Bodys Isek Kingelez
Étoile Rouge Congolaise, 1990
Paper, cardboard, polystyrene, plastic, and found material, 85 x 92 x 50 cm
© Courtesy Bodys Isek Kingelez
C.A.A.C-The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva
“I wanted my art to serve the community that is being reborn to create a new world, because the pleasures of our earthly world depend on the people who live in it. I created these cities so there would be lasting peace, justice and universal freedom. They will function like small secular states with their own political structure, and will not need policemen or an army.” —Bodys Isek Kingelez(1)
Bodys Isek Kingelez, or Jean Baptiste, (b. 1948, Kimbembele Ihunga, Belgian Congo; d. 2015, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo) was an artist mostly known for his models of utopic African metropolis made from paper, cardboard, and wood. After graduating from secondary school, Kingelez moved to Kinshasa (current capital and largest city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo), where he studied part-time, supporting himself by teaching at a high school.(2) In 1969, he decided to present one of his first building models at the National Museum in Kinshasa. At first the museum did not believe that he made such a work, so they offered him a chance to stay and work for the museum for two weeks to prove he was indeed the creator. (3)Ultimately, he proved his skills and was hired as a restorer of tribal masks for the museum.(4)
Inspired by the sprawling, chaotic, anarchic city of Kinshasa, Kingelez continued experimenting with cardboard and found materials, assembling models of individual architectural structures, fantastic constructions that questioned the human condition and offered a redemptive vision for the city.(5) He called them “extrêmes maquettes” (extreme models), as they were extremely strange, tall, detailed, and meaningful.(6) Despite having no training as an architect and little hope of turning his cardboard models into actual buildings, Kingelez believed that his Architectural Modelism could contribute "to creating a new world."(7) For him, his art explored notions of hope, renewal, and regeneration.(8)
In 1990 Kingelez constructed one of his first futuristic architectural models, Étoile Rouge Congolaise. The incredibly detailed and colorful work was made mainly from paper, cardboard, Styrofoam, used packaging, and a variety of other found materials. The red star on top of the construction is not only a part of the futuristic building’s designation, but also decorates the roof. The model looks like a modern representation of a socialist building since the red star, five-pointed and filled, has served since about 1917 as an important symbol often associated with communist ideology. It has been widely used in flags, state emblems, monuments, ornaments, and logos. Representing the artist’s political ideals for society, Kingelez’s model cities are a reaction to excessive construction projects financed by the World Bank, projects which ignored the needs of the local population and in many places forebode a ruinous existence even before their completion.(9)
By 1994 his models of individual architectural structures became entire cities, with numerous buildings, avenues, parks, stadiums, and monuments. Kingelez created more than 300 models during his lifetime from materials found in the urban world. These colossal works, which were incorporated into a carefully scaled and conceived urban grid, fulfilled all the functions of an ideal African metropolis that the artist wanted to see built.(10)
Show: Étoile Rouge Congolaise (1990)
Look closely. What is the first thing you notice about the model? List five words you would use to describe it.
Imagine someone constructs this building. Who do you think would use it? For what purpose? If you could walk inside, what would you see? How would you feel?
Kingelez stated, “The joys of our world are, after all, dependent on the people living in it. I built these cities to be full of peace, justice and freedom. They should function like little secular states with their own political structures, without police and without military.”(11) Discuss Kingelez’s ideas with your classmates. Do you think cities like the ones he conceives are viable or ideal? Explain your answer.
Kingelez believed that Architectural Modelism could contribute to creating a new world. Do you think art can contribute to creating a new or better world? Explain.
Create your own “extrêmes maquettes”
Kingelez built entire cities, including numerous buildings, avenues, parks, stadiums, and monuments. He saw his models, “extrêmes maquettes,” as prototypes for a community-based urban life in a future Africa. “I want my art to foster the revitalization of a community and ultimately lead to the creation of a new world,” the artist said.(12)
Using paper, cardboard, Styrofoam, and found objects, challenge students to create a building model that might be part of Kingelez’s imaginary city surrounding Étoile Rouge Congolaise. Students should start by drawing a rectangle of 15 x 10 cm or use one-fourth of an A4 sheet for the base of the building. Then, each student will construct their building by scaling their drawing (1 cm = 2 cm).
When the buildings are finished, ask them to combine all the parts of the city in an urban grid. Once they place the parts, they should discuss what elements are missing to function as an ideal metropolis and then build them.
Present the final projects in an exhibit at school. Have students write labels explaining their choices and collectively decide on a name for the city they’ve created.
As an alternative, students can do their project using a 3D modeling computer program. They can download Google SketchUp at sketchup.google.com/download or another program to create 3D models.
Architectural Modelism: Bodys Isek Kingelez’s term for his models of imaginary buildings and entire cities.
Model: Physical representation of a structure.
World Bank: International financial institution that provides loans to developing countries for fundamental facilities and systems.
Cultural Base: An online information source on contemporary international artists, cultural practitioners, and experts from all fields.
Alfonso D’Urso‘s blog
http://elviajedeunavida.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/p-margin-bottom-0_01.html (In Spanish)
www.rfi.fr/afrique/20150320-hommage-kingelez-artiste-congolais-architecte-utopies (In French)
The Contemporary African Art Collection
Vitra Design Museum
Yilmaz Dziewior, Bodys Isek Kingelez. Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2001.