A Congo chronicle

African artists tell the tale of a beloved leader's rise and fall

Many a contemporary art debate has focused on the contest between content and form. Those who believe in art with meaning will be validated by A Congo Chronicle: Patrice Lumumba in Urban Art. Currently on view at the Clark Atlanta University Galleries, 70 paintings recount the life and death of Patrice Emery Lumumba, the first prime minister of the newly liberated Congo in 1960.

This is powerfully purposeful art. For Westerners only vaguely familiar with African history, the visual chronicle invites contemplation of a pivotal moment in time by describing the political, social and cultural context that gave birth to a Congolese hero.

The story revolves around colonialism. At the Berlin Conference of 1885, when Europe divided up the African continent, the Congo became the property of Belgian's King Leopold II. Rich in ivory, diamonds, copper and zinc, the country was (and is still) greatly exploited. Seventy-five years later, on June 30, 1960, the Congo's independence was proclaimed. Lumumba, a charismatic young nationalist, emerged as a leader but with disastrous consequences. At the age of 36, only months after becoming the head of the new independent state, he was arrested and brutally murdered. (Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck's poignant documentary Lumumba (2000), a perfect counterpoint to the exhibition, will be screened at CAU this week.)

Originating at the Museum for African Art in New York, A Congo Chronicle was curated by Bogumil Jewsiewicki of Laval University in Quebec. Most of the colorful narratives painted by largely unschooled artists center on Lumumba. His proud image, drawn from photos or newspaper prints, features heavy, dark-rimmed glasses, a sculpted moustache and beard. In scenes depicting his rise to prominence, he's dressed in European-style suits (except in one, he's pictured in the headdress of a tribal chief). When he becomes victim of what is widely regarded as a xenophobic Belgian plot, he's seen wounded and in chains, wearing a pure white undershirt and tailored pants.

It's important to consider the difference in how Africa's urban artists approach their work; they don't adhere to the American paradigm of how and why art is made. These oil paintings are not personal commentaries but rather the intense reflection of a shared understanding of history and present-day experience. K.M. Tshibumba, for example, represents his country's memory of the horrific "Colonie belge (1885-1959)" with armed. white- and black-skinned officers in formal uniforms lording over half-naked Congolese in shackles. A spiritual hero, Lumumba is seen as the liberator Moses in Tina Lwimba's "Lumumba dans un village meeting — tres grave," (Lumumba in a serious village meeting). His prone figure is serenely peaceful and Christ-like in "La mort historique de Lumumba, Mpolo et Okoto le 17 janvier 1961" (The historic death of Lumumba, Mpolo and Okoto on Jan. 17, 1961).

Some of the artists resort to traditional figurative allegory. In several paintings, the iconic lion, snake and crocodile represent the power, temptation and duplicity that have characterized human tragedy in colonial and post-colonial Africa. More modern renderings of "Mami-Wata," an eroticized mermaid, emblematize the seduction of capitalism and the obsessions of contemporary consumer culture.

Accompanying the exhibition is a scant, parenthetical display of historic artifacts from 40 years ago, including color photographs, newspaper clippings and money printed with Lumumba's likeness, which document the art's real-life backdrop. Small flyers distributed by those opposed to a unified Congo and its first leader warn in French that "Lumumba will sell your wives to the Russians."

A Congo Chronicle is about the importance of connecting art and life. Creating an unconventional biography, the paintings remember Patrice Lumumba as a man who means the world to his people.

A Congo Chronicle runs through March 15 at Clark Atlanta University Galleries, 223 James P. Brawley Drive. Tues.-Fri. 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Sat. noon-4 p.m. 404-880-6644. 404-880-8671. www.cau.edu. Lumumba screens Feb. 22, 6 p.m., Science Research Center.??