Voorstelling van "Patterns for (Re)cognition" in Kunsthalle Basel, 12 februari, 2015
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I’m very pleased to be here, with you on the occasion of the opening of Patterns for Recognition: Vincent Meessen and Thela Tendu. The reason is obvious: The Royal library of Belgium preserves one of the largest collections in the world of the Congolese artist Tela Tendu. And it is thanks to Vincent Meessen and the Kunsthalle Basel that Tela Tendu slowly receives the international recognition he deserves.
I hope you allow me to say a few more words about tela Tendu and the Congolese art in the printroom of our Library.
C’est en 1926 au cours de mon premier voyage au Congo belge qu’il me fut permis d’admirer les fresques peintes sur les façades de leurs cases par les nègres. […] Et ces fresques africaines, certaines chasses au léopard entre autre, par le fraîcheur de leurs coloris et la hardiesse de leurs arabesques, tout en me rappelant les chefs-d’œuvre de ce qu’on appelait alors « l’art vivant », me plongèrent dans l’admiration. L’idée me vint alors, au cas où je rencontrerais sur ma route des peintres de cases, de leur fournir du papier, des couleurs à l’aquarelle et de tâcher de leur faire reproduire les fresques qui illustraient si joliment les murs de leurs habitations.
These words come from Georges Thiry, in his book A la recherche de la peinture nègre (les peintres naîfs congolais Lubaki et Djilatendo.
Djilatendo or Tshyela Ntendu was discovered in the village Ibaantshe in Kasai by the Belgian colonial official Georges Thiry. Thiry had already been impressed by the enormous creativity of the Congolese painters. As early as 1926 he had come into contact with Albert Lubaki who painted the exteriors of cabins. He had given him paper and drawing materials and asked him to work with it.
Very soon he was supported in his quest for Congolese talent by his superior Gaston-Denys Périer. Both men were fascinated by the immediacy, originality and modernity of the work of these Congolese painters. Their appreciation was in the first place fed by artistic interest and not by ethnographic interest. They saw the work of Lubaki and Tshyela Ntendu as equal to that of their European contemporaries from the avant-garde. In that context, they also found it appropriate that the work of Lubaki and Djilatendo in Europe would be exhibited.
For Lubaki this happened for the first time in 1929 in the brand-new Palace of Fine Arts. However, it was not a public success but within the avant-garde circles, the work was well appreciated. Lubaki's work was better received in the Museum of Geneva in 1930 and in Paris at the Galerie Girard the following year. In Paris there was a controversy because (completely wrongly) the authenticity of the work was put into doubt. Bigots had claimed that Lubaki would not exist, and that the work came from the hands of useful European counterfeiters.
This destroyed the early reputation of Lubaki. In October 1931 the Prima Mostra Internazionale d'Arte Colonial, an initiative supported by Mussolini, showed work by Lubaki and Djilatendo. Perier complained in a letter to Thiry that the commissioner repelled all works with aspects of modern life in Africa, such as blacks on a bike. Instead, they wanted only "pure" African scenes with a preference for Blacks hunting in loincloth. But that the Congolese artists in avant-garde circles were appreciated was showed on the last exhibition at the Galerie Le Centaure in Brussels in 1933. Here work of Lubaki and Djilatendo was exhibited next to that of Permeke, Magritte and Delvaux. After 1936, it is completely silent about the Congolese painting and both Lubaki as Djilatendo fell completely into oblivion. Although Thiry and Perier now lived in discord they continued to promote the work of these congolese artists. Only after the second world war Perier found his way to the print room of the KB where curator Louis Lebeer was interested in the work of the Congolese painting. In 1946 and 1947 the first small works of artists as N'Goma and Masalaï were purchased from Perier. A dozen years later, between 1957 and 1959, most of the works of Djilatendo and Lubaki came thanks to a large donation from Perier. These wrote in a letter to Lebeer:
Erudit spécialiste de l’estampe, vous avez été le premier en Belgique à vous intéresser aux tentatives initiales de la peinture ‘libre’ de quelques Noirs du Congo Belge (…) je souhaite que les cartons peinturlurés, que je vous offre, soient rangés au Cabinet des Estampes de notre Capitale pour y être conservés et étudiés (…) ils pourront être temporairement prêtés en dehors, pour leur caractère artistique et non pas ethnographique.
Perier stressed again the artistic qualities of this work, which in his eyes had not to be collected , exhibited and enjoyed from ethnographic interest, but as a full artistic expression at the same level as the works of those European painters who only since half century had managed to free themselves from the yoke of academicism.