The Painters of The Congo River – Part I

Mbang [m-buh n-g] died in the early 2000s.

He used to visit us at our family house in Garoua, a little desertic and colorful town of North Cameroon (Africa) where I grew up. I remember his dark skin, snowy hair. His skinny appearance -as if the Sahel winds would blow his short body away first before his straw hat. He had a bright, charming smile.

Garoua – Cameroon

My mom and him used to talk for hours about art. I remember the laughing and the jokes they shared in Lingala. After each visit, a new painting would pop on our walls. Mbang’s paintings were vivid, full of vibrant colors.

Unfortunately, he fell ill and the visits and masterpieces became rare.

Mbang died of complications from AIDS.

Poto-Poto is an old neighborhood in Brazzaville (Congo). This is where a French Mathematician and amateur painter Pierre Lods established his school in 1951: The Poto Poto school of arts.

The school encourages originality and African art and has become one of the most important artistic center in Central Africa region. Artists and nature lovers love to frequent the School because of the quality of work done there.

PotoPotoSchoolofPainting1

Mathematics is not my cup of tea, but if it wasn’t for it I’d have never met Mbang and his amazing work.

Last week, I was working at my favorite bar’s patio surrounded by these astonishing paintings. All of sudden they reminded me of my childhood and my dear Mbang. Emotions took over me, I was paralyzed like a deer stuck in headlights.

I wrote Francis’ number down and called him the next day, inviting him for a beer. Once I met him I had one question:

“Tell me your story?”

He smiled

“It’s a long story.” He said.

“I have all the time in the world for long stories.”

“I’m from Congo Brazzaville. When I was younger, in the 60s, I was a huge comics reader.”

“ ZemblaIl Grande Blek, Akim, Rahan… I literally devoured all the comics I could.”

“Blek fought against the British because they wanted to colonize…”,

[I started laughing]

“I hope you are not British” ?!?!

“No, no, no!”

“Good…because British wanted to colonize the Americas and Blek obviously didn’t like it.”

“This is how I started to draw. I know your generation is scared of the dirt but, back in the days, we used to draw on the ground with our hands and sticks .”

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“At school, I was always sitting on the last bench so that the teacher couldn’t spot me doodling. There, I met two guys who were reproducing cinema billboards in their free time -way better than me- and one guy who hated their guts. He was also the son of a rich man.”

“Do you want to be as good as them?” He asked me. “I know you can do better, I could buy you watercolors to get you started.”

“According to me, they were really good. So on Thursdays, I went to their place to watch them paint. The next day at school, I didn’t tell it to my slanderous friend. I’m not crazy, I wanted to keep my watercolor box.”

“In high school, I was in a band. I played guitar. A local artist noticed us and offered to paint our cover. I told him that I was also an artist and I could do it by myself”

“No you can’t, come to my studio, you’ll see.” He said.

“Once there, I realized that he was right…his work was incredible. I was baffled, traumatized.”

“What you doing is childish painting, I will teach you the craft!” He added, pouring more salt on the wound.

“But I already know how to draw!”

“No, you don’t! I’ll be your teacher and you will pay me.”

“Okay then, but first I will ask my father for money”

“Francis… are you out of your mind” Daddy yelled.?!

“Painting is for white people. Africans don’t buy art. What I want you to do is to study and go to school, get your degrees.”

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“What my father didn’t know is that I visually memorized everything this artist showed me: his moves and style. How to build and stretch a canvas etc.”

“From 10th to 12th grade I was buying my school books with drawing money. I drew trains, people and villages exactly like I saw them the first time in that studio.”

“Amazing,” I replied

“Did you saw ‘the artist’ after that?”

“Hell yeah!” Francis added.

With a smirk on his face, he took a sip of his cold beer

“We became enemies…”

To be continued.

We learn a lot from strangers. I’m Lionel Thomas, creative director, artist painter, illustrator, musician, and blogger. Tell me your story!

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