This Long-Running MoMA Show Might Restore Your Faith in Utopianism

Bodys Isek Kingelez (Congolese, 1948–2015). Ville de Sète 3009. 2000. Photo: © Pierre Schwartz ADAGP; courtesy Musée International des Arts Modestes (MIAM), Sète, France

Bodys Isek Kingelez was born in the bitter cauldron of dying Belgian colonialism in the then Belgian Congo. In the 1970s — inspired by grandiose visions of his troubled country gloriously declaring independence in 1960, and convinced that his own art would point the way to Zaire’s new future — the self-described “enlightened … designer, architect, sculptor, engineer, artist … small God,” he set about creating a series of panoramic, kaleidoscopically colored, precisely articulated and constructed “intense maquettes” of what he imagined could be the shiny new cosmopolitan city of Kinshasa (formerly Leopoldville). “No one has ever had a vision like this,” he once said. The maquettes are part fantasia, science fiction, electric train sets, world fairs, and Borges meets stained-glass Kubla Kahn Atlantis meets futuristic Dubai (but decades before a futuristic Dubai really blossomed into being), and infused with their own utopian cosmographic mathematics and visual pleasure. Thirty-three of Kingelez’s huge maquettes — dating from 1980 to 2007, some as big as boats — form a magic carpet of a show at MoMA, one that breathes freedom, tragedy, and social practice, before it was called that.

The show has been up since this summer and I don’t usually wait this long to write about something. But I’ve returned to the show time and time again relishing it’s good faith utopianism. The show is restorative, a tambourine beat all its own to remind us that if we build it, a better future might come. (It runs through January 1.)

Curated by Sarah Suzuki with Hillary Reder, the exhibition is called “City Dreams.” In it you’ll see Kingelez extending his pan-African vision to create buildings for Paris, Palestine, and a Palais d’Hirochima to heal the stricken Japanese people. He designed AIDS hospitals, research centers, pharmaceutical companies and in Ville do Sete a masterpiece — a psychedelic, peninsular, canalled city from the year 3009. Everything is showy, tricked-out, and glitzy. Yet the materials and means are modest, limited mainly to paper, cardboard, plastic, cigarette packs, advertising logos and other packaging, all hand-tooled by the self-taught Kingelez using razor blades, glue, tape, and whatnot. While his overall aesthetic seems like it’s born out of the heroic Modernist (a little Edward Durell Stone, a little Brasilia) towers-and-boulevards Corbusian urbanism of his time, Kingelez adds Africa and reveals that there was and is more weirdness in these Western movements than its rationalist and utopian founders ever dreamed of. Here, Modernism turns rhapsodic, hysterical, even fruitcake. And capitalistic too. Kingelez model buildings are often corporate headquarters. The richer and bigger, the better. Instead of any restrictive dictum of “form follows function,” Kingelez’s is an optical concatenation of sculptural-architectural ideas. Altogether, the maquettes tell us that in the thrilling wake of independence and before the dictatorship of Mobuto Sese Seko perverted and corrupted the dreams of this new country, Kingelez understood the content of freedom necessitated new forms.

At MoMA you should circle these models slowly, let these polychrome acropolises cast their spell, then get on one knee and peer down these grand mad boulevards lined with skyscrapers, pagodas, structures with Chartres-like flying buttresses, M.C. Escher staircases to nowhere, rocket ships, futuristic towers, waterwheels, mosques, circus tents, terraces, lotus-blossoms, painted moats, abstract statues, fenestrated pyramids, signs made of Coke cans, cantilevered constructions, cornices that morph into crowns. It’s all some Las Vegas-Persian manuscript imperium of the mind.

As perfected and fantastical as these maquettes are, they’re really phantom cities. (I didn’t see a parking place in the whole show.) People are never included, nor cars, no signs of life. It’s like aliens left these cities here. These megalopolises reduce people to little more than performing fleas. Still, I love them because they tell us unequivocally that Kingelez wasn’t an architect but an explorer of form, structure, and color; an astronaut on the outer banks of freedom; his is an aesthetics of the poverty of lesser materials infused with a rich imagination for African humanity.

In the catalogue architect David Adjaye calls Kingelez’s work “signifiers of architectures … that represent a dogged mining of the contemporary African psyche.” Adjaye then points at the tragic side of Kingelez’s vision — how the extraordinary promises brought by the 20th-century African independence movements “instead of the hoped-for growth or nations … there was a crash.” This is where psychosis inflicted on Africa by European colonialism enters Kingelez’s cities of the mind. Adjaye calls this the “deliberate naiveté” in Kingelez’s sculptures. (A sort of proactive/aggressive defense mechanism, perhaps.) Rather than real cities Kingelez made spaces for shedding old lives, throwing aside colonialism (and its psychosis) and starting from visual, psychic and spiritual scratch. In this way it’s crucial to understand that Kingelez is truly making abstract art deploying the languages of geometry, structure and form to spark ideas, unleash the will, animate new selves, and fabricate distortions that get as far away as possible from the immediate past.

The exultant shock of all this is that somehow, against all odds Kingelez didn’t live and die in abject obscurity. Starting in 1989 he was able to bring his message to the world when a curator of the now legendary Paris Pompidou “Magiciens de la terre” — a show that freely mixed insider and outsider artists — spied a picture in an African magazine of an artist standing next to one this beautiful grand construction. It was Kingelez. The curator tracked him down, placed him prominently in that show and overnight, the genius of Kingelez was recognized. So too was his resonance his vision, his understanding of the new city as a laboratory for living, engineering, and big thinking. He went on to wow biennial crowds for decades, until his death in 2015.

Forward-looking collector Jean Pigozzi owns dozens of these masterpieces. Pigozzi has already generously gifted many of these works to numerous museums. Let’s hope that when the time comes that many more of these sculptures will one-day end up in public collections. What we see in Kingelez is are glorified predictive favellas — building made from the cast offs and detritus of capitalism, waste products reused, with new fanciful lives breathed into them. It’s beautiful innocence and brilliant urban thinking for the future. That way Kingelez’s ordered world without violence, crime, shantytowns, poverty, inequality or shame; his vision shot-through with aspiration, joy, surprise, and pleasure, will shine forth as a sheltering starting point and inspiring source of the many blessings still to come from Africa.

This MoMA Show Might Restore Your Faith in Utopianism