Chéri Samba: interview

Fred Robarts visits Chéri Samba, founder of the School of Popular Painting in Kinshasa, as Tate Modern stages its first ever display of contemporary African art

  • Chéri Samba: interview

    'Little Kadogo' by Chéri Samba

  • A sign at the entrance politely dissuades visitors without appointments. Inside, stencils, paint brushes and audio-visual gadgetry abound (I count seventeen remote controls on the table). On the wall is a sketch of Parisians walking their dogs while African immigrants clean the streets of canine excrement. Fans are blowing, and an Abba DVD is playing on one of three televisions, until a power cut plunges us into sweltering darkness.

    Self-taught artist Chéri Samba (full name Samba wa Mbimba N’zingo Nuni Masi Ndo Mbasi) has been documenting and satirising the absurdities of everyday life in the Congo for more than 30 years, often portraying himself in his highly politicised, vivid figurative paintings. An enthusiastic ambassador for his fellow artists, he is a wry, engaging figure.

    ‘I grew up in a village where we could catch and grow all our own food. I used to enjoy sketching animals and faces with my finger in the sand. My father was a blacksmith who made hunting rifles. He wanted me to help him at the forge after school, so I hid my notebooks and sketched at night. I would copy pictures from a popular comic to sell to my friends. I told them I would become a famous artist, that I’d travel everywhere and have a big house.’

    In 1975, after various apprenticeships, Samba opened his own studio, a chipboard box of three square metres, which he shared with eight helpers. ‘We painted billboards and shop signs, and sometimes got in trouble for cutting extra copies of official stamps. At the same time I was working on a comic strip for a newspaper, and also my paintings. At first, I was so proud of these that I had no interest in selling them.’

    But, as his eye-catching clothing suggests, he was not shy of publicity. ‘The day I opened my studio, I hung a big painting outside in the street. It was about a war between two tribes, and showed lots of naked people fighting. It quickly drew a crowd, and by mid-morning there was a terrible traffic jam. The police arrested me for causing a disturbance and for disrespecting Congo’s history.’

    Hoping to avoid his fine, he went to see a féticheur (a local witchdoctor). ‘Those guys are real comedians. We were both completely naked, and I had to take all sorts of strange herbs.’ How to explain this to a Londoner? ‘Magic is anything people find extraordinary and can’t explain. Look at the wrestling on television: it seems miraculous that they escape injury, so I begin to think perhaps it’s magic. Of course, I still had to pay the fine. Nowadays I’d rather go to a journalist than a féticheur!’

    Hearing a commotion outside, Samba climbs a stepladder to peer into the street from the studio’s only window, a makeshift porthole. He fetches two bottles of beer, and we discuss the origins of his distinctive style.

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