Guest author: Catherina Wilson, PhD researcher in the project ‘Connecting in Times of Duress’, www.connecting-in-times-of-duress.nl, for which she travels the borders between CAR and DRC.
An artist, a historian and a researcher
Sapin is a Kinshasa based popular painter. Popular painters are mostly innate, self-taught artists who learn the art at the ateliers of more experienced painters. Since childhood, Sapin used to make sketches for his friends at school. He often recalls the anecdote of how he, at the age of ten, used to shape a crocodile out of sand each evening. The neighbourhood kids baptized this reptile the wild animal. Sapin would have liked to go into university or to study arts but was not encouraged to do so. He points to the neglect of both his parents. His father was even against the idea of an artistic career, forcing Sapin to finish his secondary school in electricity instead.
At the age of twenty, Chéri Chérin, one of Kinshasa’s famous popular painters, took Sapin under his wing. Sapin started developing skills and meeting people. Through his art, Sapin has befriended many mindele (whites). The relation with researchers like us who visit Kinshasa, is partly linked to his art, and to the knowledge he has of his city; walking with Sapin in Kinshasa is like walking with a living encyclopaedia, one that jovially mixes historical facts, personal anecdotes and lyrics of anciens succès (Congolese ‘golden oldies’). Sapin is a great storyteller and entertainer. On a deeper level, Sapin’s relationship with researchers finds its roots in an innate thirst for knowledge.
Observing Sapin has taught me that he is not just an artist, but also a researcher and a historian at heart. Curiosity is the first prerequisite for being a good researcher. Sapin is curious and has showed at several reprises an urge to delve into the past. Experience is another asset in the researcher’s repertoire and it has taught Sapin. As mentioned before, Sapin has accompanied researchers at various occasions during their data collection; instead of standing by idly, he observes and participates, he notes down, he asks questions and makes interviews, he pushes the researcher to think. It was Sapin who first came up with the idea of what would later be called a ‘painting performance’. When I asked him what a researcher is, he responded: someone who understands something in order to share it with others. What he most admires in the researcher is the latter’s courage. Sapin’s lack of studying has become a weight on his shoulders, a hindrance, however, by meeting up with researchers he has learned to be courageous too. He now dares to ask questions himself, he dares to know, and thus to quench his thirst.
Papa Henri’s project in Libenge: An incentive for the imagination
A couple of months ago, I told Sapin the story of Papa Henri in Libenge, where I did research. Libenge is an awkward little city is the northern Congo, along the shores of the Ubangui river, at the border between Congo and the Central African Republic. On the one hand it is a jewel in the jungle – old colonial houses, roads bordered with ancient mango trees, and home to Congo’s first international airport. On the other hand, Libenge is a thorn in the heart. Decay and forlornness have become too painful to observe. The best example of this are the carcasses of what was supposed to be the Panafrican University, built during Mobutu’s reign: 25 auditoriums, eleven student homes, an autonomous electricity central… all looted, forgotten and eaten by the jungle.
Balancing between glory and forlornness, Libenge is a historian’s paradise and Sapin’s enthusiasm motivated me to conduct a joint project around Papa Henri. In the past, Sapin had worked around a student insurgency that took place in Kinshasa in the 1960s. This experience motivated him to relate important yet unknown stories of his country to his compatriots. Now it would be Papa Henri’s turn to, perhaps, enter history. Papa Henri’s passion for his work inspired Sapin: “He is irregularly paid and works in a dead airport, yet despite of his age he fosters a love for his job. Why is he still working? And what has become of the first international airport on Congolese soil?”.
Sapin considers himself as a big absent of the past, a missing witness. His imagination was triggered by the airport’s history. Libenge received Congo’s first international flights. It was here that the first airplanes from Brussels landed, and it was here that, for instance, in 1960 Kasa Vubu, Lumumba, Tshombé and others took the plane to attend the famous Table Ronde in Brussels, announcing the eve of independence.
For the occasion, African Jazz wrote the celebrated Indépendance Tcha Tcha, one of Sapin’s favourite ancient succès.
Alternative methods, alternative ways of ‘writing’
The purpose of Papa Henri’s project was to collect data in an alternative way, through a visual method. A painting elicits conversation and discussion among people. Discussion can be fruitful for understanding. A painting performance allows those who do not normally take part in the discussions to participate, for instance children. It was a way to share this great episode of history with Libenge’s own children, both young and old.
Research is often presented in written documents. Being able to write well (implying: proficiency of language in terms of spelling and grammar, but also access to computers) is another requisite for good research. Writing empowers the researcher to analyse, to understand and to share with others what s/he has collected in the field. But what does writing mean? There seems to be correct and erroneous writing systems. Moreover, writing is institutionalized and politicized. The Congolese educational system is in crisis, making writing dysfunctional. Does this imply that many Congolese are excluded from a life as a researcher? Are there other semiotic systems through which knowledge can be shared? Is our Western vision on how data should be analysed global, encompassing and fair?
During our visit to Libenge I gave an introductory course on anthropology, which consisted of a theoretical and a practical part. During the practical part, Sapin posed his easel in front of the students and painted, as he had been doing elsewhere in Libenge. I asked the students what type of data one could collect through a painting performance that one could not through an interview? To which one of the them replied: “In short, we can conclude that painting is the monument of speech. Painting materializes what speech expresses ephemerally. Words are carried away but that which is written (painted) is kept.”
Through painting Sapin shared our research with others, mixing historical facts to social commentary. He ignited conversation, he ignited thought. A painter is a popular igniter. In the case of Libenge, he ignited conversations on how the country was and how it is today. But in me, he ignited more than that. Sapin ignited the question of the various possibilities to display research, of which writing is only one…
 “Bref, on peut conclure que la peinture est le monument de la parole. Elle matérialise en concrétisant ce que la parole exprime par l’air volatif comme on a dit tantôt : La parole s’en va mais les écrits (peintures) restent.”