Hilary Balu lives and works in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. His grand scale paintings interrogate the legacies of the DRC’s colonial history in shaping contemporary Congolese society. He is also interested in exploring the ways in which Congolese culture has been “scattered” across the world through globalisation and tourism. Hilary’s paintings often feature an unusual assortment of objects: rich silks and 17th century armour are paired incongruously with shiny shopping bags, space helmets and plastic chairs. While the combinations appear random at first, each object plays an important role in the complex narratives that Hilary constructs for each painting. By staging these dissonant arrangements, Hilary forces the viewer to stop and think carefully about their significance.
In contrast to his 2019 series Voyage ver Mars, which borrows aesthetics from futuristic space travel, Hilary's latest project, In the floods of illusions, looks back in history for inspiration. The series investigates a link between patterns of contemporary migration and the forced migration of enslaved Africans in the transatlantic slave trade. Through a fascinating range of compositions, the series draws a connection between European fantasies of Africa, and the colonial “belief that the best is to be found elsewhere,” with the popular idea among young Africans today that a “better life” is to be found in Europe, Hilary explains to us. Inspired to take dangerous journeys across the waves in search of this dream, “the Mediterranean Sea becomes the last resting place for many young Africans,” Hilary reflects sombrely. So the oceans, which both historical conquistadors and today’s young migrants have crossed in pursuit of their fantasies, comes to play an important role in Hilary’s series. To the artist, the sea represents a “habitat of ghosts: the ghosts of beings, of dreams, of illusions, of memory…”
The ocean forms the backdrop to many of the paintings in the series. For inspiration, Hilary looked to European artists like William Turner, Joseph Vernet, Courbet who often painted colonial ventures over the seas in the 18th and 19th centuries. By harnessing these European styles, Hilary brilliantly brings to life the drama and bombast linked to expansionist global travel during this period. Colonial legacies in the DRC are also referenced through a range of symbolic objects which reappear throughout the series: printed fabric, European swords and the helmets worn by the Portuguese conquistadors. Hilary tells us that he found these objects when he visited the border between the DRC and Angola (former kingdom of Kongo) among the Bayombe. The purpose of the trip was to find new ways of telling “the story of the encounter between the Portuguese merchants and the Kongo notables and what it contributed to the story of slavery,” Hilary continues.
By talking with Kongo chiefs, Hilary discovered that these objects were passed down from the first Kongo notables who acquired them through agreements with Portuguese merchants engaged in the slave-trade. Hilary goes on, “today, these objects are kept as precious and sacred objects containing spiritual powers.” Through uncovering their history, Hilary realised that these were very complex objects. While they retain spiritual significance as ancestral Kongo heritage, they are also inextricably linked to the history of the slave trade. For Hilary they are imbued with “ghostly” memories and their dark history haunts the bright and cheerful compositions in the series.
In the floods of illusions well summarises the “political madness” that led to the commodification of human bodies in the triangular trade of enslaved people. But madness is not delegated to the past in Hilary’s paintings. Throughout the series the gleaming artefacts of today’s global tourism are sprinkled amongst the detritus of colonial trade. For example, in Luyalu Kimvuama (inherited power), two figures appear to have taken the place of the past colonial merchants as they carefully inspect the quality of lustrous woven silk. The seated figure wears fluffy lilac sliders and wields a European sword. Another figure bedecked in a shiny silver puffer jacket has swapped the Portuguese helmet at the bottom of the composition for a squashy plastic space helmet featuring the word “London” in capital letters. Through the combination of these incongruous objects and the painting’s ambiguous title, Hilary seems to suggest an inherited link between the expansionist colonial appetite of the past and the crazed commercialism of contemporary global trade.
In 2022, Hilary looks forward to his first solo exhibition at Galerie MAGNIN-A which will take place in September. We can expect his new series to be equally endowed with extensive research and impressive visuals. For this series he plans to investigate the flow of enslaved Congolese people who were trafficked by the Dutch and sold to work on plantations in Brazil in the 17th Century. He will explore how these complex and conflicted stories “continue to shape our view of the world today.”
Hilary Balu: Nzambe Ako Sala (God will provide), (Copyright © Ephrahim Baku, 2021, Courtesy of Galerie MAGNIN-A)
About the Author
Elfie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in November 2021 after finishing an art history degree at Sussex University. She is particularly interested in creative projects which shed light on histories that have been traditionally overlooked or misrepresented.