Imagining African Futures With Bodys Isek Kingelez

A recent MoMA retrospective of the work of late Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez revives his utopian dreams for the continent.

Denis Doorly for MoMA
Bodys Isek Kingelez | House and leisure
'UN' (1995) by Bodys Isek Kingelez.


Long before Afrofuturism existed in our lingo, Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez built his own African utopia into being. His ‘extreme maquettes’ morphed paper, plastic and building rubble into sculptural cityscapes that today, four years after his passing and some 40 years after his original piece, are becoming the subject of global acclaim. 

The first major international retrospective of the artist’s work, Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams, showed at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City in 2018, and an extensive catalogue of the exhibition is available for purchase online at the MoMA store

The exhibition traced Kingelez’ life through his work: from his days as a sapeur on the streets of Brazzaville creating single-building maquettes, to his first international exhibition at the now-famous Magiciens de la Terre show at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, to becoming one of the DRC’s most celebrated artists. 

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Kingelez’ city creations imagine fantastical plazas and towers with tall spindles, finned facades and suspended engineering whirling in a candyland pattern of decorative shapes. But more than an exercise in aesthetics, the works probe the changes facing Africa during the artist’s lifetime, asking urgent questions about inequality, community and the harsh realities of urban growth, many of which are still relevant.

In pieces like ‘The Scientific Center of Hospitalisation the SIDA’ (1991), Kingelez considers a sort of palace for healthcare, where his countrymen could recover in comfort from the ravages of the HIV/AIDS crisis that so many of them were victims of.

‘I’m dreaming cities of peace,’ Kingelez once explained. ‘I’d like to help the earth above all.’

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His dreams manifest in what can only be described as his magnum opus, the extraordinary ‘Ville Fantôme’ (1996), which was accompanied by a virtual reality experience for visitors at the MoMA exhibition. It sees the artist bring the minutiae of a truly utopian city to life – a place where peace and stability have created a society in which doctors and police are not needed. ‘It’s a peaceful city where everybody is free,’ he said. ‘It’s a city that breathes nothing but joy, the beauty of life. It’s a melting pot of all the races in the world. Here, you live in a paradise, just like heaven.’

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