‘When I came to Kinshasa, some of my competitors’ paintings were so alive, they seemed to move and breathe. I needed to stand out, so I started to add text to my paintings. This was also a strategy to keep people looking at them a little longer. I also like to use bright colours because that’s what I see around me. Colour is everywhere; colour is life.’ Samba later befriended and formed an association with those same admired competitors, notably Moke, Chéri Chérin and Bodo (now an evangelical preacher), as well as mentoring younger artists, including his brother Cheik Ledy, who died in 1997. Works by all four are included in the Tate’s year-long display.
‘When I paint, my main concerns are to represent things as they are, to communicate with humour, to ask relevant questions and to tell the truth. I consider myself a sort of painter-journalist. My source of inspiration is daily life. I always have suitcases full of ideas. As long as the world is the world, and writers have stories to tell, I will have something to say. Each time I meet someone, I think of another two or three paintings, but I don’t have time to realise them all.’
Successful exhibitions in Paris’ Pompidou Centre and the Bilbao Guggenheim have helped generate new levels of interest and respect for contemporary African art. Samba, whose work is increasingly in demand in Europe and the United States, is preparing an exhibition for this year’s Venice Biennale. ‘I can’t tell you too much, as I want everything to be well-cooked before it is eaten. But there will be some real revelations. Everyone will be bowled over, especially Christians.’ He chuckles, ‘It will be une vraie catastrophe!’
In an avidly-Christian country, any criticism of religion is startling, but there are several copies of the Bible on his bookshelf, just along from the soft-porn videos. ‘If I was in charge, I would stop everyone except children from going to church: it is such a performance. As far as I know, manna doesn’t fall from heaven anymore, so why do people waste time on their knees?’
The increasingly Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) recently held its first free elections in four decades of dictatorship and strife. Corrupt politics and violence have cast long shadows, but Samba is hopeful that his country can now progress: ‘We need to change our mentality. There is so much to do. Instead of criticising things, each of us should consider how we can contribute, and be ready to do some work, even to start paying taxes. I heard the President say “Playtime is over”. I give him my blessing.’
Fred Robarts is a writer based in Kinshasa. ‘Popular Painting’ featuring work by Chéri Samba, is at Tate Modern (Level 5, ‘States of Flux’ suite).