Notes on Amrita Sher-Gil and Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu
Maria do Carmo M. P. de Pontes
12 May 2020, 9 am
For a few years now I’ve been researching artists who died at a young age, from the 20th century onwards. This will eventually materialize as a publication, but is serving as a framework for my curatorship of the Masters section at SP-Arte 2020. In this article I share the stories of Amrita Sher-Gil and Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu, two artists who, in spite of great personal and external challenges, produced exceptional bodies of work during short lifetimes.
Painter Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-41) is considered by many the grand dame of Indian art, though not, as is so often the case, while she was alive. She was the oldest daughter of a Sikh aristocrat father – a scholar in both Sanskrit and Persian – and an opera singer Hungarian mother, who came from an affluent background. Sher-Gil spent most of her early years in Hungary. Having already expressed notable artistic talent at the age of five, by the age of eight she began to study art. In 1921, her family relocated to Anglicized Shimla, in Northern India, where, alongside her younger sister Indira, she performed in concerts and plays at the local theatre. Three years later, aged eleven, she went with her mother to Florence, where she studied art for a brief period of time before returning to India. It was in 1929, when she moved to Paris with her mother and sister, that she commenced her formal art education, first at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and later at the École des Beaux-Arts.
Between the First and Second World Wars, and in the thick of the great economic crash, it was not a particularly effervescent moment to be in Paris, as the great flow of artistic talent, which had started with the expressionists and culminated in the abundance of movements such as surrealism in the early 1920s, had already found its peak. Joining the academy was a two-way trigger for Sher-Gil; on the one hand she advanced her painting skills, and on the other she indulged in all the stiffness emanating from such an environment. Indeed, although she had always been an excellent student, her first two years at the Beaux-Arts have been described as merely competent, even banal, during which she produced an enormous amount of work at great speed. In the second half of her studies she took on a slower pace, which allowed her to pursue her own language. Though it has often been pointed out that unevenness was a mark of her entire production, at times even within the same painting. In Paris she divided her time between portraying her fellow colleagues – most of them women, possibly lovers – and enjoying the Parisian bohemian nightlife. Her paintings from this period were well executed but academic, employing a rather European palette of colors and approach to her subjects. The academy further implied that she would rely on live sitting for the rest of her career. At the request of her mother, around this time she got engaged to a prominent Indian man, only to call it off a few months later, claiming lack of interest or affection. As if to punish her mother, her affairs with men and women intensified after the episode, and she eventually had to have two abortions.
In 1934, Sher-Gil expressed a will to return to India. Her nephew Vivan Sundaram suggests two main reasons: a romantic one, as a way of connecting with her roots, and a practical one: to be somewhere competition was scarcer. Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse; India is all mine, she wrote in her diary. Upon her return to Shimla, the artist was welcomed as a sort of celebrity, being invited to the most exclusive gatherings and social events. She would recurrently feel unease in these situations, bored by the dull elitism of the conversations, though she herself belonged to a pro-English elite family. Contradictions and ambiguities marred Sher-Gil’s life from the very beginning, the first of them, and perhaps the most formative for her personality, being her dual European and Asian ancestry. This placed her in a limbo, a sort of in-betweenness as far as both her artistic vocabulary and personality were concerned. She was described as ‘lovely, lovable, fascinating and towering’. Though such kind words were not unanimous; she was met with criticism as much as with accolades during her lifetime. Her work found few supporters and buyers, and she recurrently had to take commissions – which she hated – to support herself.
In 1936, Sher-Gil took a trip to the South of India, where she visited the caves of Ajanta and Ellora – ancient Buddhist sites whose art had influenced many generations of artists before her – and also came into contact with the Mughal and Rajput traditions of miniature painting. The impact of these encounters on her subsequent practice is enormous, and upon her return to Shimla she painted three of her most celebrated canvases, informally known as the South Indian Trilogy (Brahmacharis, Bride’s Toilet and South Indian Villagers Going to Market, all 1937). These were executed in a much more simplified style than the one she had employed up to that point: they approach human figures as forms rather than bodies, and the palette of colors, spun around warm and crude tones, mark something fundamentally different from her prior style. In spite of her enduring interest in Indian peasants from this moment on, Sher-Gil’s painting is intrinsically apolitical and her interest in these subjects purely aesthetic. She did, however, sympathize with Gandhi, and is said to have known Jawaharlal Nehru intimately.
About a year later, against her parents will, Sher-Gil travelled to Hungary to marry her first cousin, doctor Victor Egan. The marriage is said to have been out of convenience; he would not try to tame her into being a housewife but rather allow her to pursue art and other passions. She would then spend over a year in Hungary, mostly in the countryside, during which time her palette and treatment of the canvas became once again Europeanized, though in a different manner to when she was in Paris. It was here that she started one of her most compelling paintings, a vertical composition entitled Two Girls (1939). It depicts two beautiful young women, both naked: the darker one is sitting with her hands crossed, partially covered by a white cloth while the girl with lighter skin is standing with her left arm around the other’s shoulder. A portrait of her own limbo. Many have compared Sher-Gil with Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), in their shared interest for themes outside of the European scope, yet, whereas the latter was a European man fascinated by an exoticized Other, Indian subjects were part of Sher-Gil’s identity.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, in 1939, the couple was forced out of Fascist Hungary, resettling in Saraya, Northern India. The place was filled with the potential for wild adventures, but truly monotonous in terms of social life. Sher-Gil got bored and likely depressed, and as a consequence produced very few works and, during long periods, none at all. In September 1941 the couple moved to Lahore, where there was a more interesting social group to interact with. This is when she started her last, unfinished painting: a view from a courtyard seen from above. Though portraiture had largely shaped her painting vocabulary, it was not the first time she turned her gaze towards landscape. Sher-Gil would die a couple of months later, days before the opening of a solo show in Lahore. The exact reason of her death remains a mystery, though it is largely believed that it was the result of a botched abortion performed by her husband. She was 28.
Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu (also known as TKM) was born in 1947 in the Belgian Congo, by then called Zaire, currently known as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Originally from a mining town close to Lubumbashi, in the south of the DRC, Kanda-Matulu was a self-taught painter who spent his formative years relocating from one mining town to another, following his father’s pursuit for work. Even as an adult, his lifestyle could be described as quasi-nomadic, as he constantly moved between places. Although he had started painting in the early 1960s, it became a profession only a few years later, in 1969. The practice of ‘genre painting’ became widespread among Congolese artists that followed the Zaire School of Popular Painting. Several of them, like TKM, benefitted from a moment of relative peace brought by independence, managing to make a living of their art by selling it in markets or door-to-door to working-class and petit-bourgeois families. The small European community also offered a good clientele.
One day in 1973, with the purpose of selling his paintings, TKM visited the house of German anthropologist Johannes Fabian, who was then living in Lubumbashi. With the consent of the artist, Fabian made an audio recording of this casual encounter, which would be the first of many. The little we know about Kanda-Matulu’s life today is mostly through these recordings. Together they started brewing the idea of a painted history of Congo, which eventually culminated in 101 compositions whose narrative starts in pre-Christian times and runs until 1976, when the last painting was executed. Besides his artistic skills, TKM was a talented storyteller with considerable knowledge of history.
The events that span the tens of centuries before the independence of the DRC are spread over about 40 works: the mythological etymology of the name ‘Zaire’, allegedly due to a misunderstanding between Portuguese navigator Diogo Cão and a local authority; the arrival of the first explorers; the atrocities perpetrated by King Leopold II of Belgium at the time the country was his personal possession and, subsequently, a Belgium colony; national heroes such as Chiefs Katanga and Ngongo Lutete, and so on. Fabian points out that TKM would often mistake a date or event, but rather than being an accident, such slips were in fact a poetic license. As the anthropologist puts it, “most of his departures from fact – especially from such seemingly simple facts as dates – are fictions with a message. They are intended ‘to make us think.’”
The two central figures in the DRC’s independence, namely Patrice Lumumba and Joseph Kasa-Vubu, occupy a pivotal role in TKM’s retelling. They would become, respectively, prime minister and president of free Congo in 1960, though Lumumba’s tenure would be incredibly short-lived, ending with his assassination in 1961. The artist’s admiration for him is evident in the way he is portrayed in the canvasses. Far from being a milestone for peace, DRC’s independence triggered various uprisings and local guerrillas. In 1965, through a military-backed coup d’état, Mobutu Sese Seko rose to power. With an ultra-nationalist discourse, he changed the country’s name and flag, and ruled, ruthlessly, until 1997.
There is no question that this series, currently housed at Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum, is Kanda-Matulu’s most important oeuvre. The artist is said to have rushed to finish the paintings, as Fabian had to leave the country due to an increasingly turbulent political situation, thus ignoring various details.
Kanda-Matulu had a short but prolific career. He could produce about five paintings a day, though he stated that landscapes always took him longer. His works, like those by his fellow Lubumbashi artists, were generally signed. His compositions were made on flour sacks prepared with a layer of white latex and subsequently painted with acrylic. They are commonly surrounded by a thin black line, as if to frame them, and all of them have titles and feature small written explanations on the scene they depict. The striking economy of colors he used probably has more to do with the country’s situation than with TKM’s aesthetic choices and his preferred size of canvas, 40 x 60 cm, is likely also due to the fact that this dimension is the largest part that can be harnessed from a flour sack, rather than artistic ideals. He would paint from photographs, magazines and memory. The artist’s interest in his country’s politics continued after Fabian’s departure. He is known to have painted the Shaba Wars (1977-78). Moreover, his interest in history continued to flourish, and he wrote a 72-pages book on the history of Zaire. He persisted as an artist in spite of all the troubles that the country was going through – though quite possibly, as many other artists, he also had to take on a different occupation to make ends meet. It is known that he painted until 1981. However, it is very likely that he died that year in one of the country’s many conflicts.