From his rise to prominence during the blossoming period of current Congolese art and throughout his career, Pili-Pili Mulongoy, better known as Pili-Pili, has produced charming and dynamic paintings in an exceptionally distinctive style. Bringing together a progression of recognized works from the 1970s to the 1980s, the exhibitions at Artcurial in Brussels from January 17 to February 9, 2022, and in Monaco from February 15 to March 4, 2022, will attempt to broaden visitors’ knowledge of Congolese art beyond its contemporary non-values by revealing a glimpse of one of its key forerunners.
Born in 1914, Pili-Pili Mulongoy is the poster child of a group of fishermen from the Katanga region of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Well established in private recollections, the artist’s distinctive memories encapsulate the verdant climate in which he grew up. Brimming with life and energy, the Democratic Republic of Congo is a vast region and home to a rich and diverse geography: endowed with equatorial forest in the north, bordered by rugged regions, slopes and lakes in the east; savannah and natural life in the south and center, while the west overlooks the Atlantic Sea.
Pili-Pili Mulongoy‘s artistic journey began when he joined the Atelier du Hangar in 1947, created by Pierre Romain-Desfossés, the former French naval official who chose to emigrate to Lubumbashi after the conflict to hone the gifts of artists by providing them with space and materials. Among them, Bela Sara and Mwenze Kibwanga created works that were deeply singular, but that addressed comparable themes, namely nature and the surrounding biodiversity.
The artist’s pictorial methodology is exemplified by liberal depictions of greenery against a background of embroidered art of redundant sprinklings of polychrome tones in direct succession. The elegant stylistic arrangement of Pili-Pili Mulongoy‘s artistic creations helps to recall the subjects illustrated in traditional Congolese art and the geometric examples of Kuba tapestries.
Romain-Desfossés was instrumental in Pili-Pili’s choice of subject matter and inspired her to use her own experiences and the surrounding climate as sources of motivation. His tendency to direct his artistic dreams from the individuals in the Hangar was influenced by a series of key events in the early twentieth century.
In 1907, a notable German ethnographer, Leo Frobenius, published research and books about his excursion to the Congo during which he collected a large number of artifacts from the Pende, Chokwe and Luba tribes. These campaigns and publications contributed to the dissemination of mainstream African art in Europe and North America, which in turn helped to advance current art movements, including Cubism and the Negro movement.
In Belgium, these objects were discovered in the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren and have acquired extraordinary public appeal.
Thus, it has prompted sociologists and ethnologists to worry about the durability of Congolese ancestral customs. These occasions electrified a flowering of private social initiatives in the Congo, such as Pierre-Romain Desfossés‘ Atelier du Hangar, whose responsibility was to save indigenous art.
An overflow of pulsating light combined with an array of stripes and speckled accents fills Pili-Pili Mulongoy‘s artistic creations and seems to resonate as it extends over the material. In the close-up view, wildlife creatures are frequently depicted: elk, squirrels, birds with their homes or snakes and panthers influencing amidst lush foliage.
Pili-Pili Mulongoy‘s rhythmic brushstrokes and noticeable rhythm of free lines and dynamic tones evoke the wealth of Zaire under former president Mobutu Sese Seko. Her gestural freedom and expressive delivery of the painting seem to repeat the well-known Congolese rumba that had its heyday during the 1970s.
Some works, for example « Saa II » or « Vita », present wild creatures slithering and preparing to pounce on their prey: panthers peering from berry trees at a gathering of ignorant gazelles, snakes circling a house to grab the eggs while the guards struggle to prevent it. Pili-Pili Mulongoy‘s compositions become strong moral stories that delightfully capture the brevity of life, from birth to the end of life.
After the death of Pierre Romain-Desfossés in 1954, Pili-Pili Mulongoy joined the Academy of Fine Arts in Lubumbashi, created in 1951 by Laurent Moonens, as an educator.
Pili-Pili Mulongoy passed away in 2007 and has firmly established himself in the history of contemporary African art. To this day, he remains one of the leading Congolese artists of his age and has gained worldwide recognition.
His works are in leading public and private collections around the world: the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the private collection of King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola of Belgium from around 1955, the collection of the current King Philippe and countless other collections worldwide.
Throughout his career, Pili-Pili has participated in important exhibitions such as the major post-war world exhibition « EXPO 58 » in Brussels; the annual meeting of the International Association of Art Critics in 1973 which took place in Kinshasa, Zaire. In 1981, his work was featured in the « Histoires de voir » exhibition at the BCZ, the largest bank in Zaire at the time.
The artist’s paintings have also been exhibited twice at the Fondation Cartier: in 2012, during the « Show and Tell » exhibition, and then, in 2016, during the « Beauté Congo » exhibition, which recalled the history of modern and contemporary art in the Congo.
Over time, Pili-Pili Mulongoy‘s art has attracted the interest of authorities and dealers, and her works have been presented on various occasions. In November 2021, the work « Simba » the lion in Swahili was sold for €45,000 at Artcurial, setting a world record for the artist.
These paintings will be on display at Artcurial in Brussels from January 17 to February 9, 2022 before leaving for Monaco from February 15 to March 4, 2022. Each work presented provides an overview of the artist’s work and an understanding of the cultural dynamism that swept through the Congo in the mid to late twentieth century.