SALA Festival
2 – 28  AUGUST 2020

Pierre Mukeba ‘Undisclosed’ Opening Speech

Rhana Devenport ONZM
2 August, 2020

I wish to acknowledge the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains on whose land we stand; and honour their ancestors past, present and emerging.

‘Essential’ and ‘non-essential’ – these words have assumed new meaning against our strange and volatile world with the twin 2020 upheavals wrought by the pandemic, and global awareness of the BlackLivesMatter movement – these forces are played out in a world of rapid change and economic and political strangeness. Yet we chose to be here, to be together in our extraordinarily fortunate situation in South Australia, and art matters like never before.

Artists create portals to the imagination, to history, to the future, to emotions and to thought. Never in my lifetime has the role of art in society been distilled so clearly, as artists offer solace and criticality in equal measure. Art tells the universal truth of our time; it reminds us of our humanity in all its fragility and fortitude. Art is the work of the imagination; it offers a direct connection to empathy, pleasure, analysis and insight, and reveals ourselves to us. Art is essential.

Pierre’s debut solo exhibition in 2017, Trauma, at Greenaway Gallery featured a suite of full-length portraits on unstretched cotton. I remember vividly seeing his work for the first time. The figures are drawn and coloured in brush pen and their clothing is detailed with colourful fabric appliques, which is offset by large areas of unmarked raw cotton. The Trauma series contains named and unnamed portraits of exploited labourers, child soldiers, mothers and victims of poverty and violence. Throughout the series the figures maintain a strong outward gaze, implicating the viewer as a known witness to the suffering and hardship of the protagonists.

Today is also the day we close the 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Monster Theatres at AGSA – so Pierre, you are the beginning and the end! Pierre’s double tableau, Kitenge (Part I), 2020, and Kitenge (Part II), 2020, is the largest of his works to date. His subjects stand astride with an outward gaze that meets our own as we pass through the curved diorama. The troupe of characters reflects his influences, from the traditional dress of Pende tribesmen to street fashion; even a reverence for classicism is evident in the contrapposto stance of his nude male subjects. His use of brightly patterned African wax-resist fabrics also embodies a history of cross-cultural translation. Having imitated Javanese batik for the Dutch market in the early 1800s, the fabric was subsequently introduced in West Africa following Dutch colonial trade routes. It has since become deeply localised with a visual language and cultural significance specific to the region. Mukeba’s appliqué fuses these diverse cultural geographies and embodied histories, slowly piecing together his past and present in quiet reconciliation.

Undisclosed is the title of this current exhibition – it means concealed or hidden – what Pierre Mukeba is directly engaged in is revealing what is concealed or hidden; in this way he is utterly contemporary.

As I often say – all great art was contemporary once – hence the powerful and unexpected connections that can and will continuously emerge from juxtapositions between great art across time. I was talking today with Pierre about his love of Michelangelo and the grand narrative paintings including Raphael and Caravaggio that hang in the Vatican. This aspect of the contemporaneous is the force within art that can speak to different generations and different locations with clarity, empathy and meaning.

So … what are the characteristics of contemporary art? Australian born theorist and art critic, Terry Smith is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh. He wrote a work in 2009 entitled ‘What is Contemporary Art?’ In it Smith defines four characteristics which I paraphrase as, art that is shaped by:

  • Multiculturalism and the post-colonial turn
  • Postmodernity
  • Connectivity and the trajectories of emergent technologies, and
  • The speed of change and evolving time, that is, living with

Smith reveals how postcolonial artists are engaged in a practice that references local concerns and addresses questions of identity, history, and globalization. Also, artists approach contemporaneity by ‘investigating time, place, mediation, and ethics through small-scale, closely connective art making’.

What Smith outlines is that one of the conditions of contemporaneity is that ‘synthesis will never occur’, conditions are irreconcilable and irresolute. 

The postcolonial and the contemporaneous are ever present in Pierre’s investigations, born in Bukavu in the east of Democratic Republic of Congo, the artist grew up in the shadows of civil war before he gained asylum in Adelaide in 2006.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is fraught with political instability, armed clashes, and human rights violations. It is a vast country with immense economic resources such as gold, copper, diamonds and oil, and yet with a torrid colonial past. Until recently, it has been at the centre of what some observers call "Africa's world war", a series of seemingly endless and civil wars. By 2008, the violence and its aftermath had caused 5.4 million deaths, principally through disease and starvation, making the Second Congo War the deadliest conflict worldwide since World War II. The DRC is also the African country with the highest number of internally displaced people at 4.5 million. 

Pierre draws on his early life in Central Africa to produce distinctive textile works, creating scenes of family life, of resilience in the face of trauma, as well as contemporary portrayals of African-Australian experience.

One of the particular qualities of the visual art experience is that it can occur on a singular basis, this can be immediate, personal and potent. Galleries and museums can offer a safe shared communal space that allows for these moments of intimacy – however fleeting – to take place.

I am thinking of one work in particular – Undisclosed 1 from 2019 – the soldier gazes towards us – resolved, he rests on a blanket, pensive, he is life size, his hat on the handle of his drawn rifle, yet blood red flowers begin to envelop him, and most importantly he returns our gaze. If the nature of contemporary art is its direct participation in our time – a time that is changing before our eyes and urges us to contribute in a positive way – then these works by Pierre Mukeba are both utterly contemporary and essential.

Pierre Mukeba (b.1995) recently exhibited two major works in the 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art – Monster Theatres; each work was just over 6 meters wide and finished just before the Biennial opened in March 2020. The AGSA along with the rest of the country closed down due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Pierre unable to work or leave home re-discovered rice paper and could express himself with markers and paint on a simple table, sometimes gluing sheets of paper together forming irregular shapes. Images flooded back of the violence and injustice occurring in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These new works seem more spontaneous and expressive in their direct narratives.
In only a short few years Pierre Mukeba has quietly established himself as a strong voice to tell stories of African migrants history; his work has been acquired by the NGV, QUT Art Museum, Shepparton Art Museum, Wyndham Art Gallery and AGSA. He took home the 2017 Churchie National Emerging Art Prize and the Peoples Choice Prize in the Ramsay Art Prize supported by Lipman Karas in 2019.