Kongo Astronauts (KA) is a collective founded in Kinshasa in 2013 by artists Eléonore Hellio and Michel Ekeba. Their transmedia art practice includes performance, video, photography and online networked art. Invested in the alternative cultural network of Kinshasa, a megalopolis with a population of 17.7 million, KA raises issues related to Afrofuturism and local realities in the Congo to denounce and consider the future of contemporary Africa through its recent history—in a city and a nation dealing with colonial heritage and an often hostile urban reality.
Kongo Astronauts expresses both the desire for a future and a cry—of artists suffocating in a tentacular megalopolis where survival depends on day-to-day action. KA was born from an intimate history and a need for public expression. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster that embodies the refusal to surrender to the daily hardships imposed by a post-colonial environment. Faced with this adversity, Kongo Astronauts responds with performative action.
Through spontaneous appearances, where future, past and present collide, KA offers an escape from daily tribulations, stages a possible fantasy common to both Africa and Europe—an alternative reality interzone where the fiction of a technological Africa reflects a mirrored image of its twin, an Africa that is all too often a victim of “developing nation” clichés. We met Eléonore Hellio and Michel Ebeka last September during the “Africa – Performative Utopias” event at La Cité des Arts in Paris, which brought together African and Western artists and performers.
Makery: How did the expression of a “performative utopia” come about, used to describe Kongo Astronauts?
Eléonore Hellio: It’s from the somewhat obscene encounter between international techno-business and emerging artists who are thinking about the city of Kinshasa in the future present. In 2012, I was assigned by a large marketing company to manage the art direction of an access “box” to the 4G cellular network in areas with poor Internet connection. In order to produce something here, you need financial support in the form of private capital from various companies or international funding. This launch was an opportunity to mentor artists by inviting them to think about the impact of digital globalization. Michel Ekeba and I decided to subtly evoke the Coltan War east of the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), which was just starting to get media attention. That was our first public appearance.
Michel made his first suit by recycling electronic circuit boards he bought at the e-waste market. He wore a plastic bucket on his head as a helmet equipped with a camera and microphone in the luxury garden where the event was held, so the camera was broadcasting live images on an old television set. The interactions between the local comic Dauphin Bula Matadi (sometimes written as “Bula Matari”) and the guests were based on issues related to the minerals used in electronic devices. Dauphin’s father made canes for Mobutu Sese Seko, the very controversial ex-president of Zaire. Ironically, it was a meeting of colonial history, the Mobutu regime and the future of Africa and its astronauts, around a swimming pool in a very posh neighborhood. It was also a nod to Mobutu’s aborted space dream. “Bula Matadi” is also the nickname of Henry Morton Stanley, the British explorer who paved the way for Belgium’s colonization of the Congo. It means “rock breaker”, i.e. “he who goes through everything, smashing everything along the way”. We really started out at the heart of paradoxes.
Makery: How does one make art in these environments with no financial or other support?
Michel Ekeba: In Kinshasa we live from day to day. We live with what we call the “day rate”, a metaphor to say that we don’t have a salary. You need to know how to get by. In art, too, we have developed survival tactics.
Eléonore Hellio: There is some support, but not very much, and initiating new dynamics depends on individuals. In the 2000s, a certain number of individuals transformed the still very academic art landscape by stimulating new possibilities. We had Bebson “of the street” Elemba’s informal “Guetto Kota Okola”, the Priority Solidarity Fund established by Jean-Michel Champault (then director of Institut français), the brillant Stéphanie Suffren, active in the DRC art world to this day, the former director of the School of Fine Arts Daniel Shongo, the Kinshasa collective “Eza Possible” with Mega Mingiedi, Pathy Tshindele and many others, the students of Noyau (an anti-academic space), including Seigneur Mekhar, Androa Mindre Kolo, Kiki Zagunda, Panya Bula-Bula with his endless source of knowledge (who died prematurely).
The performances of Vitshois Milambwe (now director of Kin Art studio) and Wantina have also had an impact; Urban Scenographies organized by Jean-Christophe Lanquetin and his collaborators (among whom the South African artist Steven Cohen gave a spectacular performance); my research and creative workshops around online art and performance accompanied by the art critic Charles Tumba (during a special exchange program between Haute École des Arts du Rhin and the Academy of Fine Arts, where more than 60 people traveled both ways); the choreographer Faustin Linyekula (Studio Kabako), the “in situ” creative and theoretical workshop by Cameroonian Goddy LEYE Kodjo (unfortunately now deceased), and finally the spectacular appearances of Kongo Astronauts have all contributed to reactivating art “in action”, which has been present in the DRC for thousands of years.
Being an astronaut in Kinshasa
Michel Ekeba: When I put on my astronaut suit, I feel like I’m suffocating, like how Kinshasa suffocates me sometimes. We can’t breathe. Lots of trees have been cut down these past 20 years, temperatures have risen, plots have less and less open space. The megalopolis has become a difficult, sometimes hostile environment. At the beginning, playing the astronaut was a way to meet Europeans and to “mind” them. In Kinshasa slang, to “mind” means to demonstrate intelligence, to be charismatic and clever enough to “hook” people, to “mark their mind” so that they take an interest in you. This is also part of the Congolese way of getting by, yet another survival tactic.
Makery: What kind of reactions do you get when you’re walking around Kinshasa dressed as an astronaut?
Michel Ekeba: It leads to many encounters and exchanges. People don’t see the same thing at all. Some think of a robot, others of a soldier, or finally of an astronaut. Our Kongo Astronauts appearances are very spontaneous. Since 2017, the KINACT performance art festival has been bringing together artists to create costumes. A lot of people marching in the street together gets some pretty strong reactions. There’s also some competition from sapper, or rapper, battles, and I like to join in occasionally.
Makery: How do you go about your performances?
Michel Ekeba: In one of the last appearances, I burned incense on braziers. The smoke symbolized the country’s suffering, pollution, the suffocation that I was talking about earlier. It’s a sort of ritual… both a symbol of deliverance and a denunciation.
Eléonore Hellio: When Michel first started to walk through the crowds in 2013, like a lone foreign attractor, he captured everyone’s gaze in his silver suit. Little by little, his costume became more elaborate but also heavier. It’s a very physical performance that requires a lot of strength and endurance. Michel is like a capacitor that stores opposing electric charges under the 40-degree sun. Being a bit intoxicated by this charge and the crushing heat makes him move in a particular way—the astronaut is a foreigner on his own planet, a man exiled by the forces that be.
Michel Ekeba: the problem is that modernity doesn’t only bring good. For example, nowadays people consume water in plastic bottles. Before, we kept water in glass bottles that were recyclable. What is supposed to be a factor of development becomes a problem. Now people throw their bottles into the river. The rivers are full of plastic. Originally, the city and the rivers weren’t dirty. They got that way through development. People are gradually adapting, but it takes a while for them to become aware of the problem. Now people are starting to pick up plastic and resell it. It’s all part of the way Congolese get by.
Eléonore Hellio: Kinshasa is a city where infrastructures are deteriorated. Infrastructures are people, their intelligence, their endurance, but it’s far from simple and it’s tough. Unless you’re living on an expat’s salary, you don’t have water and electricity 24/7. We often have to install hydrophore systems to pump water up from underground. Some electric systems date back to the colonial era and have not been updated since. Many buildings are built with the least expensive materials in order to save money in construction. Everything gets damaged very quickly. Everything is patched up to maintain us in survival mode, but nothing is really finished. But the city vibrates, people talk to each other, argue, negotiate…
A real future for Africa
Michel Ekeba: We are no longer living in the same reality as before. Online networks, the Internet and social media have had a big impact on activities and imagination in the Congo. This has really transformed our lives and our city. Somehow the future dropped into our lives and we have learned to improvise with it one day at a time. And we continue to do this with Kongo Astronauts. Originally we hadn’t planned anything at all. The future imposed itself on us. These performances embody a form of action against the environment in which we’re living. It’s a reaction to the present moment, politically, economically, etc. It’s also a way to mock the promises and the political discourse that is always talking about the future, based on what will be better “in the future”. And it’s a way to get out of exile. Exile is broad, not just physical but also in our head, a mental exile. So you invent a future that escapes the present you’re currently living in.
Makery: How do you feel about the interest you get from European art circles and media?
Eléonore Hellio: It’s complicated. This mutual interest is not always very transparent. Our relationship with passing Europeans is necessarily biased by the gap that exists between the momentary interest from European cultural actors or journalists and their desire for Congolese “authenticity”. There’s a kind of reversal… Michel and I created KA together. We are not from the same culture, he is Congolese and I am French, we have totally different paths in life. KA is just as much what separates us as what brings us together, it’s a confrontation of several worlds.
Dream of Africa and Dream of Europe
Makery: Éléonore, how does your “Dream of Africa” begin?
Eléonore Hellio: There was no dream, I was first connected virtually through a collaboration with Jean-Christophe Lanquetin, a teacher at Haute École des Arts du Rhin, and the Congolese choreographer Faustin Linyekula. I invited them to participate in an online performance between France, the DRC and Canada (the video was very slow and choppy), but it was a first in the DRC. Not long after, thanks to Jean-Michel Champault’s Priority Solidarity Fund that I mentioned earlier, a partnership was launched between the Fine Arts Academy in Kinshasa and HEAR in Strasbourg, so that many artists and teachers could travel between the two countries. All this was made possible by the shared desire and efforts of the two directors of the schools at the time, Daniel Shongo in Kinshasa and Jean-Pierre Greff in Strasbourg.
As this partnership was being developed, I was invited to participate in one of these international collaborations for the “Urban Scenographies” festival. My encounter with the DRC was a shock. I was expected to propose an artwork, but I felt so disoriented and out of whack that I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t imagine myself proposing anything in a country where I still didn’t understand anything. I preferred to do something with the local artists that I had the chance to meet and accompany them in creating an artwork. Within that context, I initiated other online networked performances. The most iconic was in 2009 between Kinshasa, Strasbourg and Latvia for an action by Exyzt. It provided an impulse, a desire to open up and share knowledge.
Makery: How did you meet Michel Ekeba?
Eléonore Hellio: We met in 2012 during a performance workshop that I gave for the Fine Arts Academy in Kinshasa. At the end of the workshop, I had to choose two students to participate in the “Play Urban” research program that was being held that year at the WitsSchool of Arts in Johannesburg. I chose Michel and Christ Mukenge, another student from South Africa. Back in Kinshasa, together we developed a performative installation for the launch of the box that I mentioned earlier. Then I had to go back to France. Michel was left with this costume that we created, not really knowing what to do with it. He felt stuck and a bit lost after his intensive art experiences in South Africa. He started going out in the astronaut outfit all by himself, as a way of giving meaning to it all, to what he was feeling and thinking about his country, his city. When I finally came to settle down permanently in Kinshasa, we decided to take off into space and give our collaboration a name: Kongo Astronauts.
Makery: In the process of Kongo Astronauts, you also mentioned the idea of contamination…
Eléonore Hellio: Eventually, yes, we just said: “Let’s let this astronaut go free without writing too much, without saying too much, and see what happens.” And very quickly, he contaminated minds and social media. Many artists began doing their own performances. They realized that these costumes were intriguing, that they provoked questioning and offered visibility. It’s funny because we started off without any kind of strategy, all we had was this tactic of contamination to enter into contact with “multiple worlds”. It was very spontaneous. I was making pretty cryptic films on my side, and Michel went out in his costume when he felt inspired. And then we became victims of our success, and a number of journalists, filmmakers and photographers wanted to appropriate the phenomenon in a way. But we have to admit that it’s also how we became known.
Living in Kinshasa: a permanent performance
Eléonore Hellio: Some performers source their strength in ancestral practices with specific social functions. Some of these practices persist, some have been transformed, others appeared through bumps in colonial history. There are many examples, such as fetishists, seers, ngangas (traditional doctors) in the towns and villages, acts of deliverance in churches, preachers in markets and on the bus, battles of sappers who exhibit the marks of their clothing in the street, wrestling culture which invents surprising costumes and actions… The masks of the past are no longer taken out, the most powerful among them having been confiscated, pillaged, brutally acquired, and then locked up in the world’s most prestigious museums. Congolese people have almost no access to this cultural heritage, which raises the very current issue of restitution. In parallel, new art practices are emerging…
Sacred rituals vs. future rituals
Makery: Is there a connection between the secular ritual aspects and the performances of Kongo Astronauts?
Michel Ekeba: Yes, I do believe they are connected. There is a ceremonial aspect, both in the wanderings and the preparations. There is a spiritual side. It requires concentration and discipline. As I said, the costume is heavy and cumbersome. In order to achieve a good performance, you need to be in a certain state of mind, even alternative. The performance can last an hour, two hours, sometimes all night. It also has a function: you support the load, this is also the ritual aspect. In order to pass on your message, you must be able to hold on. It exhausts you, and at the same time it gives you strength. It’s not just about wearing a costume and wandering—you carry a costume, but you also carry a message. About your country, your city. About the world in which you live.
Eléonore Hellio: Kongo Astronauts, along with many others, have channeled a powerful energy around the desire to create costumes and through them incarnate a vision, an alternative positioning within society. At times it was like a carnival, a positive wind of freedom that carried a whole generation of artists who didn’t just want to make objects, but to reappropriate the city’s public space and create new relationships with the residents. Now we are in a transitional period that is moving away from the carnival aspects of the beginning and toward more elaborate actions.
Makery: What connections do you have with the “Kinshasa Chronicles” exhibition presented at MIAM in Sète in 2019 and in Paris in 2020, and with “Africa – Performative Utopias” at Cité des Arts in 2021?
Eléonore Hellio: We have been dialoguing with Dominique Malaquais (art historian and political scientist at Institut des mondes africains at CNRS) for the past eight years. She curated the “Kinshasa Chronicles” exhibition coproduced by Musée International des Arts Modestes (MIAM) and Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine, presented in Sète from October 24, 2018 to June 2, 2019 and in Paris in 2020. Dominique Malaquais follows the beating pulse of KA. Through our exchanges, she writes and analyzes. This way, we can rally thoughts and actions, engage other perspectives in our journey.
For the event at MIAM, we presented Kongo Astronauts alongside 70 young artists who work in Kinshasa. KA was presented as part of the “future city”. At Cité des Arts, we were presented along with Mega Mingiedi, Androa Mindre Kolo, Julie Djikey, Gosette Lubondo and many others. This exhibition deeply reflected the emulations of art in Kinshasa in all its aspects. This led us to work with the critical and demanding Axis Gallery New York.
More information on Kongo Astronauts