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Cultural Traces Around the World

Congolese Arts: A Rich and Fascinating Tradition, Part 1 of 2

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Bordering nine countries, the DRC is located in central Africa and is home to 200 ethnicities, each with its own language. These diverse groups and their languages are sources of the nation’s rich cultural traditions, expressed through sculpture, mask carving, painting, music, dance, literature, weaving, and other art forms.

The beauty and charm of Congolese statues and masks are recognized around the world and have influenced aspects of modern art, such as the 20th-century Cubist movement. In fact, the word “cubism” is believed to derive from “Kuba,” which is the name of a collection of Bushong-speaking ethnic groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Residing between the Kasai and Sankuru Rivers, the Kuba people have a long tradition of producing amazing wooden masks, sculptures, textiles, headrests, divination oracles, and anthropomorphic cups. During the 17th and 19th centuries, the Kuba Kingdom was a prosperous state and trade center. Its artistic achievements reached a high level. Another part of the Kuba cultural tradition is making bark cloth.

Bright colors and bold geometric patterns, exemplified in Kuba cloth, are the hallmarks of textiles from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As a way of signifying social status, wealth, and achievement, Congolese men traditionally wore prestige caps, which are headdresses with distinctive decorations.

The modern visual art of the Democratic Republic of the Congo developed in the 1930s. With the establishment of several art academies in the 1940s and 50s, such as the School of Le Hangar and the Academy of Fine Arts of Kinshasa, Congolese artists received the training, professional tools, and means to develop their skills.

From July 2015 to January 2016, selected works of contemporary Congolese artists produced since 1926 were showcased in the “Beauté Congo” exhibition at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris. Visitors were afforded the rare opportunity to see more than 350 works created by 41 artists during the last century and to appreciate the fantastic creativity of the Congolese people.
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