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Kin la Belle

Kinshasa, a city of 10 million people known as Leopoldville during the colonial era after King Leopold II of the Belgians, stretches along the eastern banks of the Congo river for miles. The seemingly endless sprawl of the low rise city where most Kinois, as residents of Kinshasa are known, live resembles a checkerboard of huge road grids, tightly packed with rusty roofs, grey walls, black earth, mud and the odd streak of green. The city is melting pot of incessant chaos and activity, overflowing with energy and maddeningly unregulated. More than 85% of the population works in the informal sector and everyone who wants to survive in this maelstrom has to be an entrepreneur, wheeling and dealing to make a dollar or two to live another day. This daily struggle leads to an inherent sense of creativity that is also reflected in the arts.

Kinshasa has given Africa some of its greatest artists. The painters Chéri Samba and Chéri Cherin, the sculptor Freddy Tsimba, the sculptor and model maker Bodys Isek Kingelez and the legendary musician Papa Wemba. These artists draw their inspiration from the daily life and the people of Kinshasa and the extraordinary ethnic mix of the city which draws in people from across one of Africa's largest countries and further afield. Often, the waves of people converging on the capital, fleeing violence and poverty in other parts of the country settle in ethnic groups in Kinshasa and bring with them the traditions, ceremonies and songs of their regions. Rituals are passed from one generation to the next and thus preserved for the future.

An elder in one of Kinshasa's communities told Pascal that "if these ceremonies are still practiced it's mainly to please the ancestors and ask for their protection. We always try to have representations of beauty. In the villages we always entrust the most talented sculptor with making statues and masks whose beauty hopefully delights our ancestors." Many Western artists such as Picasso, Derain, Matisse and Modigliani have drawn extensively on African masks and statues in the formation of their own aesthetic.

When the famous Swedish writer Henning Mankell addressed the assembled dignitaries at the 2013 Davos World Economic Forum he told a story from his travels. "In the 1980s Mozambique was ravaged by civil war. While I was walking along a road, I met a boy who was poor, hungry and was wearing ragged clothes. Yet he had used his imagination to preserve his dignity by painting his shoes." The ethos of this story, according to Pascal, could be applied to most Kinois.

Pascal Maitre
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