March 01, 2010

Thinking about Luc Tuymans’ Congo Imagery

Luc Tuymans’ Lumumba

“I think that the making of an artwork should be intentional, and however the elements are appropriated, every move toward constructing an image should have some meaning.” Luc Tuymans in conversation with Kerry James Marshall – Bomb Magazine, Summer 2005.

It was just a few weeks ago that I visited the Luc Tuymans retrospective that is currently on show at the SFMOMA. I couldn’t help but be affected by the way that Tuymans works with the notions of memory, the photograph and creating images that are several generations removed from the image his paintings use as a source. I have a tendency to experience art as much though the way its content resonates with me as I do the way its form may impress me. There are certain things that I can feel through the content.

As I made my way through the Tuymans exhibit I was pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of his series titled “Mwana Kitoko: Beautiful White Man.” The series painted in 2000 addresses Belgium’s involvement in the colonization of central Africa’s kingdom of Kongo. I moved through it pausing at the image of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister of the Republic of the Congo. Perhaps it was because I’ve seen other paintings of Lumumba that seem to hold more of a presence that conveys Lumumba’s iconic status all over the African and Afri-diasporic world that predisposed me to have less of a response to Tuyman’s rendition. Paintings by Congolese artist Cheri Samba and many others have made Lumumba’s image part of the standard iconography in the African and Afri-Diasporic world. Sort of like the poems on John Coltrane and Malcolm X. Artists such as West Oakland painter Eesuu Orundide bring a poignancy to the topic of the Congo and bring the history into the present in a way that is startling when you contemplate the breadth of such a long struggle in that region of the world.

Coltan is the new Sugar

Eesuu Orundide’s Untitled installation “Coltan is the new Sugar”

I left the “Mwana Kitoko: Beautiful White Man” segment of the retrospective but without the feeling that should resonate with me when the topic of the Congo’s history is present, either in images or discourse. The history is so weighty and clearly contemporary that it struck me as strange that none of Tuyman’s work seemed to make any mark on that history. It didn’t seem to have a political stance or trajectory. There is a vacant space there and maybe that is its power. Is it asking the viewer to fill the space? The danger is that the viewer may not have enough of an entryway into the piece to understand the history that it only alludes to.

I discussed Tuyman’s work just briefly with Eesuu Orundide yesterday and he asked me what Tuymans was saying with his images from the Congo’s colonial history? That is precisely the question. What does it say about that colonial history? I invite the reader to discuss that here.


Comments (6)

  • William Butler says:

    Does anyone have an image they can share of Tuymans’ painting of the house where Lumumba was killed? I need the image for a lecture and cannot find it on line. Thank you!

  • Oh, please…Unfortunately, it seems that the discussion here is misguided in its relationship to Tuyman’s work. The work is not seeking to “teach” you anything about history, post-colonial theory, or the atrocities that we know were committed in the Congo. And, in contrast to the first comment about its “accuracy,” the work is not about mimesis either. Rather, as the blogger suggests,

    “[Tuyman’s work] didn’t seem to have a political stance or trajectory. There is a vacant space there and maybe that is its power. Is it asking the viewer to fill the space? The danger is that the viewer may not have enough of an entryway into the piece to understand the history that it only alludes to.

    Yes. Tuymans wants the experience to rest in how the constellation of images comes together and how they reference their photographic sources. It is enough to say that these images are all too common, all to plain and that is why Tuymans selects them and paints them the way he does, without any drama or political position, but rather as a way of talking about what painting can and cannot do. I would suggest that rather than criticize them for what YOU want them to do, read a little about him and what he wants them to do. Art and painting need and deserve that kind of investment, as art is invariably as complex as the world; to make a political statement is easy, to make art that reflects the complexity of the role of the viewer and subject in a political world is much more challenging, and I would argue, vital.

  • It looks like the web ate my last post. If you click on my name, it should take you back to my blog where you can find the post and discussion on Tuymans. I wasn’t aware of the artists that you mentioned and I’m now going to have to check them out. But I agree that Tuymans’ cool distance from the atrocities that he paints doesn’t do very much to illuminate, much less educate people about them.

  • Duane Deterville says:

    I would love to hear more about what you wrote on your blog nancy. I’ve read the recent interview with Tuymans in the February issue of Art in America and his explanations of the “Mwana Kitoko…” series of paintings is very basic. Even when explaining them he makes no mention of the genocide that even Mark Twain (King Leopold’s Soliloquy) wrote about in detail. Twain wrote about the Belgian’s committing genocide in the Congo in 1905. Artists both in the Congo and beyond have created powerful work that speaks to the unspeakable history of European colonialism in the Congo. Some artists have a tendency to distance themselves from the political implications of the content in their work. They don’t want to be “didactic.” Tuymans recently said “Art is not something you have to imply is political. Art is not political, life is political.” (The Art Newspaper, Sept. 2009) I think that both art and life are political and artists such as Cheri Samba from Congo or Leon Golub are examples of painters who prove that we can address an unspeakable history in works of art. Tuymans just seems to distance himself from that history with his Congo series. He reduces that history to furniture. The way that he does it leaves the viewer with a similar ahistoric, apolitical understanding. Viewers can walk into the “Mwana Kitoko…” portion of the retrospective and never understand the connection between the cell phone in their pocket and an ongoing centuries old Holocaust.

  • I agree with a lot that Mr. Lostaunau wrote above. I felt that Tuyman’s was more interested in promoting his career as the current cool European painter than educating us about the tragic and violent history of the Congo. I wrote quite a bit about him in my blog and posted a discussion that a group of us had around his work and what it actually says. I find the work interesting, sometimes even intriguing, but over -hyped and felt that the tragedy of the Congo was not even remotely evoked in his cool, white paintings.

  • Frank Lostaunau says:

    This painting about Lumumba says nothing about Congo or colonial history. Not a very interesting painting, rather sketchy, Lumumba had darker skin, seems like he doesn’t know much about anatomy, kind of boring…I like other paintings by this artist…I have the impression that Tuyman has absolutely no interest in the subject and probably knows little if nothing about colonialism…seems like he’s trying to whitewash Congo.

See all responses (6)
Leave a comment

Please tell us what you think. We really love conversation, and we’re happy to entertain dissenting opinions. Just no name-calling, personal attacks, slurs, threats, spam, and the like, please. Those ones we reserve the right to remove.

Sign Up

Join our newsletter for infrequent updates on new posts and Open Space events.
  • Required, will not be published

Dear Visitor,
We regret to inform you that Open Space is no longer active. It was retired at the end of 2021. We sincerely appreciate your support and engagement over the years.

For your reference, we encourage you to read past entries or search the site.

To stay informed about future ventures or updates, please follow us at

Thank you for being a part of our journey!