Getting under our skin

EYEFUL: Maurice Mbikayi exhibits Notre Peau at the Association for Visual Art gallery.

EYEFUL: Maurice Mbikayi exhibits Notre Peau at the Association for Visual Art gallery.

Published Jan 21, 2011


Maurice Mbiyaki’s artwork is driven by both truth and duty. He says most humbly: “I’m a just an instrument made by my immediate society. I portray what I feel and I can easily shift from political to eco and socio-economic issues through my art.”

Maurice says that as an artist, in dictatorship regimes like his country, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), it’s not easy to debate sensitive socio-political issues, never mind express them through your art, for fear of being arrested or bumped off.

As a contemporary multidisciplinary artist, Maurice explores fresh ways of way of engaging the public and interrogating social boundaries around current socio-political issues through photography, mixed media, sculpture, painting, installation and public performances. Maurice is most famous for Voices, a highlight of the Spier Contemporary 2010. In his striking public performance piece he was theatrically bandaged head to toe, riding a black stallion through the Grand Parade outside the City Hall. “I was exploring elements of an existing relationship between a new country and me,” he explains.

Maurice has been in South Africa since 2004: “I was curious to visit Mandela’s country and, as an artist, to feel free. But I love my home and I will return.”

Maurice says his experience as a “foreign black male” living in constant uncertainty can sometimes make him defensive, but he rates identity and differences as a positive with the rich cultural off-shoots being diversity. “I sincerely don’t feel alienated in South Africa. I dearly admire the culture but I consider myself a citizen of the world. One can feel alienated anywhere, even in your own country. I am inspired living in a cosmopolitan society experiencing a multifaceted reality of cultures, tribes, languages and races. I think that in our globalised world one has to be willing to compromise, renegotiate and adapt to become reborn.”

But Maurice admits that South Africa has this “curious habit or attitude” of not being open to exploring the rest of Africa. “South Africa absorbs European and US culture. It’s a good thing, of course, but I think there’s treasure even in the poorest places in Africa.”

He feels the DRC still needs to be discovered in terms of culture and diversity. “It is just amazing. Congolese artists never lack inspiration and creativity.”

In saying that he credits his inspiration to American artists Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol. “I also admire the work of Wangechi Mutu, originally from Kenya, and Wang Du from China.” He is equally a big fan of Chéri Samba, a painter from Maurice’s hometown, Kinshasa, and one of the most famous contemporary African artists, whose works are in the collections at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Maurice’s latest works are beautiful but highly poignant large-scale mixed media pieces. For the past two years he has obsessively collected found electronic remnants such as computer keyboards, discarded tape measures and computer cables. “My mixed media drawings and sculptures ask questions such as to whom are such technological resources made available and at what or whose expense? What are the consequences impacting our people and environment?”

Maurice’s small-scale personal exploration on e-waste in his exhibition, Notre Peau (Our Skin), he says, equally links to his concern in his home country about the heavy reliance on mining for natural resources and subsequent exploitation of low wages. Maurice says Notre Peau is a metaphor used to illustrate a distinctly African response to the various impacts of technology on the continent. “While exposed to the elements and easily injured, skin can also be described as extraordinarily resilient. It is able to regenerate and repair itself, and change in colour or shade to adapt to its environment. While working with found objects, I felt exposed to the danger of its effects and I tend to sympathise with people who are exposed to toxic metals on a daily basis.”

According to Maurice’s research, e-waste is dramatically increasing. “It is projected to double in 2012,” he says. “Most e-waste ends up in poor and unorganised sectors where labourers with no training or protection dismantle products, often with their bare hands, with the aim of reselling the components. But in the discourse of the technological revolution and the way the contemporary world is being globalised, it would be foolish to ignore the contribution of technology in our daily life – to reject it would be unreasonable and go against global businesses and preclude the flow of ideas and knowledge. So the dilemma of e-waste is a vicious circle and is only getting worse.”

l Notre Peau is at the AVA at 35 Church Street. It runs from Monday to February 18. See Gallery hours are weekdays from 10am to 5pm, and Saturdays from 10am to 1pm. Call 021 214247436 or see

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