I am gobsmacked. I simply cannot believe I had not seen or heard of Bodys Isek Kingelez‘s incredible fantasy architectural work before last week. It was over a dinner of noodles and dumplings at Wagamama in New York that the incredible printer, thinker and doer Rick Griffith gave me Kingelez’s eponymous book, which is a catalog from a May 2018–January 2019 MoMA exhibition.
I should have been aware of him since I am a member of MoMA’s design and architecture acquisitions committee. My only excuse is that it was not presented under the the design or architecture banner. Whatever the jurisdiction, not to have known of Bodys Isek Kingelez is embarrassing, to say the least.
Kingelez is “one of the unsung visionary creators of the 20th century,” writes curator Sarah Suzuki of this native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “Kingelez’s practice,” she continues, “though unquestionably appealing to curators, critics and art historians, has presented them a maddening challenge.” It is obvious on first glance to see why. “In collapsing the boundaries between sculpture, architecture and design, it eludes the categorization and classification on which institutional collections rely, and in its lack of known art historical precedents it evades the genealogy that we love to document and trace.”
One of the scholars who has studied Kingelez (1948–2015) recalls that on first seeing Kingelez’s work, he “was struck by its similarities to the architecture of Michael Graves.” He is totally Postmodern, which is interesting since he never ventured to another city besides Kinshasa and did not know what a city looked like.
He modeled his fantasies on the present and recent past, “and in the fabric of the city around him, inspired equally by colonial architecture, the ambitious buildings of post-independence Zaire, are idioms that typify national building styles.” His work—which uses the artifact/output of modern consumer culture, and points a way forward, aka Afro-Futuristic vision—explores if “new cooperative ways of living and working were possible, and the most mundane of materials could become technically precise, inventive and elegant objects.”
Of himself, Kingelez says a visionary is “someone who dreams of what doesn’t exist yet.” His work triggers many visions, and while the exhibit has come down, the catalog, from which these remarkable images are reproduced, is alive and available for the present.