Jean Katambayi Mukendi

° 1974

Lives in Lumbumbashi (CD), born in Lumbumbashi (CD).

Jean Katambayi Mukendi is a Congolese artist born into an artistic family. Trained as an electrician, he was fascinated by technology, maths, mechanics, electric circuits, geometry, and electronics as a boy. His childhood was indelibly shaped by the labour camp in his hometown of Lumbumbashi, the centre of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s mining industry. His mother encouraged him to rise above past and present events, to not just accept what was put in front of him. And that yielded a spontaneous and dynamic body of work with a resolute empirical slant.

Katambayi combines found objects, maps, CDs, recycled electronic material, wiring, copper, and cardboard, assembling them into collages, new machines, robots, maquettes, or existing appliances, e.g. a television set he fills with electronic waste in the space created by the screen long lost. He initially designs a future piece’s idea or theme in his head, treating it like a linear number sequence or the technical drawing of an electrical circuit. Next, Katambayi anchors these thoughts in the material, in the drawings, and in the configuration he feels best represents them. 

‘The main source of inspiration is the constant scrutiny of the contradictions in our society, which seems divided. When I was young, I worried about the future of the paternalistic society that manifested from what colonialism had left behind. Today, it’s a world subject to paradoxes that aims to play a role in interventionism (foreign military, political, and economic interference). Fortunately, cultural and ethnic diversity retains its allure.’

Although he has been experimenting artistically for over twenty years already (fifteen of which were absent of any recognition whatsoever), Katambayi is regarded as an international innovator. He creates complex, fragile installations powered by advanced electrical mechanics. This puts him in the fine company of artists such as Tinguely and Panamarenko.

While his oeuvre poses questions about the relationship between people and technology through the poetic power of movement, progress and development, his technological inventions reside in a philosophical space, searching for solutions to social inequalities within Congolese society and the plundering of the country’s tremendous wealth of raw resources. For example, Katambayi says the following about the drawing M13, a drawing of an imaginary screw with thirteen sides accompanied by mathematical formulae:

When we went to Manono for the first time, we saw big rusty metal parts strewn all over the place, the remnants and ghosts of the former cassiterite industry. (…)  The M refers to the universal sizes of bolts. Usually, the size is something like M6 or M14. The M13 is an imaginary screw that doesn’t fit any of the current systems but stands for durability. I wanted to create something outside the norm to ask whether we’d repeat the past. Will history repeat itself? And why is it such a sad history?

As a scientist and engineer, Jean Katambayi Mukendi attempts to conjure a mechanical world, one he shapes with recycled and everyday materials, some with moving parts and some without. His work could be called conceptual were it not for the fact that it assumes a heartfelt concern for society. Katambayi closely follows global developments. He tries to formulate original solutions in response. He talks about the relentless pressure to read and write faster and faster to keep progress from passing us by. At the same time, Katambayi retains the symbol of the tree – the tree that channels all transformative energy – as his core metaphor.

His mobile installation, Trotation (from the M HKA collection), is the artist’s attempt to eliminate the imbalance between the northern and southern hemispheres. The piece demonstrates how the Earth turns on its axis (rotation) and around the sun (translation). Those closer to the equator make a wider revolution than those who live near the poles. Balance can be restored by adding a third random revolution (trotation) to the natural order. The patchwork installation is characterised by a casual sincerity, with cameras and lenses placed along a circular trajectory, perpetually travelling the same path while lamps flicker and motors run. These all lend the scene an especially light-hearted ponderousness.

This work's visible degree of absurdity is a constant in Katambayi Mukendi’s oeuvre. It is a property rooted in everyday Congolese life, where inconceivable situations arise due to a lack or surplus of rules and control, married to poverty, failing infrastructure, neo-colonialism, and the inexhaustible creativity of human beings. In this tangle of contradictions and anachronisms, it is right here that the artist discovers his freedom to experiment artistically. He uses complicated calculations and mathematical formulas, marked maps, magnified drawings of low-energy lamps and aircraft parts made of cardboard to reconstruct a complex amalgam of contemporary reality. Katambayi Mukendi works with humour and a daring virtuosity between the conceptual and Dadaist, with a hat tip to Fluxus.


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