By DAVID JAGER September 29, 2023
Jean Katambayi Mukendi has been described as a restless force of nature, a self-professed tinkerer and kleptomaniac who is incapable of leaving things alone or sitting still. His current show at Ramiken, tucked away just off of Grand Street, is the result of his restless assemblage and creation, as he has just completed a residency in the space. The gallery had become a repository for Mukendi’s ‘stuff’, raw material such as paper, wood, paint and ink, bits of plastic, metal and wire. Mukendi was there when I wandered for the opening, a little early, with my friend Brian Boucher. He was still obsessively laboring away at the detail of a drawing- a large wall mural, in fact- and seemed a bit put off at the arrival of actual viewers. You get the idea that this is something Mukendi would be doing with or without an audience.
Mukendi’s current show addresses the concept of ‘City’ and transforms the entire room into a zany and obsessively detailed install that reflects one in microcosm. Entering you have the sense of an eccentric metropolis: drawings along all the walls, large cubes suspended from the ceiling, colorful towers built of multicolored plastic, and above all of it, a giant robot. Within each of these are smaller sculptures and architectural models, things within things that suggest a dizzying and infinite spiral from Macro to micro.
Taken altogether it reads as both frothy afro-futurist fantasy and scathing critique. The suspended cubes are embossed with cryptic and sometimes illegible symbols. The towers contain odd objects behind colored windows of plastic. Shapes from urban life dominate his wall sized mural: a cockroach, energy producing blobs and coils, subway doors, and animal silhouettes suggest symbiosis with natural systems and the intricate tubing that make up the whole of a city.
Some of the sculptures nested within his larger objects are made from precious materials that are intrinsic to the fractured economy of his native Congo. Copper, which is used in countless electrical and tech applications, and cobalt, used in lithium-ion batteries and essential to power your smartphone. These are the elements over which China and America are waging their current trade war, and they are the elements that power the current African plague of ‘artisanal mining’, where children as young as eight are sent down rickety ladders into makeshift ‘mines’. Mukendi wants us to encounter the raw exploitation powering our Instagram feeds.
Yet all of this madness of infrastructure and economic exploitation is addressed not as diatribe, but in a spirit of play. The suspended cubes and the wall drawings have a pleasingly decorative and geometric inventiveness, and the robot stands in the corner like a giant and friendly child’s toy. It’s as if Mukendi wants to explore the precise juncture of shiny and sinister, the way in which technological first world marvels appear so pristine and yet have horrible secrets nested within them.
Science fiction has appeared to grip the African imagination in the last twenty or so years, and it’s no wonder. Never has so much been promised to a continent that continues to have so little, and the promise is always geared towards the future. The Marvel Universe has even placed the world’s pre-eminent techno fantasy utopia, Wakanda, in Sub Saharan Africa, almost as a cheeky snub to reality. Nnedi Okorafor’s dystopian African futures similarly explore the discrepancies between future high-tech and African daily life. And fellow Congolese sculptor Bodys Isek Kingelez’s follows the same whimsical impulse of Mukendi, building fantastical future cityscapes out of the detritus of third world poverty. With nothing but junk, all these artists have left is their imagination.
Mukendi has explicitly said that his work wishes to address the ways in which the promissory language of development, economics, and technology are coded into every day technological objects. His “Afrolampe” series, drawings that exhaustively mined the geometry of the common lightbulb, use the formalist language of technical drawing and extends it into a discourse on African economic dysphoria.
Mukendi is the son of an electrical engineer and an electrical engineer by training. But Mukendi is less about technocratic solutions and more about the fevered and exploitative fantasy it engenders. His installation is an exploration and a critique of visionary madness: the greed and technology driven mania that promises the world and then renders your native land- the most resource rich country on the planet- one the poorest nations on earth.
You’ll never look at your iPhone in the same way again. WM
David Jager is an arts and culture writer based in New York City. He contributed to Toronto's NOW magazine for over a decade, and continues to write for numerous other publications. He has also worked as a curator. David received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Toronto in 2021. He also writes screenplays and rock musicals.view all articles from this author