A full day’s drive from the capital of Kinshasa, the city of Kikwit sits above the Kwilu River. Even though the population is somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 people, it is often referred to as a village. And many of its residents live a life no more advanced than those in the small villages that dot the highway on the way to Kikwit.
In the downtown core of the city, if you know where to look, you can find the Kikwit Art School. The school consists one room, the size of a small bedroom, built out of ill-fitting wood panels. Supplies are limited to a few buckets of paint and some brushes. If you look close in the video, you can see what look like some roller frames hanging from the top of the wall, suggesting that the would-be artists might have house painting as a back-up plan. Across the dirt road from the paint room, students nail their canvases to a plaster wall. And when I say canvas, I really mean any fabric they can find to paint on. The art I bought in Kikwit was painted on an old flour sack.
The simplistic nature of the school seems to translate into the paintings the students produce. While artists in the capital city of Kinshasa create powerful images that evoke emotion, the students in Kikwit . . . Well, they don’t. Take a look at the work of the three painters in the video. I had hopes that in a city that’s bigger than Spokane I’d find at least a small art community. The reality though, is that art is a luxury, and when you don’t have running water or a reliable income, you don’t indulge in luxury. I imagine that most artists hope to one day sell the art they create, but in a country with the world’s worst per capita income, most people don’t spend money on art. At least in Kinshasa economic development has created some limited wealth; an established artist there might sell a painting for several thousand dollars. In contrast, in Kikwit I bought a painting for $5. And that’s without bartering; I’m probably one of the few people to pay full price for something in Congo, where bartering is a core economic principle. I’ll put the painting up in a future post; you can tell me if I paid too much.