Home » Bodys Isek Kingelez's 'Art inSight' at MoMA
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has a long history of larger-than-life characters—politicians, musicians, and even the man or woman on the street—who display a grandiose sense of self that often confounds outsiders. Bodys Isek Kingelez (1948–2015), whose work is currently on view in all its astonishing glory at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), was such a Congolese archetype. Throughout his career, the artist promoted myths about his renown and abilities, declaring himself “a small god.” In his visionary art, he created fantastical miniature buildings and cities—and once told a curator that “all great American architects had plundered all his ideas.”
We can forgive him his hubris. Though he first came into prominence in Europe as part of a group exhibition, Magiciens de la terre, in Paris, in 1989, the MoMA show, expertly curated by Sarah Suzuki, is his first retrospective in the U.S., and it is a revelation. Titled Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams, it features 33 small structures and models of cities that could be categorized as both sculpture and make believe architectural maquettes. In his early work, Kingelez used found packaging, cardboard, and other materials that he glued together and assembled into playful but not yet elaborate miniature buildings. The later work, such as his intricately detailed masterpiece Ville Fantôme (1996), is testimony to his improved economic status as he became known, accepted commissions from European collectors, and could employ finer materials (though he still occasionally used objects like soda and beer cans in a work such as Sports International). Consistent through various periods of his career is the extraordinarily detailed ornamental painting, the vibrant colors, the lively calligraphy, and the ambition of each piece. Some of his work shows influences of Art Deco and the emerging postcolonial architecture that began to appear in Kinshasa and other parts of the DRC during the era of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko (1965–97), designed by architects like the Tunisian Olivier Clement Cacoub and the Congolese Fernando Tala-Ngai. Most of Kingelez’s pieces, however, are the artist’s own reimagining of what a building might become, defying traditional ideas of form and function in ways that would perplex any structural engineer.