Mufuki Mukuna exhibits at Wetsi Art Gallery: ‘There is no doubt anymore: I am a painter’

Gilles Bechet

Mufuki Mukuna

Mufuki Mukuna is exhibiting his paintings at the Wetsi Art Gallery. Paintings full of characters and subject matter through which the Belgian-Congolese artist reveals the expressive and introspective power of art that is more committed than it appears.

Who is Mufuki Mukuna?

Born in Brussels to a Belgian mother and a Congolese father in 1973

Has his first exhibition at the Noirhomme galleryin 1999

Studies visual arts at the Académie des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles

Studies acting

Exhibits at the East Africa Art Biennale in Dar es Salam, Tanzania in 2007

Takes part in the exhibition “Actitudes contemporaines belges” in Geneva in 2018

After the rain, there were many more snails in the courtyard. And no one knew why. No doubt they came from the few plants bravely growing there. Some of them even ventured into the studio. Mufuki Mukuna is fascinated by these creatures with shells. Sometimes, he even paints them in a corner of his paintings. And when he saw their glistening trails on the concrete floor, he took great care not to crush any of them inadvertently.

You could see the gastropod as a metaphor for the Belgian-Congolese artist, safe in his shell, sheltered from the world, an adherent of the principle of “less is more”. “It's an animal with great symbolic and esoteric power. The spiral on its shell corresponds to the golden ratio. I like it because it embraces reality. By sliding over its problems, it defies death. It moves at its own pace, but it has absolute confidence that it will arrive where it needs to arrive.”

In this strange period of semi-lockdown, Mufuki Mukuna has left the shell of his studio for an exhibition at the Wetsi Art Gallery. Ten paintings will be displayed on the walls for a week; then they will be accessible online. In this very carefully chosen selection, the curator Anne Wetsi Mpoma wanted to shine a light on an aspect of the artist that he himself is reluctant to call attention to. “My paintings are figurative, almost always centred on the human being. I am uncomfortable with the idea of militant commitment because I find that it is more powerful to suggest things rather than show them. I think that is the best way to plant an idea in the mind of the viewer. My paintings are open to interpretation. I have always refused to impose a way of thinking.”

I am uncomfortable with the idea of militant commitment because I find that it is more powerful to suggest things rather than show them. I think that is the best way to plant an idea in the mind of the viewer

Mufuki Mukuna

If the subjects almost always have black skin, it's because he couldn't have done them any other way. “My father is African, but I grew up in Brussels. I don't see why I should be categorised as being from one group or the other. On the inside, I am just a human being.” And that human being who grew up in a melting pot of two cultures, has naturally felt drawn to hybrid beings, such as the albino people whom he has often painted. In the portrait of an albino person with a cigarette in their mouth, elegantly swaying their hips with their hands in their pockets, he adds an element of erasure. The scratching and effacement of the material raises the question: which layer has been scratched off and which layer remains?

In another painting, whose title, Crazy Baldhead, is inspired by a Bob Marley song, the confrontation is obvious. A white arm, which we realise is gripping a revolver, is pointing at a frightened young black man with an apple balanced on his head. “In a Hieronymus Bosch painting, there is a figure with an apple on its head, I decided that it was the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. To me, Africa, the birthplace of humanity, is also the birthplace of knowledge, which the West has attempted to acquire by force.”

Mufuki Mukuna sometimes compares his paintings to haikus, little stories told through images. “I am inspired by small moments of daily life and flashes that appear to me and that I transcribe onto the canvas.” With its very American title, 14ème rue is inspired by a universal reality: prostitution. There is a visual confrontation between the prostitute in the window and the client. There is seduction and desire, but also the exploitation of women, the commodification of the world. Although echoes of other artists can be discerned in Mufuki Mukuna's pictorial style, he himself does not subscribe to any artistic tendency, except perhaps that of Francis Bacon. “He influenced me for a long time. What I love about his work is the fractured perspective, the way he organises the painting on the canvas.”

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| Mufuki Mukuna: “For a long time, I felt like I didn’t fit into society.”

Mufuki Mukuna explains that he is wary of being too decisive, that he prefers to let things come. And meanings are built up slowly, layer by layer. The painting Eve is a good example of this. It all began with a portrait of an African prostitute in a café, alone, a cigarette hanging from her mouth. “It was when I was painting her that I began to see her as Eve after the fall from Paradise. She is crying, she is alone. At one time, I felt a particular rapport with the deity. I feel drawn to religions and at the same time, I'm mistrustful of them.” When we point out to him that, in Western depictions, Eve is always naked, reluctantly exhibiting her milky white skin, and that he has represented her as a figure that is clothed and has black skin, he has nothing to add, but calls attention to her sphinx-like smile.

In the painting Yeshoua, things are clearer still. It was one of the first paintings that Anne Wetsi Mpoma selected, because it resonates particularly with her aspirations and with her work as a curator. At first glance, you see a cross burning gently. As you approach the painting, you see that there is a crucified black body on it. “I thought it was a powerful image, what with the Christmas season coming up. Although things have progressed a lot, black people continue to be erased and there is still a lack of recognition for all the good that black people have done. It is still unsettling to see one of the most important men in Western culture embodied by a black person.” Mufuki Mukuna, true to his disengaged and ambivalent approach, just sees it as obvious. “Many painters have painted crucifixions, so why not me? When I was painting Jesus, the question of skin colour did not occur to me. Given my areas of interest, it was evident to me that this historical figure was African.” Beneath the cross, he added an inscription in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, suggesting that since the subject is so universal, the colour of his skin is ultimately anecdotal.

You don’t necessarily know where you’re going when one stroke leads to another

Mufuki Mukuna

Mufuki Mukuna's paintings are a theatre full of characters and emotions. The sets are often sketched. The paintings' materials are omnipresent. Those materials reveal emotions, which are created using large and small brushstrokes, blending by hand, aerosol clouds, or jets of sand and pigment on the canvas. It's no surprise that, to him, the act of painting is central. “That's what motivates me to go back to my studio every day to return to the particular state that comes into being when we paint. You don't necessarily know where you're going when one stroke leads to another.”

According to Mufuki Mukuna, his introduction to painting happened a very long time ago. “In kindergarten, the teacher already said that I didn't paint like other children of my age, I would put much more detail into my figures.” The path seemed to be all laid out, leading him to study arts and humanities at the Académie des Beaux-Arts for two years. Although he briefly tried his hands at sculpture, painting was always his focus. “I went through a period of posturing and saying: I do not draw, I paint. Then, thanks to a friend, I started drawing with charcoal again. The truth is that drawing has an immediacy and directness to it that painting does not have.”

At one point in this trajectory, in which painting is a necessity, Mufuki Mukuna felt the need for a radical change and enrolled in an acting school. “For a long time, I felt like I didn't fit into society. I wanted to leave the solitude of the studio to create with other people. I was 30 years old and the idea of the young painter alone with his work seemed less and less romantic to me.” For five years, he threw himself into it, packed away his paint brushes and rolled up his canvases to tread the boards. One of the high points of that period was taking part in Heiner Müller's play Hamletmachine, directed by Pascale Binnert at the Théâtre Océan Nord. Then he was immobilised by a bad fall and ended up in hospital. “I started to draw again and realised that that was what I wanted to do. A chapter closed almost as if it had never opened.”

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Mufuki Mukuna in his studio. “I am inspired by small moments of daily life and flashes that appear to me and that I transcribe onto the canvas.”

Of course, he has continued to paint, travel, and exhibit his work. Sometimes doubt would creep in. “Before a solo exhibition at Marc Somville, I was wondering if I would have to go collect rubbish in a park. Then, after it closed, the telephone never stopped ringing. People wanted to buy my paintings. Then, little by little, people's view of what I do changed. I finally feel that I am leading a career as a painter.” Mufuki Mukuna loves to paint in silence and always will. A silence that is not even disturbed by the slithering of snails.

17 > 24/12, by appointment (online: > 11/2), Wetsi Art Gallery, Café Congo,

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