnny", a jet-setter who ranks among France's greatest fortunes. Jean Pigozzi discovered the Congolese artist's works of art for sale at the 1989 Paris exhibition entitled "Magiciens de la terre". And he never stopped buying from him, becoming the biggest collector of contemporary African art and automatically boosting his standing and reputation on the art market. It was also a jackpot year for the art gallery that had represented Chéri Samba from the outset, André Magnin's, the African art specialist who had met the artist on his first trip to the Congo in 1987, when "the King of Kinshasa" was already very popular. As deputy curator of the 1989 exhibition, André Magnin made no mistake in selecting Chéri Samba as one of the exhibitors. International success followed, with group and solo exhibitions such as "J'aime Chéri Samba" and "Beauté Congo" at the Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain and, more recently, "Art/Afrique. Le nouvel atelier" at the Fondation Louis Vuitton. The grail was reached when Chéri Samba's artworks entered the collections of institutions from the Centre Pompidou in Paris to the MoMa in New York...
Today, it costs between €10,000 and €160,000 to buy a painting by Chéri Samba. But for how long? It goes without saying that the artist, who believes he has "de-ghettoised" African art thanks to his "Samba signature", as he likes to say, will see his value soar even higher after a retrospective exhibition of this scale at the Musée Maillol! Isn't the best proof of his success to be copied by so many? Yes, beware of the countless impostors on social networks trying to sell you what they claim is Chéri Samba...
After all, whether you like his painting or not, all the better for him if France Culture says that he "belongs to a generation of painters who have launched an artistic and political revolution to highlight the popular dimension of art. Along with Moké, Chéri Chérin and others, he helped define the genre of popular painting: from the people and for the people." Make no mistake: this is not the naive painting of Douanier Rousseau. Chéri Samba's subjects are often more disturbing than their visual luminosity would suggest. His bold colours challenge, denounce, caricature and provoke, usually with humour, in a style that is anything but naïve.
I believe that the self-taught artist has always had the intelligence of his ambition. He understood everything when he realised that painting would earn him more than illustrating drawings, that putting himself on stage in his pictorial compositions would enable him to be recognised physically, that writing proverbs, tales or quotations on his paintings for sale would make all the difference with the other painters in Kinshasa, as well as keeping visitors in front of his canvases for longer. He was also quick to draw inspiration from current events to make an even greater impact. To crown himself a "journalist painter". He started painting to talk about Aids, Ebola, the ethnocentrism of art history, child soldiers, 11 September, climate change... Today, he still lives in Kinshasa, surrounded by television sets so he doesn't miss a thing of what's going on in the world. He says himself that he has "reached the ceiling". So he continues to work, but more slowly. Living alone with Papa Jean, his assistant and driver, protected by soldiers in his secret residences... It's not so easy to rule.
Article written by Valibri en Roulotte
Illustration : Chéri Samba, J'aime la couleur, 2003, Acrylic and glitter on canvas, 206 x 296.7 cm
Maurice Aeschimann / Courtesy The Pigozzi African Art Collection © Chéri Samba