On the opening wall label for the Museum of Modern Art’s Bodys Isek Kingelez retrospective, the curators have compiled a list of materials deployed by the visionary Congolese artist “roughly organized from most to least prevalent.” To create his wildly complex, fantastical cityscapes, Kingelez used a wealth of commonplace materials and found objects, according to the inventory studiously prepared by conservators and curators, ranging from: “Paper (including colored paper, printed paper, wrapping paper and tissue paper); corrugated cardboard, paperboard, and printed commercial packaging; wood; acrylic and plastic; aluminum and metallic foil and cardboard; rubber foam, Styrofoam, and foamcore; ink, pencil, colored pencil, crayon, marker, and paint (paint pen, gouache, and poster paint); adhesive, tape (colored tape and metallic tape), and stickers; fabric, yarn, string, thread, and twine; beads (paper, wood, and plastic); balls (plastic, foam, and thread-wrapped); paper and plastic straws; copper wire, coated wire, and metal grommets; toothpicks, pins (including map pins, pushpins, and thumbtacks), and nails; aluminum cans, plastic bottles, and bottle caps; and mirrors, 35mm plastic slide mounts, ballpoint-pen shafts, circuit-board diodes and electric lights.”
Using these everyday objects, Kingelez created brilliantly colored and inventive utopian cityscapes. When MOMA curator Sarah Suzuki first encountered Kingelez’s work in the often cerebral world of contemporary-art fairs, it stunned her. “There was a joyful sensory overload,” she says. “It hit me like a thunderbolt.”
Kingelez, who died in 2015, is something of a mystery. “If you asked 100 art-world types, ‘Who is Kingelez?,’ 95 would say, ‘I’ve never heard of him before,’ and five would say, ‘That’s my favorite artist,'” says Suzuki. Kingelez has also largely existed outside the commercial hothouse, where the works of favored art stars trade like ever escalating commodities. Suzuki says Kingelez did not have a commercial dealer during his lifetime, and sales records show that his work trades infrequently and for relatively modest amounts. Sotheby’s sold a small piece for about $60,000 this year; other pieces have sold for as little as $7,400.
The MOMA show is likely to transform interest in his work. The show, which contains more than 30 pieces, is Kingelez’s first major retrospective and includes roughly one-third of his work. Yet one challenge for potential collectors and museums is the ephemeral nature of much of his materials. “The materials are imbued with what curators refer to as ‘inherent vice,'” explains Suzuki. “The material itself is not intended to last.”
Kingelez was born in a small agricultural village in the Democratic Republic of Congo, then known as the Belgian Congo, in 1948. He moved to the capital, Kinshasa, as a young man to attend school, later becoming a teacher before being compelled to make art. In a wonderful creation story that Suzuki uncovered, Kingelez recounts creating a sculpture out of paper and presenting it to the national museum. Suzuki says museum officials, blown away by the work’s technical mastery, refused to believe that he had made it himself. They accused him of stealing it, and then demanded that he create another one before their eyes. After he did, they hired him as a restorer, where he stayed for six years, before becoming a full-time artist.
Highly attuned to geopolitics, both globally and in postcolonial Africa, Kingelez’s cityscapes “present models for a more harmonious society for the future,” according to MOMA materials.
One of the highlights of the show is Kimbembele Ihunga (1994), a fantastical rendering of the village where he was born transformed into a dazzling metropolis, with a large stadium, a statue of his father, broad boulevards, skyscrapers and a grand train station, all rendered in wild colors. “This town,” Kingelez wrote, “is the very image of my ability to create a new world.”
Art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu writes that Kingelez’s “fantastical, colorful and audacious objects” represent an artist’s “ever-necessary task of envisioning the present and future world.” And it’s a world that is providing much delight to museumgoers in New York City, where the exhibit is on display until Jan. 1. Suzuki says people leaving the show tell the guards that it made them feel joyful. In his work, Kingelez depicts “a place of optimism, a place of beauty,” says Suzuki. “That feels very welcome.”
This appears in the July 09, 2018 issue of TIME.