“Without a model, you are nowhere. A nation that can’t make models is a nation that doesn’t understand things, a nation that doesn’t live,” said visionary artist Bodys Isek Kingelez (1948–2015). Based in then-Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), following its independence from Belgium, Kingelez made sculptures of imagined buildings and cities that reflected dreams for his country, his continent, and the world. Kingelez’s “extreme maquettes” offer fantastic, utopian models for a more harmonious society of the future. An optimistic alternative to his own experience of urban life in his home city of Kinshasa, which grew exponentially and organically with urban planning and infrastructure often unable to keep step, his work explores urgent questions around urban growth, economic inequity, how communities and societies function, and the rehabilitative power of architecture—issues that resonate profoundly today.
Kingelez’s vibrant, ambitious sculptures are created from an incredible range of everyday materials and found objects—colored paper, commercial packaging, plastic, soda cans, and bottle caps—all meticulously repurposed and arranged. While he didn’t travel outside of Zaire until 1989, he was highly attuned to world events and deeply concerned with social issues. The Scientific Center of Hospitalisation the SIDA (1991), for example, references the AIDS crisis; Palais d’Hirochima (1991) addresses the condition of postwar Japan; and U.N. (1995) attests to the organization’s global peacekeeping efforts and the artist’s own sense of civic responsibility. In the complex multi-building cityscape Kimbembele Ihunga (1994), the artist reimagines his agricultural home village complete with a soccer stadium, banks, restaurants, and skyscrapers. In Ville Fantôme (1996), which will be accompanied by a Virtual Reality experience for visitors, the artist has imagined a peaceful city in which doctors and police are not needed.
The first US retrospective of Kingelez’s work, the exhibition spans his full career, from early single-building sculptures, to spectacular sprawling cities, to futuristic late works, which incorporate increasingly unorthodox materials. These rarely shown works are a call for us all to imagine, in the artist’s words, a “better, more peaceful world.”