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African Modern & Contemporary Art

An Interview with Contemporary Congolese Artist Fréderic Trigo Piula

By Adriana La Lime
The upcoming auction of Modern & Contemporary African Art in London on 2 April features two works by Fréderic Trigo Piula, one of the most important artists to emerge from the Republic of the Congo in recent years. Ahead of the sale, Sotheby's Adriana La Lime spoke to the artist about his background, work and inspiration.

Adriana La Lime: Let’s back up a bit. Do you mind speaking a little bit about your background and how you came to be an artist?

Fréderic Trigo Piula: I began painting when I was a child. I lived in the Congo and collected traditional masks, statues etc. My entire family is artistic. My mother is a seamstress and my brothers also draw. I always drew. So, I grew up in this environment, constantly surrounded by art and artistic vision.

When I was at school, I kept a journal and I always drew in it. When I was still a student, I left the Congo and moved to France to study art. Being in France was life changing for me as I had access to materials I never had before. When I was in France, I had my first exhibition in 1966 in Toulouse. The second exhibition would be held two years later in 1968, also in Toulouse.

Fréderic Trigo Piula
Fréderic Trigo Piula

I studied Spanish and so I began to become fixated on the work of Spanish masters like Goya and Velazquez, El Greco, all famous and important Spanish painters really. I travelled to Barcelona and saw Gaudi’s architecture, that really inspired me. I also spent a lot of time in Paris where I went to see all the important museums and collections. The Italian and Dutch schools of painting were also very inspiring for me. Basically, I was incredibly enriched by my time in Europe, it changed my world view and influenced my work greatly. What I began doing was mixing Western/European paintings with traditional African symbols and objects. I would copy known European paintings that everyone recognized but adding an African element. The best example of this is probably when I painted the Mona Lisa but included a Kwele Mask, from present day Gabon. That work is now in the collection of Luciano Benetton.

I stayed in Europe for 6 years and went back home to the Congo in 1982. Once I got there, I joined a group of painters and together we formed a new collective. We did some private and government commissions and slowly people noticed me. I also started teaching art at the local French School. So, it’s been a journey!

AL: So, once you were back in the Congo, how did your New Fetish series come about? What sparked that series?

FTP: That is a story! When I came back to the Congo I was just painting whatever I felt, but usually mixing European paintings and African objects like masks and fetish figures. It was from this period that my interest in fetishes began. I became fixated on these traditional fetish figures and so I started to paint them. But really the story begins when the Chinese decided to build a governmental palace in Brazzaville. There was an open call to submit works of art that would be used to decorate the palace walls. I submitted several paintings, but amongst them was Materna. One day, I came back to the Palace to check on the status on the paintings, only to find Materna abandoned in the Palace courtyard with the word REJECTED written on the back of the painting. When I enquired as to why the work was treated as such, I was told it was because the painting represented a fetish figure and thus perpetuated fetishistic and spiritual practices, which at the time, and under the ruling political party, were banned. During that time, Congo was governed by a Marxist/Leninist orientated political party; there was no God, no spirits, it was all banned. They didn’t want a cult object on the walls of a government building.

What’s more is that a lot of people criticized me for Materna. They said that it was not ‘African’. They said, ‘your central figure is sitting like a Buddha’. I showed them that this was how our fetish figures sit, I was educating them, teaching them about our traditional figures. This was startling for me and I began to see this rebuffal of our traditional fetish figures as what I began to call a ‘New Fetish’. Ultimately, my ‘New Fetish’ series is a way of engaging with my community and a way of denouncing things that I believe are impacting us, like television for example. I referenced this in Ta Tele.

I also must point out that the word ‘Fetish’ is important for me because I am from the region of the Congo (present day Angolan province of Cabinda) where the word ‘Fetish’ originates from. The Portuguese settled there and called our fetish objects ‘facticios’, meaning unnatural or artificial.

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Fréderic Trigo Piula, Ngolowa. Estimate £15,000–20,000.

AL: So Materna was incredibly important for you.

FTP: Extremely!

AL: Materna and Ta Tele were included in Susan Vogel’s exhibition Africa Explores 20th Century African Art, which started at The Centre for African Art in New York and then toured to several prominent museums. How did that happen?

FTP: Well, after Materna was thrown out, I did some research and found out that a new centre for the arts had been created in Gabon and that they would be hosting the first biennale of African art. I sent Materna and Ta Tele to be shown there and I believe that is where Susan Vogel saw the works. She reached out to me in Brazzaville and the rest is history! The exhibition changed so much for me, people began to contact me, I was written about. It was incredible. It was off the back of this exhibition that I received an invitation to exhibit in Brussels.

AL: Could you speak about Fwambasi and Ngolowa? What are these works about?

FTP: Fwambasi is a commentary on the relationship between traditional and modern forms of healing and medicine. You see a fetish figure in the centre of the composition, surrounded by boxes of medicines. Alone, neither of these things will prevent death but together, they might. In the background you see more traditional figures wearing white lab coats with green pharmacy crosses above their heads. What I was trying to do here was to highlight the difference in how healers approach the sick. In my culture, traditional healers are warm and engaging; they ask questions. Its been my experience that in the west, pharmacists or doctors are more clinical and distant. The figures do not look friendly and so they embody this difference in conduct.

Ngolowa has many layers. When I began my fetish series, you remember I said I wanted to denounce what I saw; comment on things I did not agree with or simply highlight what was happening in society. Well, I wanted to comment on colonialism and its impact on the Republic of the Congo. I wanted to sound the alarm on the fact that, despite no longer being colonized, a lot of Congolese do not feel free at all. People believe that we are living under neo-colonialism. You can see that I have incorporated my own version of Delacroix’s iconic painting, La Liberte guidant le peuple, a nod to my earlier practice.

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Fréderic Trigo Piula, Fwabasi. Estimate £20,000–30,000.

AL: I am curious to know your thoughts on the growth of the market for contemporary art from Africa. What do you see happening in the Congo?

FTP: Funnily enough, I am currently sitting in a museum seeing a friend of mine’s exhibition! But honestly, from my perspective, the art market in Africa is incredibly lacking. Sure, there are things happening across the continent in cities like Dakar, but we are missing experts. We need more people who specialize in this field, who can speak to it with confidence and skill. Many of us on the ground are muffled, we cannot always express ourselves the way we want to.

The other thing is that there is no communication, I hardly know what is happening in other African countries. There is no means to disseminate information, which I think it incredibly problematic. We must consider artists who are working and operating in Africa. Many people think that you must leave the continent to be successful, we need to change this. What we need to focus on is governmental support for the arts. That needs to be a priority.

AL: I agree, you are an excellent example of an artist who has gained international recognition whilst remaining on the continent.

FTP: I never want to produce anywhere else! I realized that when I came back from France. There is a lot of desirable things outside of Africa, galleries, journalists etc. but I think we need to stay on the ground, stay focused on Africa.

AL: Do you act as a mentor to any young artists in the Congo? How do you see younger artists making their way?

FTP: They need guidance. I believe there are rules to be followed or at the very least be aware of when drawing and painting. We need schools and residencies so that young artists can be taught better. Young artists today need to continuously question themselves. Go back to zero. Figure out what they are drawing and understand the rules. Rules of perspective, technique etc. We need methods in which to instill foundational skills, otherwise it’s not worth it, their work will be filled with errors.

You also sometimes see a push to not paint like westerners do and instead embrace our identity as African artists. I do not understand this at all, we can learn from each other after all. If I paint a landscape, is it an African painting? No! It’s a painting. That’s it! This method of thinking can get us stuck.

AL: What are you working on now?

My new series is about the 5th dimension. It has to do with Kwele masks and the Kwele people. I discovered that the Kwele often made use of the The Golden Ratio something that was often used during the Renaissance! They used this to make all their sculpture, painting, architecture, everything. I am examining the different dimensions. For example, the 3rd dimension is volume, as we all know, the fourth is time and the 5th is… space!

So, when I looked at these Kwele masks, I began to realize that many elements where existing in the same dimension. There was animal and mineral; basically, what I see as universal aspects that come and go but all meet in the 5th dimension. Another example would be the fact that you are in London and I am in the Congo, but we are communicating, and we are doing so through the 5th dimension! It is where we meet not in time, but in space. The Sphinx, the meeting of lion and human, two things that have nothing to do with each other but that come together in the 5th dimension. This is everything that the Kwele knew and believed, and I wanted to explore the magic of the Kwele further. You can see the Kwele’s influence everywhere. Look at the Mona Lisa, and you will see the Kwele. Trust me.

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