Using the simple and direct techniques of charcoal and pastel on paper, Pierre Mukeba’s new body of work confronts the viewer as raw expressions of emotion and feeling.
This Congolese-born artist is known for creating mixed media paintings of epic proportions drawing figures with pen and ink onto unprimed cotton on canvas, onto which he hand-appliqués colourful textiles. In ‘Black Emotion’, Mukeba works on multiple sheets of paper, building up his images into large-scale mural-like drawings.
At just 25 years of age, the self-taught artist continues to delight, surprise, and confront Australian audiences. Mukeba’s life story is as epic as his panoramic artworks. Born in Bukavu, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, he grew up amidst political unrest and civil war. As a small child, the artist and his family were forced to flee to a refugee camp, before settling briefly in Harare, Zimbabwe. After Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe ordered that all non-nationals be arrested, Mukeba’s mother went to the Australian Embassy in a desperate plea for asylum. Finally, in 2006, the entire family were granted residency in Adelaide.
For this new Australian resident, art became a means to understand his new environment and reflect on his African heritage. Art has nevertheless always been in Mukeba’s blood. His grandfather was a famous artist in the Congo, and he learnt his craft from a period living with his uncle, a sculptor and draughtsman. Without any formal training, the young Mukeba began making drawings and paintings on a small table in the bedroom of his mother’s house in Adelaide, initially drawing on bedsheets with indelible markers.
A turning point for the burgeoning artist occurred during a study tour of Europe when he visited the Sistine Chapel and was mesmerised by Michelangelo’s perfectly proportioned and monumentally painted figures. He embraced Italian classicism and particularly the study of the naked body.
Returning to Australia, the artist began to paint and draw African men and women in the same grand classical manner. He wanted to depict his own kinfolk and portray them as beautiful and powerful. Mukeba held his first solo exhibition at GAGPROJECTS in Adelaide in 2017, and since then, his artistic career has surged forward.
Mukeba started stitching on colourfully patterned African batik fabrics, that ironically originated from Indonesia. The fabric was transported via Dutch colonialist trade routes to Western Africa in the 1800s and have since become a staunch trademark of African culture. Like the humble batik, Mukeba himself has been transplanted into a new culture and is adapting and thriving. In 2017, one of Mukeba’s large-scale textile paintings won ‘the churchie’ national emerging art prize. In 2019 he was selected as a finalist for the Ramsay Art Prize, and more recently, his work was featured at the 2020 ‘Adelaide Biennale of Australian Art’, and the 2020-21 ‘NGV Triennial’ in Melbourne, with an immersive double mural depicting a vivid community of figures dancing, fighting, posing and laughing, which filled the entire semi-circular room.
Mukeba now produces figurative tableaux up to five-metres high, which honour the African diaspora. Mostly celebratory in tone, there is a darker side that also emerges and is particularly evident in this new body of work. He doesn’t want to shy away from narratives of violence, brutality, turbulence and trauma, experienced by himself and his family members and local community. His life-size figures usually look out with a direct gaze at the viewer, not simply as decorative and striking figures but as the survivors of trauma and displacement. They seem to challenge the viewer to share in their experience. Their memories will never be erased by their new culture and homeland.
His latest drawings are grittier, coarser and less inhibited – both fierce in their expression, as well as dreamlike and poetic. With remarkable skill and sensitivity, the art of Pierre Mukeba brings an original and powerful voice to contemporary art in Australia that expresses the heartbreak and hope, pain and healing of new immigrants from a war-torn land. They ultimately offer up a universal sense of humanity and an affirming belief in resilience and strength.
Victoria Hynes is a Sydney-based arts writer and editor.
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery
17 June to 17 July 2021