Post-disciplinary artist, Maurice Mbikayi, was born in Kinshasa, in 1974. His country of birth, Democratic Republic of Congo, is the world’s largest producer of Coltan – a key ingredient in many electronic devices. Mbikayi’s work – built from remnants of discarded computer parts, “junk technology” and other materials – asks deeper questions about the networks of unequal trade, low-wage labour, and ecological catastrophe hidden behind the glossy veneer of Silicon Valley. Bongani Kona sat down with Mbikayi following his participation in Tomorrows/Today, a group exhibition at Cape Town Art Fair, curated by Tumelo Mosaka, and featuring 10 young artists from Africa and the diaspora.
Bongani Kona (BK): It’s always interesting listening to people describe their trajectories: when did you discover that you wanted to be an artist?
Maurice Mbikayi (MB): Since I was a teenager, when I went against my father’s will – he wanted me to study mathematics and science. I was already in mathematics school when I went on to enroll myself in art school in the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Kinshasa, without him knowing. That how’s I knew I wanted to be an artist. But I had to pay a great price for this choice.
BK: Can you say a bit more about that?
MB: Well, I had to spend a whole year fending for myself, to pay my school fees and transport, and on top of that my father did not want to talk to me for the entire year. My mom, who managed to get me to the Academie des Beaux-Arts, tried to support me during that time. Sometimes I would go to my uncle’s house in the neighbourhood in order to get a lift with my cousin to school.
BK: You work across a variety of mediums: sculpture, mixed-media installations, drawing, photography and performance art. Can you talk a little about the artists and the people who have inspired your work along the way?
MB: During my early years artists like El Anatsui, Yinka Shonibare, Meschac Gaba and Nick Cave were some of my favourites because their works informed my own. I also started to be fond of the work of Jane Alexander, who was one of my supervisors for my Master’s degree at Michaelis [School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town].
In fact, Jane Alexander was essential to me; she is the reason I wanted to do a Masters at UCT. At first I was quite intimidated by the school as a white institution, but then I decided to go for it. I told her I wanted to study sculpture and that I wanted her to be my supervisor. She supported my application, and during my two years studying there, her support, advice, critique, and enthusiasm and those of the Associate Professor Johann Van der Schijff were actually what helped to shape the final result. I’m very grateful to both of them.
BK: When did you make the move to Cape Town, and what prompted it?
MB: My first trip to South Africa I only stayed in Johannesburg as a tourist for two weeks and went back to Congo. I was first curious to see how post-Apartheid South Africa would welcome its neighbours, and of course visit some galleries in Johannesburg. My second visit in 2005 I arrived in Cape Town and decided to stay in order to pursue my career and studies.
BK: I remember a few years ago, as a part of a performance art exhibition, you rode a horse through parts of the city centre with your body was bandaged from head to toe. It’s a very striking image and I’ve been meaning to ask you since if that performance in some ways offers a commentary of your relationship to the city. Or perhaps more broadly, speaks to the relationship between this place and those who have migrated here from elsewhere on the continent.
MB: The performance was called “Voices”, it was conceived for The Spier Contemporary 2010 (a biennale): The first xenophobic attacks happened in 2008 and two years later we were asked to come up with performance concept in a workshop.
The concept of the work means unheard voices of both migrants and locals, voices that ended up in a clash of interests. It’s my relationship with the city, which any migrant can relate to. African nationals seem to be easy targets. As a migrant myself, I naturally thought of expressing this as an art piece. A performance would fit the concept perfectly, also because of the historical background of The City Hall and the Castle opposite. In addition my relationship with the city was mixed: African tribalism, racism, the fear of displacement and the prospect of moving on with the past. The city was symobolised by a woman wearing a gas mask.
BK: Turning more to your recent integration of digital technologies. Since the advent of Facebook in 2004 and the rise of smart phones, we tend to speak of information technology – and the Silicon Valley conglomerates behind it, Apple, Google, etc. – in evangelical terms. Dissenting from the gospel of Silicon Valley, your MFA project, Fashionable Addiction, and its use of “junk technology” (discarded computer parts) reveals a much darker truth about this new world. Would you mind speaking a bit more on this?
MB: In the quest to upgrade to higher technology, the developed world uses the African continent as a dumping zone for obsoletes technology. This generates electronic waste. We can see that on e-waste labels coming from the western countries. Also I was concerned about how digital media impacts on society, how the virtual world transforms us into a type of cyborg through our personal media. As an African and as a Congolese artist, I wanted to address this issue, but not in flag-waving way; to draw a certain analogy from something that can be a kind of subversive way of addressing rampant capitalism. This capitalism is expressed in mining wealth, dumping zones and the war business on the African continent.
To do so, I needed an element, which could be, for me, subtly critical. That is how I came to use fashion as the analogy. The historical background of what is really African fashion and its inspiration, compelled me to look at the 18th century culture of fashion and how “prestige slaves”, who became free Africans later (and black dandies), redesigned their image using fashion as a form of self-determination and resistance to the status that had been imposed on them. This affected identity formation in an emerging cosmopolitan commodity culture, in England and [contributed to] the Harlem Renaissance, where art and literature became tools for resisting white supremacy. These notions were my motive in resisting technological existential crisis in Africa.
BK: As a parting question then, what do you see coming out of this new age of technological imperialism?
MB: More chaos, unfortunately. We rely on technology. No matter where you are in the world, it is an essential part of our lives. The problem is that the Global South suffers the most from predatory capitalism. It is said, and one can research on it: “The World’s technology depends on Congo because of the Coltan. One of our planet’s most precious minerals which is used to make all the technological devices we use – airplanes, rockets, TVs, cars, mobile phones, computers, game devices (PlayStation/Xbox), guns, etc., etc.….And 80 per cent of the world’s Coltan is found only in the Congo. So no Congo – No Technology!”
Having said that, one can picture the chaos of Congo. No matter how well one can explain it, Congo’s Coltan along with other minerals makes the country a huge target for success. That is why fashion is my main analogy to portray the concerns of technological slavery in the continent nowadays. In her book From Slave to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity, Monica L. Miller speaks of the historical impact of slavery in African fashion and how black folks reimagined it. I try revisit this in today’s technological context.
*All images Courtesy of Gallery MOMO.