Imprisoned for a painting

An artist from Congo is still under surveillance

by Sebastiaan van Loosbroek

38 paintings by artist Sapin Makengele (37), in which he criticises African politicians, are on exhibit in the African Studies Centre until the end of June. “I was in prison for them.”

“I enjoy suffering”, explains Congolese artist Sapin Makengele (37). “I grew up in an environment in which suffering always played a major part. The people who made me suffer in my childhood are now the ones who compliment me on my art.”

Makengele grew up in Congo, which was still called Zaire in those days. The country was governed by Mobutu, a dictatorial leader who scared both his own subjects and other leaders. He had charisma, Makengele recalls. “If you talked to him, you would forget he had murdered so many people. His nickname was ‘le roi léopard’”, Makengele continues. “He always wore a leopard-skin hat and told everyone he had killed a leopard when he was twelve. Everyone believed him because he could make it sound so credible.”

“Mobutu tortured and killed people who disagreed with him; by contrast, he also tried to create a party mood to keep the population happy and public parties were held every week end. Everyone was given free food and drink; free clothes, with Mobutu’s face printed on them, were handed out. Mobutu tried to influence the population in his favour, so they would forget his terrible deeds.”

Three years ago, the artist left the capital, Kinshasa, to live in America. At the University of Michigan, he and a historian made a documentary about the history of the University of Kinshasa.

To work on the documentary, he needed to return to his native country now and then, which is when he met anthropologist Catherina Wilson from Leiden University. They married and, as a result, he came to live in the Netherlands.

Makengele has been criticising African politics and society in his work since 2010, but it wasn’t always a smooth ride. He was arrested for his painting “The Irresponsibility of the Leaders”, which marks fifty years of Congo’s independence.

“I spent a few days in prison. It was very scary - I thought I wouldn’t get out of there alive.”
In Congo, Makengele would not dare show the paintings now exhibited on the third floor of the Pieter de la Court Building. “It would be very dangerous. I’m actually afraid to return to Congo at all, as I might be arrested, but I haven’t seen my family for three years, so I really would like to go back.”

However, Makengele insists that he is not completely free in the Netherlands either: all the Congolese who live outside Congo are regarded as an enemy. “They have a network that keeps us under surveillance. I feel at ease here, but I’m careful.”

Almost every painting features a question mark. “It stands for the question: will I succeed? The colour yellow, which can be found in all my pictures, holds the answer. However difficult your life might be, you will always find a way to make it better. Yellow stands for happiness, light and hope. It’s my favourite colour, so I always want to include it.”

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