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Origins of Congolese Painting

Thomas Bayet

Georges Thiry, a young agent of the colonial administration—originally from Verviers, Belgium, and also a writer and artist working under the pseudonym Dulonge—became aware of a painting tradition in the Congo as soon as he arrived in Shaba province in 1926. This art was ephemeral, as it involved painting images onto earthen walls.

Sketch of Albert Lubaki by Georges Thiry. (L’Indépendance Belge, 26 June 1929)


Letters between Georges Thiry and Lubaki. (Dierickx Archives; P. Loos Archives)

Thiry was walking around the town of Elisabethville when he saw an “enormous fresco representing a crocodile with comb-like teeth that appears to be dozing, while nearby two amorous birds kiss.” [1] The painter of the fresco was Albert Lubaki, a thirty-two-year-old Bakongo ivory sculptor married to Antoinette, the daughter of Chief Lumpungu.
Thiry provided Lubaki sheets of paper and watercolour blocks and requested that the artist recreate the images on paper. The few letters exchanged between Thiry and Lubaki between 1926 and 1932 confirm their mutual appreciation.
Thiry also collaborated with Gaston-Denys Périer, a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Economic Affairs in Brussels who was highly active in the arts. Gaston-Denys Périer, enthused by the originality and freshness of Lubaki’s work, organised the first exhibition of Watercolours by the Negro Painter Lubaki at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, opening on 29 June 1929. In total, 163 watercolours were exhibited, divided into three groups: ‘the animated bush’, presenting fauna and flora; ‘indigenous encounters’, illustrating daily life in the village and town; and finally, ‘Whites as seen by a Black man’.
Thiry’s continuing efforts in Paris with Gus Bofa and Carlo Rim were eventually rewarded. The exhibition took place at the last Salon de l’Araignée, then at the Galerie Charles-August Girard from 18 to 30 November 1929. [2]  Eugène Pittard, a curator at the Ethnography Museum in Geneva, had already exhibited paintings from Abyssinia and saw Lubaki’s work as a significant continuation. He contacted Périer to exhibit Lubaki’s works in Geneva in 1930, and devoted a key article to it in the Swiss general anthropology archives, in which he reproduced and described approximately ten watercolours. [3]

Invitation card for Lubaki’s exhibition in Paris, November 1929, at Galerie Charles-Auguste Girard. (A. Magnin, Paris)

Périer and Thiry did not limit themselves to highlighting local painting. They both promoted African culture more broadly, especially contemporary art, in all of its forms. In 1930, Périer published a collection entitled Négreries et Curiosités Congolaises [Congolese Negroes and Curiosities] which reproduced
a watercolour by Lubaki on the cover, a major first for the European market.
The book was also illustrated with sketches by Dulonge (Thiry’s pseudonym)
and watercolours by Lubaki. [4] 
While people at the time only mentioned Lubaki, he doesn’t appear to have worked alone. Correspondence preserved between Thiry and Périer clearly mentions the École d’essais picturaux or “Georges Dulonge’s school of Congolese painting in the Belgian Congo, which aims to save the art of the Congolese fresco.” [5] And in fact, several names appear on works attributed to Lubaki. That of his wife Antoinette arises most frequently. On two works kept at the Cabinet des Estampes in Brussels (the drawing and printing department at the Royal Library of Belgium), the name of Alphonse Kalenga has obviously been concealed to leave space for the countersignatures of Lubaki and Atoinette. It seems likely that Thiry and Lubaki had developed a small production centre that brought together several artists under the ‘direction’ of Lubaki.

Painter Albert Lubaki standing among friends in Panda, Likasi;

the woman next to him is believed to be his wife Antoinette, though Georges Thiry only mentions Albert Lubaki. (P. Loos Archives)

Around 1929, Thiry discovered a house in Ibanshe decorated with soldiers sounding the bugle. The painting had been done by Djilatendo (Tshyela Ntendu)—the chief of a family from the Lulua tribe; a thin, slight man with a goatee and tapered moustache. Thiry repeated his earlier request to Lubaki, suggesting that he provide Djilatendo with paper and watercolours in order to compose this pictorial world on paper.

Djilatendo working in front of his house.

Photo exhibited at Galerie Schwarzenberg, December 1931.

(Dierickx Archives; P. Loos Archives)

Thiry relates that he drew “ferocious leopard hunts, battles between mongoose and spider, scenes where the spider captures the rainbow in its web and others where the snake marries the daughter of the moon while a grasshopper gives birth to a star.” Out of this simple enumeration emerged an entire poem taken directly from the realm of fables. He preferred drawing in the fresh air, at a makeshift table out front, while “this immense bush stretches all around him, from which he composes familiar scenes”. Djilatendo’s works later would be found alongside Lubaki’s in European exhibitions starting in 1930.

Cover of the book of fables by Badibanga L’éléphant qui marche sur des oeufs [The Elephant That Walked on Eggs]. (P. Loos Archives)

In their exploration of African culture, Thiry and Périer quickly came to understand that the painted subjects, whether geometric or figurative motifs, resonated within traditional cultures. The bush scenes presenting animals corresponded to the many fables that were passed down orally from generation to generation. Thiry and Périer sent clerks to collect these fables and transcribe them onto paper, which would eventually become a collection of fables in 1931, compiled by Badibanga and illustrated by Djilatendo, with the title L’éléphant qui marche sur des oeufs [The Elephant That Walked on Eggs]. [6]
Even though Georges Thiry and Gaston-Denys Périer succeeded in reaching a European audience, it was not the level of success they had hoped for. The two protagonists eventually grew tired of one another, and would go on to continue their promotional efforts individually. Thiry exhibited the artists’ works in smaller spaces across Europe, and his original manuscript from the 1930s, A la recherche de la peinture nègre [In Search of Negro Painting] eventually appeared in 1982, detailing his encounters with Lubaki and Djilatendo.
G.D. Périer faithfully continued documenting his work, never missing an opportunity to highlight the Precursors. After considerable effort, the initial artists who had formed the Precursors disappeared from the public eye. However, their work remains, divided between a few private collections, at the Cabinet des Estampes in Brussels and at the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren; the paintings have retained their spontaneity and freshness, drawing inspiration from an African soil for which we still must find a key in order to understand the greater meanings behind the works.

Story from the book of fables L’éléphant qui marche sur des oeufs [The Elephant That Walked on Eggs], “Pourquoi la pintade est si belle” [Why the Guinea Fowl Is So Beautiful]; illustrations by Djilatendo.

(P. Loos Archives)


[1] Thiry 1982, 11.

[2] Dierickx Archives; P. Loos Archives.

[3] Pittard 1930.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Letters from 24 April 1931 and 20 February 1932, Dierickx Archives; P. Loos Archives.

[6] Badibanga 1931, preface by G.-D. Périer and G. Dulonge, illustrations by Djilatendo.

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