Visionary artist Bodys Isek Kingelez created dazzling, intricate architectural sculptures that he called “extreme maquettes.”1 Born in the agricultural village of Kimbembele Ihunga in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1948, he came of age in a period of enormous political and social transformation. In 1970, he relocated to Kinshasa—the capital of the newly independent nation renamed Zaire—to pursue a university education. After his studies, motivated by a desire to make a civic contribution to his country, Kingelez worked briefly as a secondary school teacher. However, he soon became “obsessed with the idea of getting my hands on some scissors, a Gillette razor, and some glue and paper…”2 and began to create sculptures that took the form of buildings, constructed from modest materials like paper, cardboard, and repurposed commercial packaging, and embellished with push-pins, straws, elaborate hand-applied designs, and more. It was through these sculptures that he felt he could help shape “a better, more peaceful world.”3 The technical excellence of Kingelez’s early work led to his hiring as a restorer at the National Museums Institute of Zaire, where he repaired traditional objects in the collection until he devoted himself to art making full-time in the early 1980s.
In Kingelez’s experience of Kinshasa, a sense of limitless potential existed alongside unchecked urban growth and escalating evidence of the corruption of dictator Mobutu Sese Soko’s regime. It was this urban landscape that inspired him: “For me, Kinshasa was The City,” he said.4 While he occasionally referenced its prominent landmarks, his sculptures mostly embody the potential he saw in Kinshasa. One of his earliest sculptures, Cité du 24 Novembre de l’Authenticité Africaine (1980), is an idealized version of the city, with a church, an artists’ village, and pleasingly organized streets and plantings. Kinshasa would appear in myriad forms throughout the artist’s work, including in Kinshasa la Belle (1991), a round building covered with sky-blue paper cutouts that Kingelez described as a swarm of butterflies. Inspiring architecture, beauty, and living in harmony with nature were all central to his vision of a vital urban space.
From the outset, Kingelez focused on the public good. His early sculptures consist mostly of individual structures that fulfill various civic needs, including municipal buildings, public monuments, and national pavilions. Examples from this body of work would propel Kingelez to international renown in 1989, when he participated in Magiciens de la Terre at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, a groundbreaking and controversial exhibition that sought to present a global survey of contemporary art. In subsequent years, he added more adornment to his work and increased its complexity and scale as he began to combine his buildings into expansive cityscapes. The first of these was Kimbembele Ihunga (1994), in which he reimagined his home village as a technologically advanced modern metropolis, complete with a stadium, shopping center, railway station, and skyscrapers. Ever forward-looking, Kingelez once said that “a city without high-rise buildings is a non-existent city.”5
In his later work, Kingelez incorporated increasingly unorthodox materials, including soda cans and electric lights, as well as transparent colored plastic sheets and metallic foils, amplifying its futuristic character. U.N. (1995), one of his most stunningly decorated sculptures, is a riot of color and texture, with glimmering silver and gold highlights. Kingelez often related his work to current events; he made U.N. in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, reflecting his belief in a world of democracy, peace, and cooperation. For him, art had the power to transform, and his desires to make art and help build a global society were one. As he put it, “Art is the grandest adventure of them all…art is a high form of knowledge, a vehicle for individual renewal that contributes to a better collective future.”6