Congo artist Chéri Samba burst onto the international scene in 1989 as one of the stars of the Pompidou Center’s now historic “Magiciens de la Terre” exhibition. Now, his flamboyant works are back in Paris at the Fondation Cartier, where 35 of his flashy neo-poppy paintings representing his output over the past 14 years have been picked by the art critic, André Magnin.
“Subtle” isn’t exactly the word that would best describe Samba’s bold palette and billboard approach. His bright-hued, cartoon-like caricatures more often than not highlighted by explanatory texts make his work easy to identify: its strikingly intense images grab the onlooker instantly, reflecting the artist’s often poignant ideas on life and politics with tongue-in-cheek candor. Samba says that he wants to stop people in their tracks, and force them to think. “There’s poverty, stupidity, corruption, chaos, universal decadence,” he declared in a recent interview, “I like to think that artists can change people’s mentality; I stimulate people’s consiousness; artists should make people think...”
Chéri Samba was already one of Africa’s most noted young painters when I visited him on the outskirts of Kinshasa in 1988, as a French film crew was preparing a documentary about him to accompany his Pompidou show. Unlike his brazenly brash, in-your-face compositions, in real-life he’s a rather quiet, reserved person. He began his artistic career working as an apprentice with various signpainters. In Africa, street art is particularly dynamic, and everywhere you turn intriguingly decorative images vehicle messages about everything from the dangers of AIDS to beauty products or kitchen utensils.
In the mid-’70s, Chéri started to develop his trademark imagery, alongside established artists such as Bodo, Mas and Moké. “I noticed that people tended walk past paintings, merely glimpsing at them. At the time, I was an illustrator for the entertainment magazine ‘Bilenge Info.’ I thought of adding words to the paintings, [much as I did] in my comic strips... so that people would stop, read, get into, and admire them. Soon, people started noticing... The words in my paintings, the comic strips and my look. All of that was the Samba signature.”
Chéri Samba’s subject matter is extremely personal. He often includes himself in his canvases, taking responsibility for the occasionally provocative, caption-like statements he adds to them. He explains, “I think it’s good that my face appears in my paintings because I’m the one who criticizes, condemns, interrogates the world and politicians. I ask questions, and I’m concerned by the way the world works."
His cartoon-esque mode of expression “meshes” advertising-style imagery with direct messages, attacking corruption, illness and social inequalities in the process. Many observers perceive Samba as a “popular hero,” in that his distinctly “narrative” themes focus on people’s lives. “I’m not interested in myths or beliefs. That’s not my goal,” he says. “I want to change the mentality that keeps us [Africans] isolated from the world. I appeal to people’s consciences... I paint reality even if it’s shocking, I put humor and color into it to attract people.”
J’aime Chéri Samba To May 2, daily noon to 7pm, Fondation Cartier Pour l’Art Contemporain, 261 bd Raspail, 14e, M° Raspail, tel: 01 42 18 56 50