Moké established his reputation in the 1970s as a leading practitioner of “popular painting,” a genre that celebrates modern city life. He belonged to a cohort of self-taught artists exploring the postcolonial urban environment of Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Moké, whose real name is Monsengwo Kejwamfi, spent his entire professional life in Kinshasa, depicting the vibrant nightlife, outdoor bars, political rallies, music performances, and the city’s frenetic energy. His paintings were influenced by the work of documentary photographers—especially the Angolan-born Jean Dapara—who chronicled the social life of Kinshasa.
Born in 1950 in Ibe, a small village in Bandundu Province, Moké moved to Kinshasa as a teenager, attracted by the allure of city life and opportunities for employment. He began to make pictures of landscapes on pieces of discarded cardboard and set up his studio at the busy intersection of Kasa Vubu and Bolobo avenues, in a community of billboard and advertising artists. Moké’s early work, like his flattering portrayal of General Mobutu Sese Seko—who had seized power a few years after the country’s political independence from Belgium—waving to a crowd during a parade mirrors his indebtedness to the conventions of commercial art.
In Kinshasa at Noon (1980), Moké reveals the tenor and texture of daily life in Kinshasa, focusing on a bustling crossroad filled with pedestrians and cars. In Long Live Utex Africa (1989), he paints a vivid picture of the rambunctious nightlife of the workers of a textile factory spending leisure time after work at the popular Utex Africa bar. Apart from a few instances—such as in Mitterrand et Mobutu (1989)—Moké was not interested in political subject matter. In this painting, however, he recreates a historical event, depicting French President François Mitterrand and Mobutu standing in an open military vehicle and waving at crowds in the streets of Kinshasa during Mitterrand’s state visit in 1984. Moké found humor in ordinary experiences, such as in the daily occurrence of people and vehicles struggling for right of way at busy intersections, which he captured in animated compositions using an effusive, robust representational style. These three paintings were painted from memory, a testament to his observational skills, penchant for detail, and intuition.
Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, The Steven and Lisa Tananbaum Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture, 2021