Creating African art that tells a new story : So when the painter Hilary Balu was studying at the  Academy of Fine Arts in Kinshasa, one of the most populous cities of the African continent, he learned about all the masters : Michelangelo, Lenardo da Vinci and so on, until his curriculum turned to royal portraiture.

He marveled at the 16th - century images of men and women posed in gaudy, elaborate frocks. But he wondered, where were the Africans? He decided to find out.

At the same time that velvet robed European kings and queens were being feted in paintings, he learned, the Kuba kingdom was rising in Central Africa. Kuba kings wore leopard skins and eagle feathers. And they ushered in an important era of artistic innovation with their elaborately designed costumes as well as the embroidered textiles, ornately beaded hats and wooden cups used to fete them.

''The story of African art was not in our curriculum,'' Balu said. ''We say Africa is the cradle of mankind, but paradoxically Africa is not represented in art history.''

He played on that idea, producing paintings in 2015 that were copies of the royal portraits - but he carefully cut out the white faces. In their place, he painted masks of Kuba kings. He called the series ''Kuba in the Skin of Someone Else.''

''The idea was to find another way to create our own story by using the story of Europe,'' said Balu, who is 29, and counts as an inspiration Kehinde Wiley, who has questioned the scarcity of Black People in Western art.

Balu lives in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was the home of world-renowned musicians such as Papa Wemb, nicknamed the king of rumba rock. The city also produced the artist Alfred Liyoo, known for his curvy bronze sculptures, one of which is on display at the Vatican.

But for other yet-to-be-famous artists living in the sprawling city of an estimated 17 million people, the struggle to make a living in their craft can be a challenge. For them government funding for the arts seems nearly impossible to secure.

Daily life can be difficult in the capital, where only a few lights twinkle across the lush hills beyond the city center at nightfall - much of the city is without electricity - and the main form of public transit is a set of dented, rusty yellow vans nicknamed Spirit of Death for their propensity for getting into fatal accidents.

Yet art is everywhere : Colorful paintings are sold in fancy hotel lobby exhibitions and propped in the dirt for sale downtown streets, Art from local painters graces the walls of bland, blocky government buildings.

In an old textile factory in the warehouse district, Kin ArtStudio is hosting artist residencies as part of the 2021 Congo Biennale. With its theme, ''The Breath of the Ancestors,'' it is exploring how despite ''the violent dismembering of cultural and spiritual context, centuries of abuse, deception and manipulation, the power of the ancestors cannot be erased,'' said the visual artist Vitshois Mwilambwe Bondo, the founder of both projects.

''How much of the creative genius of the bubbling art scenes comes from the breath of the ancestors?''  he said.

Balu's new work recycles an image from his 2020 series ''Voyage Vers Mars,'' exploring the tragedy of contemporary migration - portraying young people who risk their lives to cross the sea to get to Europe as astronauts leaving an Earth that has become inhabitable to go to Mars.

In both series, the figures in the paintings wear nylon bags that migrants often use to carry belongings, which he has fashioned into an astronaut helmet. The bags are made in China but printed on them are images representing the West - a modern city skyline, for instance. The images, he said, were what outsiders think Africans desire. Another illusion, he said.

Balu wants to stay in Kinshasa. His paintings, he said, would never be the same if he lived elsewhere.

'' When you leave the house and go out, you see people shouting, you smell the chicken and mayo, this smell - that's Kinshasa,'' he said. ''My work incorporates the soul of the community.''

Creating African art that tells a new story.

The World Students Society thanks author Dionne Searcey.


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