In scale, this exhibition is impressive – it features 36 artworks, 23 sculptures and two triptychs by Jan Fabre, with 28 of the works crafted especially for PinchukArtCentre. It comprises two distinct themes Tribute to Hieronymus Bosch in Congo and Tribute to Belgian Congo, and the artworks are arranged in a certain order to narrate a well-plotted historical story, which begins with a portrait of King Leopold II. It was under his rule Belgium seized Congo during what is known as the “Scramble for Africa” in 1884, with the king categorising the land as a “private garden”. It was a time characterised by atrocities and violence, and considered Congo’s darkest days it leaves an indelible black mark on Belgium’s history.
Swept Under The Carpet
In Belgium, the oppression of the Congolese was, until recently, viewed as a positive, Fabre takes up the story. “We, in Belgium, were allowed to talk about this only recently. In school we were taught quite a different story – the Belgians, ‘good white people’, brought true religion and education to the black Congolese. Yes, we might have done a lot of good things in Congo, but at the same time we stole diamonds, uranium, and other natural resources from the land.” According to Fabre, Leopold built Brussels with money generated in Congo.
Both imagined and real personalities, such as Patrice Lumumba – Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo after he helped win its independence from Belgium in June 1960 to the Belgian colonial rulers, are the focus of Fabre’s works, here in Kyiv until the end of April. He also examines the lives of ordinary civilians and the majestic animals of sub-Saharan Africa, creating a sad but beautiful tale of the Belgian Congo until the coming of independence.
Fabre’s artworks immediately grab your attention due to their bright and supple hues of green, which sparkle, glisten and reflect light. On closer inspection, you notice that these are large-scale mosaics intricately constructed from...beetles! To be more specific – they are made of jewel beetle wing-cases. “No-no-no, I do not kill insects,” Fabre smiles. “I just use the wings that have been discarded.” According to Fabre, people in Congo eat these protein-rich beetles, like oysters or other shellfish, for example, then discard their wings like shells. Fabre cooperates with various restaurants in Congo and entomology institutions that provide him with the necessary volume of “material” for his mosaics. Fabre says, it takes 10,000 jewel beetle wings to complete one piece of artwork, and then there is the painstaking and time-consuming work. The artist has a gaggle of assistants to help, he says. “I make sketches and important drawings; my assistants are responsible for doing the backgrounds. For instance, it took us two-and-a-half months to finish my triptych, had I worked alone, it would have taken me two-and-a-half years!”
Symbolism From Nature
However unusual, Fabre’s medium was chosen for a purpose. Firstly, as an entomologist himself, Fabre has always been inspired by insects’ capacity for metamorphosis and their power of survival. As part of nature, beetles symbolise a bridge between life and death – they die but their beauty doesn’t! Second, Fabre follows a tradition set by old Flemish artists, whose paintings often featured insects and beetles, with the same symbolic meaning. While using this “live material”, Fabre reflects on human suffering and resilience. “Good and evil mark life, I link cruelty and beauty to demonstrate the things we, Belgians, did in Congo during the colonial period.”
Indeed, what strikes most about Fabre’s mosaics is they are not depressing. On the contrary – they feel positive. Their glossy iridescent colours give you a strong feeling of hope. “My mosaics express no cynicism,” Fabre explains. “They talk about awful things, but in an ethical way. They even seduce with their beauty...” Though he calls himself a provincial artist, he is universal in promoting humanism and forcing people to learn from the lessons of history.
PinchukArtCentre (Velyka Vasylkivska/Baseina 1/3-2)
7 February – 27 April
at 12.00 –21.00 (Mondays closed)
by Anna Azarova