BY Peter Brock in Reviews | 20 JAN 21

Jean Katambayi Mukendi Lights a Path toward Decolonization

At Ramiken, New York, the artist’s eccentric drawings of light bulbs take a deft look at colonialism in Africa 

BY Peter Brock in Reviews | 20 JAN 21

The iconic shape of an incandescent light bulb arises from the need to safeguard a delicate thread of tungsten from corrosion and impact. This relationship between enclosure and filament takes on fantastical new forms in Jean Katambayi Mukendi’s ‘Afrolampes’ drawings (2016-ongoing), 11 of which form the basis for his first US exhibition, ‘Quarantaine’, at Ramiken, New York. These works depict highly eccentric light bulbs through the meticulous use of a ballpoint pen, compass and straightedge. Precise but not mechanical, the slight variations of Mukendi’s hand-drawn lines give these works a subtle vibration.

Jean Katambayi Mukendi Afrolampe Juillet 2020 Prehexagone 37
Jean Katambayi Mukendi, Afrolampe Juillet 2020 Prehexagone 37 (1,7,13,27), 2020, pen on paper, wood, compact discs, 128 × 90 × 4 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Ramiken, New York

These drawings read quickly thanks to their high-contrast, recognizable subject, and rough symmetry. However, the impression of graphic clarity gives way as you approach the work. Instead of a uniform mass, the larger shapes consist of dense chunks of parallel lines. Mukendi uses these clusters like a stamp, changing the orientation gradually in order to render a curved edge. Occasional overlapping of these groups of lines causes jagged flashes of movement, while a pinkish haze floats on top of the ink in the more built-up areas, like the iridescent sheen of motor oil on a puddle.

Jean Katambayi Mukendi, install view
Jean Katambayi Mukendi, 'Quarantine', 2021, exhibition view, Ramiken, New York. Courtesy: the artist and Ramiken, New York

Apprehending the subject of these works means permitting your eye to aggregate thousands of dark lines such that, when seen from a distance, their collective silhouette results in a singular image. Titling this series ‘Afrolampes’ adds significance to the specificity of Mukendi’s representational strategy. As shorthand for technological progress and economic development, it feels fitting that these light bulbs might dissolve into thousands of individual vectors. There could never be a single standard by which to measure a civilization. These are not Edison’s lamps. 

Jean Katambayi Mukendi, install view
Jean Katambayi Mukendi, 'Quarantine', 2021, exhibition view, Ramiken, New York. Courtesy: the artist and Ramiken, New York

Afrolampe Différentiel Avril 2020 (2020) stands out for its topicality. A collage in the shape of the US sits atop a threaded base, as if proposing whimsical geography as a source of light. Mukendi renders the western half of the country as a wavy grid of pieces cut from other areas of a world map. Everything east of Texas is a thicket of dense pen lines. In the middle of the country, a checkerboard pattern blends these two motifs such that square fragments of map sit next to squares full of ink. The overall effect is playful, visually striking and tacitly critical. Mukendi plunges the East Coast power centres of Washington, DC, and New York City into scratchy darkness. The African country of Chad lands where Wisconsin should be, and most of the arid Southwest contains pieces of ocean. The word ‘United’ is legible upside down in one of the squares, this aspirational piece of the country’s name dangling alone in the great plains. Mukendi’s grid disregards the existing boundaries of the American states, echoing the violent and patronizing division of the African continent by European colonial powers. The artist’s checkerboard pattern is actually a more radical proposal in that it is purely geometric, unlike the extractive agenda of the colonists. A thin line arcs above this reimagined US, reminding us that this geopolitical proposition is also a light bulb. 

Jean Katambayi Mukendi Afrolampe Différentiel Avril 2020
Jean Katambayi Mukendi, Afrolampe Différentiel Avril 2020 , 2020, pen on paper, wood, paper collage 122 × 92 × 4 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Ramiken, New York

The conditions under which these works arrived in this Bushwick gallery were complex even without the coronavirus pandemic. Thousands of miles and a language barrier separate Ramiken from Jean Katambayi Mukendi. The artist lives and works in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and COVID-19 upended plans to bring the artist to New York City. The work in this show constitutes a formidable emissary, but it is impossible to know the extent to which this sampling speaks to the fullness of his vision. I look forward to experiencing more of Mukendi’s work and hope that he is able to travel along with it. 

Jean Katambayi Mukendi 's 'Quarantaine' is on view at Ramiken, New York through 30 January 2021.

Main image: Jean Katambayi Mukendi, 'Quarantine', 2021, exhibition view, Ramiken, New York. Courtesy: the artist and Ramiken, New York

Peter Brock is an artist based in Brooklyn, USA.