18 February 2021
Sol Costales Doulton
Kongo Astronaut, 2016, Kinshasa, DRC, photo courtesy of Renaud Barret
Clad from head to toe in a silver spacesuit made from pieces of electronic debris and a bucket for a helmet, Kongo Astronaut strolls down a dirt street of a Kinshasa ghetto. Two barefoot children retouch his cyber-trash suit with spray paint, preparing him for his next extra-terrestrial mission.
Welcome to System K, the latest documentary from the French photographer and filmmaker Renaud Barret, dedicated to Kinshasa’s street art. Kinshasa’s streets are an open-air stage for an emergent, vibrant and defiant collective of contemporary artists. Using material scavenged from waste, and often their bodies as a canvas, Freddy Tsimba, Géraldine Tobe, Yannos Majestikos, Kongo Astronaut, Strombo, Yas, Beni Baras, Flory and Kokoko! are the cast. Conceived as a collaborative effort, with no external funding, the artists in System K brave the ghettoes of Kinshasa with their provocative performances, giving visibility to an unsustainable socio-political situation. The impromptu actions of the artists are united and empowered by the structural narrative of the documentary. 
Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), is a megacity with an estimated population of fourteen million. It is the third largest urban area in the African continent after Cairo and Lagos and the largest francophone city, surpassing Paris sevenfold in population. French is the official language, and Lingala the lingua franca. In the capital of one of the poorest countries in the world (in 2018, 72 per cent of the population were living in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 a day), people are left to fend for themselves.  The Kinois (the inhabitants of Kinshasa) have become adept at navigating the vertigoes of an informal economy based on recycling. The paradox of living in a country with immense natural resources but which is listed as one of the poorest countries in the world, of not having access to basic commodities like electricity and running water and of being the ‘first world’s’ dumping ground, generates impotence. 
Far away from the world of international exhibitions and biennials that have consecrated contemporary Congolese artists such as painter Chéri Samba and the futurist modeller architect Bodys Isek Kingelez, System K features a new generation of artists who seek to provoke the local population that has been dispossessed of its political agency. From the seventy-five years of Belgian colonial rule to the thirty-two years of Mobutu Sese Seko’s autocracy, from the dynastic pretensions of the Kabila family to the contested elections of 2018 that resulted in the puppet presidency of Felix Tshisekedi, the people have lost their voice. Through non-confrontational actions, the artists habilitate an uncensored space where the people can be heard. For the artists in System K, revolution must come from below, from the city ghettoes.
The performance artist Michel Ekeba (Kongo Astronaut) is our guide through the interstices of our digital world. The implicit irony of Kongo Astronaut’s spacesuit, made from discarded electronic circuits originally made from Congolese coltan, highlights the inequality of the new global order. Half-cyborg, half-astronaut, he helps us mediate between the site-specific interventions of the artists and the way they inscribe themselves within the higher dynamics of what Arjun Appadurai called ‘global cultural flows’. 
How these artistic interventions mirror the urgency of a population battling daily for survival is analysed here, showing how these artworks act as a catalyst for the creation of a fearless collective imagination that aspires to become the fuel for political action, a medium of emancipation and a concerted effort to reclaim democratic rights and liberties. To do this, the artists turn to their cultural heritage and summon the spirits of their dormant ancestors.
System K: Documenting Fiction
Renaud Barret’s 94-minute documentary, filmed in French and Lingala, with English subtitles, premiered at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival and was released in France in January 2020. Barret was born in Neuilly, France, in 1970. After training as a photographer and graphic designer, he came to Kinshasa in 2003 and has made it his second home. Since 2004 he has been filming and producing documentaries such as Benda Bilili! (2010) and La danse de Jupiter (2006), which focused on the city’s music scene. Along with Florence de La Tullaye, he founded La Belle Kinoise, a production company in Kinshasa to promote Congolese musicians and artists.
The catalyst for System K came in 2011 after Barret witnessed a street performance. Following the disputed re-election of Joseph Kabila in 2011, a ‘handful of young visual artists started to use their bodies to express messages to the population. It was very, very new. I know the ghetto very well, and I have always been involved in its street culture, but this was completely unseen’. 
In 2013 reports of a lone astronaut walking the streets of Kinshasa began to appear. Intrigued, Barret followed the astronaut with his camera, dreaming of ‘a film that would be a declaration of the urgency to create no matter what and no matter how. Nothing was clear; it started like that on an intuition. The movie has to be a piece of art itself, a sort of manifesto’.  Congolese director Paul Shemisi heard about the project and was invited to collaborate, and so, without any funding, this newly assembled crew of two oversaw the sound and images of the documentary.
The opening scene of System K is shot at night as cars and motorcycles negotiate the potholes on a dirt road. There is no street illumination and people weave in and out of the traffic, ghostly silhouettes lit by headlights. We hear the swell of voices chanting in the background as a makeshift cart emblazoned with light bulbs appears on the scene. Crouched next to the cart, a man with a long blonde wig, a tail and two enormous horns on his head rises menacingly to his feet, grimacing and contorting his body. Some onlookers retreat while others laugh as Strombo, the performance artist in this scene, waggles his tongue and makes lewd gestures with his pelvis. The cart illuminates Strombo from behind as the men chant ‘light of Satan’.
Strombo, The Devil is Innocent, performance, Kinshasa, DRC, photo courtesy of Renaud Barret
Barret’s use of wide-angle lens shots and his handheld camera recall the ethnographic documentary work of the French director and ethnographer Jean Rouch (1917–2004). Rouch was aware that the filmmaker’s camera is not candid and that its presence interferes and conditions the events it records. Rouch replaced the empirical distant gaze of the ethnographic filmmaker with a participant-observer cameraman; observer and observed engage in an ethnographic dialogue. Rouch’s cameraman participates actively in the events, letting himself be absorbed in the frenzy of the moment to induce a state of ciné-trance.  The voyeuristic desire of looking through a window without being seen that informed the practice of the Western ethnographic filmmaker (ciné-voyeur), is reformulated by Rouch under the guise of proximity:
We work with wide-angle lenses so that we can be very close to the people we film. It ends up reducing our action to an adventure that is the most perfect disorder, since we film with wide angles, that is, seeing everything, but reducing ourselves to proximity, that is, without being seen by others. We have become invisible by being close and by having an extremely wide view… 
Rouch’s approach pushed his ethnographic filming into the realm of docufiction. The aspiration of a ‘pure’ and objective documentation of facts is replaced by a filmic truth in which fictional narratives and documentary intertwine. In a similar manner, Barret’s handheld camera participates and observes the performances as another spectator. Through proximity and dialogue with the artist and the audience, the film becomes a collaborative effort. The choice of the title, the editing and the voiceover comments create a cinematic truth. System K documents fiction, letting the imagination and the dreams of the artists filter into every shot.
Barret’s foreign gaze is balanced by the voiceover comments of Freddy Tsimba. Like a modern-day Virgil, Tsimba’s gentle voice guides us through the purgatory and circles of hell in Kinshasa, offering us a view from within. He appears in every performance and gives the documentary its narrative coherence. We are invited to look behind the scenes, to gaze into the intimate world of the artists and hear their creative concerns.
Yas Illunga, performance, Kinshasa, DRC, film still from System K, 2019, courtesy of Renaud Barret
The footage was recorded over five years and through the editing of Jules Lahana, chronological time is suspended and rearranged into ninety-four minutes of film. Carefully planned performances intertwine with the spontaneous reactions of the onlookers. The camera captures the emotional pulse of life in Kinshasa; it cuts from sweeping aerial views to intense close-ups, recreating a sensation of moving from the macrocosmic to the microcosmic, from the general to the specific, from soaring happiness to despair.
Kin la Belle, Kin la Poubelle: Beauty and the Bin
Kinshasa seen from above ... There’s gold. It shines everywhere.
Mining companies, embassies, foreign companies, they’re all here, while we have nothing.
Congo is made of gold. It is a land of riches.
Kongo Astronaut, 2019 
Freddy Tsimba strolls through an open-air market. Barret’s camera films him from a parallel aisle creating an illusion of invisibility. Street vendors are hawking dog leashes and blown-up replicas of the Mona Lisa in gold frames. We wait with Tsimba to cross the road, and the camera alights on a billboard for the lottery with a photograph of Donald Trump pointing his finger at the invisible spectator. ‘For us, Kinshasa is an endless source of inspiration’, says Tsimba, ‘but it is also a trap we try to escape with our artistic actions.’ 
Described in a report by UN-Habitat as a mega-slum, Kinshasa is expanding eight square kilometres per year on eroded terrains. Electricity, sanitation and drinking water are luxuries beyond the reach of most inhabitants in the ghettoes. Only 10 per cent of the city’s roads are paved, and dilapidated taxi-vans, known as les esprits des morts (the spirits of the dead) slalom through the potholes of the city’s streets. Even a successful nightclub that opened in Kinshasa a couple of years ago is named Le Grand Libulu, or the Big Hole: ‘If we have to live in a hole, we might as well dance in it!’ 
Kinshasa, DRC, photo courtesy of Renaud Barret
The title of Barret’s documentary – System K, or System Kinshasa – is a play on the French slang expression ‘Système D’. The ‘D’ of this expression comes from the exhortation débrouille-toi!, an invocation to ‘fend for yourself’. The ‘D’ may also refer to the more colourful expression démerde-toi (pull yourself out of the shit). Under Mobutu Sese Seko, the autocrat who held on to power for thirty-two years, the informal economy of Zaire was also referred to as ‘Système D’. Following independence from Belgium in 1960, the nationalist Patrice Lumumba became the first prime minister. Backed by the CIA, General Mobutu staged a coup in 1961 and overthrew the government.  Mobutu campaigned for ‘national authenticity’ to purge the country of colonial influence and to rekindle an ‘authentic’ precolonial identity. The name of the country was changed to the Republic of Zaire and the capital Leopoldville was renamed Kinshasa. A charismatic leader with a penchant for ostentation and the finer things in life, Mobutu ruled by ‘kleptocracy’ (rule by theft).
Both the political system and the informal economy of Zaire were organised around what the French political scientist Jean-François Bayart has referred to as ‘the politics of the belly’: power is concerned with access to wealth and the ends to achieve it are what inform the politics of the belly.  During her fieldwork in Kinshasa, the anthropologist and art historian Zoë Strother reported on how locals referred to ‘Article 15’.  The Zairean constitution only had fourteen articles and Article 15 was the population’s own amendment. Article 15 alluded to the principle of débrouille-toi! Today knowing how to navigate System D and apply Article 15 are still the keys to survival.
Recycling is at the core of this informal economy. According to Barret, ‘Kinshasa is the capital of DIY. A city whose population is forced to create the conditions of its own existence … System Kinshasa is to make things happen, and it applies to the population and to the artists’.  The classic division between nature and culture in anthropology is challenged by a city like Kinshasa that introduces a third category: waste. The ‘natural resources’ are the cast-offs accumulated in mountains of rubbish along Avenue Misère (Misery Avenue), the rejects of developed countries that dump their waste in the Congo as a cheaper alternative to recycling. For the Kinois, Kinshasa la belle (Kinshasa the beautiful) has long since become Kinshasa la poubelle (Kinshasa the waste bin). Abandoned refrigerators are converted into woodstoves, coke cans into piggy-banks, broken light bulbs into kerosene lamps.
Like the rest of the Kinois, Kongo Astronaut lives by the rules of Article 15. His ‘exo-astro-skeleton’ spacesuit is a shield against his anger towards the ‘first world’ that plunders Congo’s resources to assuage its hunger for electronics. Inside his suit, Kongo Astronaut undergoes a metamorphosis to become a space and time traveller. ‘When I put my astronaut suit on, I disconnect myself from the system. I change dimension. I hover above the negativity of reality. I become the system that controls the world.’  His suit is a conduit to zero gravity; weightless and floating above the despair, he becomes a space traveller on a journey that will take him out of Kinshasa.
Kongo Astronaut: Connection or Disconnection?
The man in the astronaut suit is Michel Ekeba. Born in Kinshasa, Ekeba graduated from the Académie des Beaux-Arts (ABA) of Kinshasa, from the audio-visual communication department. In 2013, Ekeba and the French artist Eléonore Hellio founded the artists’ collective of Kongo Astronauts. Dressed in his spacesuit, Ekeba ambles through Kinshasa, sometimes interacting with the crowd, at other times puffing on a cigarette. For all his apparent nonchalance, Kongo Astronaut is on a mission ‘to navigate the vertigoes of different worlds’. The collective of Kongo Astronauts want to rise above the metaphysical categories of time to ‘resist psychic ghettoes born from the (post)colonial condition and manifest themselves in the interzones of digital globalization where the past, the future and the present collide’. 
Kongo Astronaut, performance, Kinshasa, DRC, photo courtesy of Renaud Barret
In an increasingly connected world – close to 90 per cent of Kinois have access to the internet via communal mobile phones and internet cafes – digital connectivity is, however, haunted by intense disconnection: only 13 per cent of the population has access to electricity, and Congolese authorities reserve the right to implement internet blackouts.  Through their interventions, the Kongo Astronauts counterbalance this sense of disconnection by habilitating a space for what Arjun Appadurai describes as a ‘community of sentiment’. In Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalisation (1996), Appadurai envisions this community as a group that imagines and feels things collectively, able to transit from a shared imagination to collective action.  Kongo Astronaut’s spontaneous appearances around the city trigger curiosity; people try to decipher his mission and gossip. He links disparate imaginations and raises awareness of the irony of being collectively connected to disconnection.
With the spread of neoliberalism, of information technologies and the phenomenon of mass migration in the last three decades, a new dynamic of social relations has emerged: persons, objects, ideas and images are in constant motion. According to Appadurai, these various flows are in a relation of disjuncture; they take different paths, have different speeds and relate differently to institutional structures in different societies. Models based on a centre-periphery analysis are incapable of accounting for the complexity and overlapping elements of a world in motion. The five-pronged framework Appadurai uses to explore the disjunctures of ‘global cultural flows’ are ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, financescapes and ideoscapes.  These ‘scapes’ are the building blocks of what Appadurai calls ‘imagined worlds’, perspectival entities that surpass the boundaries of territorial borders and ethnic communities. Imagination, in a world dominated by media, is now, more than ever, a critical part of collective, social and everyday life. Through mediascapes, Appadurai believes we can build communities of sentiment, a collective imagination that can contest and subvert the conditions of its existence. 
In System K, the camera cuts to an aerial night shot. Kongo Astronaut is walking in the middle of the traffic while a UN van speeds by. The soundtrack of a cosmic choir accompanies the camera to street level. Kongo Astronaut has a light bulb glowing from the interior of his space helmet. His voice can be heard: ‘Hello? Hello? Mayday! Respond! Kongo Astronaut calling Kinshasa. I need oxygen suitable for breathing.’ He receives a reply ‘natural element spotted,’ but the connection is aborted. ‘Hello? Hello? Wi-Fi connection – disconnection.’ 
Black Prometheus: The Art of Freddy Tsimba
In Kinshasa, we say we are inside the fire, but we do not burn.
Freddy Tsimba, 2019 
Barret’s camera takes us into Freddy Tsimba’s outdoor studio. Larger-than-life sculptures of headless women with their legs spread apart and their underpants pulled down are leaning with their hands against the wall, a violent reflection of the pandemic of rape in the DRC.  Tsimba’s helpers are on the veranda threading spent cartridges and sorting metal bottle caps and spoons into different piles. The camera focuses on Tsimba, who is soldering machete blades together.
Freddy Tsimba was born in 1967 and raised in Kinshasa. He graduated from the ABA in 1989, from the monumental sculpture department, and is considered the godfather of the new generation of ‘spontaneous artists that create on the roads of Kinshasa’.  With a renowned international reputation, Tsimba has received several prestigious awards, such as the silver medal at the Jeux de la Francophonie (2001) in Ottawa, Canada, and the artist’s prize at the Blavozy cultural centre in France in 2005. His works were exhibited in the UK for the first time in 2018, at the Beaux Arts gallery in London. After completing his studies, Tsimba went back to the ‘school of the street’ to master the techniques of fire and became a blacksmith’s apprentice. In Central African societies, blacksmiths are closely tied to ritual experts, and sometimes they are ritual experts themselves and forge ritual objects.
The origin of life in Kongo culture is fire. Tsimba’s parents are Kongo from Manyanga, and Freddy still speaks the Kikongo language.  The Kongo people are a Bantu ethnic group, and the Kingdom of Kongo was a powerful state that ruled over provinces in central Africa between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries. In Kongo cosmogony, the origin of the universe is explained through the concept of kalunga. Kalunga is a force of fire and the origin of môyowawo mu, the source of all life on Earth. The power of kalunga and the ancestors (bakulu) are manifested on Earth through the bisimbi, the spirits. The bisimbi are present in all things and in all places. The bisimbi come into contact with humans through the nganga, the spiritual healer and specialist. The nganga relies on the power of the nkisi, religious objects created by the blacksmiths in which the bisimbi dwell, to communicate with them. The word nkisi comes from the verb kinsa, which in Kikongo means ‘that which protects life’. When a spirit is invoked correctly and respected, the nkisi becomes medicine (bilongo). 
Tsimba is not a nganga, he is an artist, but like a spiritual healer, his work has a therapeutic purpose. His sculptures are forged from objects he collects in war zones and from the garbage he and the shegué – Kinshasa’s street children – are able to scavenge. Disguised as a beggar, Tsimba collects spent cartridges from the bloody battlefields where the First (1996–1997) and Second (1998–2003) Congolese wars were fought, the latter responsible for the death of almost six million people.
The abandoned objects gathered by Tsimba are assembled and animated with a new spark of moyo (life). In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein, the modern Prometheus, collected parts of corpses and infused them with the spark of life to create a sapient, monstrous creature from the remains of the dead. In Kinshasa, the spent cartridges that have pierced Congolese flesh are welded together through fire and woven into a new plot in Tsimba’s sculptures. However, Tsimba is not a bricoleur: ‘What we do is not bricolage, it is serious work. We are artists. It is creation that is being affirmed.’  Every object has been a witness to life and preserves an identity that gives Tsimba’s sculptures an unusual ethical strength. Spoons are a symbol of hunger but they also carry the power of subsistence; keys can lock doors but also unlock them. Tsimba’s sculptures are mediators of time. The past is not forgotten, the present is confronted with its traumas, and the possibility of a more just and more conscious future is rekindled. Unlike Frankenstein, whose quest for immortality resulted in a human abomination, Tsimba’s sculptures are a poignant testament to the sacred value of life.
Freddy Tsimba, Woman with the Rebels Remains, 2006, recycled materials, welded sockets and found Kalashnikov, 182 x 54 x 40 cm, courtesy Beaux Arts Gallery, London
The ethical concerns that filter the art of this Black Prometheus and his quest for the recognition of a dignified life echo the ideals set out by his revolutionary black forefathers. Frantz Fanon analysed the dual psychologies of the oppressed (Other) and of the oppressor (self) in relation to the destructive psychological effects of racism in his radical book Peau Noire, Masques Blancs (Black Skin, White Masks), published in 1952. Writing as a colonised subject, Fanon explores the desires and neurotic pathologies created by racial discrimination and asks: Should the black man be defined in relation to the white? Or, should one ‘strive unremittingly for a concrete and ever new understanding of man?’  At the end of the chapter ‘The Negro and Recognition’, Fanon states:
I said in my introduction that man is a yes. I will never stop reiterating that. Yes to life. Yes to love. Yes to generosity. But man is also no. No to scorn of man. No to degradations of man. No to the butchery of what is most human in man: freedom. 
Like Fanon, Tsimba is saying yes to life understood as bios. The Ancient Greeks had two words to refer to life: bios and zoe. Zoe was employed in the context of a biological understanding of life, and bios in reference to the manner and the quality in which life is lived. The struggle for the recognition of black humanity and the right to a dignified life is the object of Fanon’s political and ethical reflection of otherness.
The connection between ethics and aesthetics in politically committed African art is linked to the concept of bio-politics and human rights, an ethical shift that is inextricably bound to the work of anti-colonial thinkers. The Nigerian art critic and curator Okwui Enwezor described bio-politics and human rights as ‘the silent narrative and spectre that haunts the ethical and aesthetic in contemporary art’. 
To commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights in 2018, Tsimba was commissioned to produce a monumental sculpture for the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, where the declaration was ratified in 1948. Porteuse de Vies (Carrier of Lives) is a five-metre-high female figure made from twenty thousand cartridges. She holds a book in her right hand made out of keys from Kinshasa’s streets and markets, its open pages resembling the wings of a bird about to take flight. The woman is faceless, and in her anonymity, she connects the Congolese experience with a universal belonging to humanity. The importance assigned to memory and to the preservation of life, understood as bios in Tsimba’s work, emphasises his ethical and ontological concern with bio-politics. Close in spirit to Prometheus, the rebellious titan who stole fire from the gods to improve mankind’s existence, Tsimba’s main concern is humanity and his works seek to exorcise pain. ‘I’m an artist of tears but also of hope.’ 
The Cathartic Fire of Géraldine Tobe
My life is built around pain. Death is always behind me;
it follows me and tells me that soon she will come and get me.
I have transformed my pain into a source of inspiration.
Art is therapy for me, it is the way I free myself from the pain and manage to live.
I was reborn from the flames.
Géraldine Tobe, 2020 
A night shot captures the red lights of a luxury hotel sign reflected in a puddle as frogs croak in the background. Barret’s camera enters Tobe’s studio, a corrugated metal structure open on all sides. Tobe uses a candle to light her kerosene lamp. She crouches underneath the suspended canvas and starts to singe the surface with her lamp. The atmosphere is dense with smoke. ‘When I work, I’m in a lot of pain because I breathe in smoke, the toxic wastes. I know I might end up getting sick, but I don’t care. What matters to me is my Art.’ 
Tobe, who was born in Kinshasa in 1992, is the only female artist featured in System K. Tobe was the highlight at the 2018 Dakar Biennial and has started to exhibit in Europe. In 2019 she was an artist-in-residence at the Africa Museum in Tervuren, Belgium, and her work was exhibited at the Art-Z Gallery in Paris in February 2020. She graduated in 2014 from the painting department of the ABA in Kinshasa, but frustrated with the unoriginality of her work she burned her paintings. ‘I have to destroy if I want to create … I looked at the flames and the smoke coming from the bonfire and I asked myself if I could work with fire and use smoke as my colour.’  Tobe replaced her paintbrushes and colours for kerosene lamps, fire and black smoke. Through collage, grattage, oil painting and smoke on white canvases she creates disturbing phantom-like figures. Her canvases often depict scorched human landscapes in black and white with a violent trace of blood red.
Géraldine Tobe working, film still from System K, 2019, courtesy of Renaud Barret
Smoke and fire function as mediating elements in Tobe’s art and are the vehicle through which she accesses her traumatic past. The second youngest of five siblings, Tobe and her older brother were accused of being child sorcerers. The incidence of child sorcerers increased dramatically in the late 1990s when Pentecostalism and Charismatic Christianity took root in the DRC. An offshoot of this was the appearance of les églises du revéil (revival churches), marked by their unusual syncretism that combines the Bantu belief that spirits can influence earthly affairs with the Pentecostal doctrine of spiritual warfare. Satan is depicted as a consummate imitator and has created a duplicate terrestrial reality; he preys on the most vulnerable and children are often accused of being incarnations of the devil.  Tobe and her brother were beaten by the pastor of their church to extract a confession, and in order to banish Satan from their souls several exorcisms were performed and their bodies scalded with boiling water before being locked up for weeks in a dark room filled with candles and incense. There was no window to ensure the children would not fly away and the room filled with suffocating smoke.
Fire and smoke are also the channels Tobe uses to summon the spectres of Congolese spiritual history. Jacques Derrida employed the concept of ‘spectre’ in his Specters of Marx (1993), and coined the neologism ‘hauntology’ to replace the priority of the study of being (ontology) with the presence of the ghost, that which is neither dead nor alive. Derrida does not suggest that the present is haunted by the nebulous presence of the ghostly, but points out that the present is not as self-sufficient as it might appear. Being aware of the ghosts is, therefore, an epistemological and ethical stance from which to address the present.  Derrida’s ‘hauntology’ has been employed as the gateway to evoke the phantoms of modernity within social sciences, but the ‘spectre’ acquires a broader and more spiritual meaning when conjured by the flames in Tobe’s painting. Through the communicative properties of smoke, she reconnects with her Kongo heritage and awakens the slumbering ancestors. Her work is the physical support on which the spectres can appear. ‘Spirituality is the force of a society’ and by associating nkisi with pagan or dark practices ‘they are denying their spiritual power and their importance in the creation of our own cultural identity. We have to reclaim our history and to do so we have to reconnect to our own spirituality.’ 
However, this heritage is cryptic. Following the arrival of the Portuguese in 1483 and the expansion of Catholicism, an Afro-Christian religious syncretism developed.  Five centuries of Christianisation, and the plundering of ritual objects by the Belgians in the nineteenth century, have also complicated the task of coming to terms with the implications of her Kongo heritage. Yet this does not deter Tobe, who is gifted with determination and sensibility. Seeking to invoke the precolonial female spiritual healers, in 2015 Tobe staged a performance, with almost fatal consequences. With half of her face painted white, she surrounded herself with candles in a dark room but accidentally caught fire and almost burned to death. She had to convalesce for six months, forced to lie flat on her stomach and breathe gently so as not to tear her healing skin.
During her 2019 residency in the Africa Museum in Tervuren, Tobe worked with the dusty ethnographic objects of the museum’s holdings. Through the communicative properties of smoke, she awakened the bisimbi that dwell within these objects and relayed their messages on canvas. ‘I am in contact with the spirits. They take hold of me, and I do things sometimes that not even I understand.’ 
The therapeutic and liberating power of art was something the Greeks knew well; in his Poetics, Aristotle defined it as a process of katharsis. The spectators of a tragedy revisit their lives through the actions of others habilitating a space for a ‘purgation of pity and fear’. Many interpretations have arisen about what Aristotle might have meant by ‘pity’ and ‘fear’. The Irish philosopher Richard Kearney associates pity (eleos) with the act of empathy that the portrayal of human suffering in a tragedy evokes in the spectator. However, empathy alone can lead the spectator to over-identify with the character. To counterbalance the empathic response, an estrangement device is put in motion. This opposing force is what Aristotle meant by ‘fear’ (phobos). Fear generates detachment from the heat of the action, allowing the audience to reflect on the causes behind the tragic event. Detachment in Greek tragedy was supplied by the chorus, which would intervene and cut through the plot. However, extreme fear risks transforming the spectator into a voyeur of the horrors represented on stage. It is the balancing of these opposing forces, between empathic attachment and fearful detachment, that the process of catharsis acquires its therapeutic properties. 
The capacity to habilitate spaces for the ‘purgation of pity and fear’ is not exclusive to tragic drama, the process of catharsis as a rehabilitating space of trauma and existential anxieties is a characteristic trait of many forms of narration and storytelling. Through the repetition of myths and folk tales, societies find a cathartic appeasement to the existential conundrums of our ontological origins. By recounting or retelling experience through fiction or representation, paths can be opened up through which the past can be rediscovered and addressed. The Italian chemist and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi compared his need to share his story over and over again as something as basic as an ‘alimentary need’.  It is in the delicate balance between empathy (eleos) and the detachment that comes from the acknowledgement and recognition of the causes that are behind the tragic event (phobos) that catharsis becomes liberating.
Tobe does not make use of the ‘talking cure’ to heal herself; she uses art as her medium. The smoke opens the psychic scars of her past, which find a place on the canvas where they can be visited, tamed and shared. Through repetition of the creative act – Tobe works obsessively – she releases herself from the pathological repression of trauma: ‘It is through art that I am able to speak and tell my story; a story I cannot tell through words. Art is a form of therapy and has allowed me to exteriorise my deepest emotions, concerns and pains.’ 
Performing Revolution: Yannos Majestikos
Performance is a sacrifice. We sacrifice ourselves.
Performance is the art of making something that goes beyond you.
Yannos Majestikos, 2019 
Yannick Makanka Tundaditu was born in Kinshasa in 1988 and graduated in 2013 from the ABA with a degree in interior architecture. He started performing under the name Yannos Majestikos in 2012 following a series of workshops held at the ABA. After being awarded a ‘Visa pour la création, Art de la Rue’ (a visa for creation in the category of street art) by the French Institute in 2018, he has been living in Paris at the Cité Internationale des Arts and is currently waiting for his asylum request to be ratified. Since his arrival in Europe, he has performed in France, Spain and Belgium, and his costumes have been exhibited in the exhibition ‘Kinshasa Chroniques’ at the Musée International des Arts Modestes (MIAM) in Sète in 2018.
Performance is not simply a vehicle through which Majestikos reflects on the social reality of his country, but a means for revolution:
Before I became a performance artist, what drove me was my desire to create a revolution. I have read the writings of Che Guevara many times. Through performance, however, I understood that the revolution had to start within, in my body. I first had to revolutionise myself. It was then that I became a performance artist. 
Majestikos’s performance Bain de Sang (Blood Bath) is the final act in System K. Barret overlaps two performances: Géraldine Tobe’s ritual sacrifice and Majestikos’s Blood Bath. Although they are independent performances, their intertwining in the film splashes Barret’s camera with blood and imprints images that are hard to forget.
The opening scene of Blood Bath is of two men attaching a bathtub to a rickety wooden pallet on wheels, one of them soldering a metallic structure at one end of the tub. The metallic structure is an enclosed space in which Majestikos places his body. Dressed in white trousers, a white shirt and white shoes, other members of the collective help Majestikos knot his black bow tie before he climbs into his makeshift bathmobile.
White symbolises spirituality and the bow tie is a symbol of my service to the spirits. I am pure when I perform, energies possess me, and I enter a state of trance. My ancestors are always with me and protect me. My body is simply a vehicle through which these energies manifest themselves. I am a living sculpture. Like a nkisi, I am only the material base. 
Tobe walks towards the camera in a white dress with an apron made from dried corn husks. Half of her face is painted white and she holds a goat on a leash. A man with his body covered in painted leopard spots rings a bell with his left hand; in his right hand, he holds two serrated knives. Tobe takes the bell and gives the leopard man the goat. A bystander helps him pin the goat to the ground as the leopard man cuts its neck open in the middle of the street.
Géraldine Tobe, performance, Kinshasa, DRC, photo courtesy of Renaud Barret
The persona of the leopard man is charged with symbolic references. The Anyoto people of eastern Congo were known as the leopard men. When attacking and murdering their enemies, the Anyoto would scratch the victim’s body to simulate that it had been a leopard. The meta-narrative of ‘the beast’, promoted by Europeans since the fifteenth century, found in the Anyoto leopard men a gripping validation. The Museum of Belgian Congo in Tervuren (now renamed as the Africa Museum) dedicated one of its main exhibition halls to a sculpture representing a black man with claws and covered in a leopard skin about to pounce on a sleeping victim.  The statue was made by the artist Paul Wissaert in 1913 and featured in Hergé’s famous comic strip Tintin in the Congo.  The symbolism of the leopard was also appropriated in a counter-colonial stance by Mobutu. Known as ‘the leopard of Zaire’, the image of this charismatic leader is inseparable from the leopard-skin toque he always wore.
In the next scene of the film, gallons of coagulating blood are poured into the mobile bathtub, splashing Majestikos. Standing knee-deep in the bloody tub, Majestikos holds a large container of blood above his head as he is wheeled out into the streets. Six black dolls’ heads are strung around his shirt, a reference to all the children who have lost their lives in the wars. People crammed inside vans look on in surprise. A group of acolytes accompany the blood bath, ringing bells in order to open a path through the chaotic traffic of Kinshasa – as Tobe advances with the dead goat, its severed head hanging limply over her arm. At one point, Majestikos drinks the blood from the bag, sprays it from his mouth at the crowd and then leaps out of the bathtub and chases the onlookers. Children start screaming and running away from the blood-dripping figure. Using his bloodstained hands, Majestikos stamps his handprints on the side of a white car.
Yannos Majestikos, Blood Bath, performance, Kinshasa, DRC, photo by Renaud Barret, courtesy of the artist
The fusion of Majestikos’s bloody spectacle with Tobe’s sacrificial enactment has all the elements of a liturgy. The artists and their acolytes are metamorphosed into different players: the high priestess officiating the sacrifice with half of her face painted white; the leopard man in charge of slaughtering the goat; and the pure white outfit of Majestikos as he imbibes and washes in blood. The religious syncretism is rife: instead of a sacrificial lamb there is a goat, instead of a rosary there is a fearsome necklace of dolls’ heads, and instead of the wine used in the Eucharist Majestikos sprays blood from his mouth. There is also an element of penance as Majestikos struggles to maintain balance inside the bloody waters of his bathtub before he collapses. Majestikos lies in the bloody tub like the murdered French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat in Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Death of Marat (1793). ‘I drink this blood to express my anger and my disgust towards the situation we live in. To express the suffering of our country, my performance must be one of pain.’  From the ten million deaths registered under King Leopold’s brutal reign to the six million deaths provoked by the Second Congo War, death and pain are omnipresent: ‘Through blood there is no democracy. There is only demon-cracy.’ 
Blood Bath is a processional performance and as it advances it attracts an ever-growing crowd. Central African societies employed masquerade performances and the spiritual force of the nkisi as vehicles to demonstrate power, to educate and to connect with the spiritual world. Majestikos’s and Tobe’s performances are inscribed within the longue durée of the Kingdom of Kongo public ceremonial culture – an alternative genealogy to western performance art.
The collective nature of the work and the powerful message it conveys align their performance within the tradition of carnivalesque activism. Carnival, as a collective vehicle of resistance towards colonial domination, was employed by the diasporic communities in Latin America from the eighteenth century. Trinidad’s carnival festival was among the first to use the revulsive power of masks and role inversion as a vehicle for the creation of self-conscious subjectivities that had been dispossessed by decades of slavery. The subversive potential of carnival has appeared more recently in North America and Europe as a medium of protest sensibility, an activist/artistic party to denounce corporate capitalism. Carnivalesque activism took off in June 1999 in London with the Global Carnival Against Capitalism, followed by Occupy Wall Street in New York 2011 and the Pussy Riot protest in Moscow in 2012. 
Yannos Majestikos, Blood Bath, performance, Kinshasa, DRC, photo by Renaud Barret, courtesy of the artist
Majestikos’s bloody procession fuses Kongo public ceremonial culture with this contemporary take on carnival, a non-confrontational intervention that raises socio-political awareness: an augury of participatory democracy. With the participation of the crowd, he habilitates a space for therapeutic release, a safe space for the dead to be mourned. ‘When there is blood, there is also life. 
Following the screening of Barret’s film in Berlin in 2019, a Hollywood reporter described System K as an ‘African spin’ on Exit Through the Gift Shop, the 2010 British documentary directed by the street artist Banksy. Street art, understood as ‘illegal’ or ‘unofficial’ art created in urban settings for public visibility, pales in a city like Kinshasa. The binary concepts of legal or illegal, official or unofficial, high or low art find no applicability in the city’s ghettoes. Public cultural institutions are virtually non-existent, and street and gallery become, to a certain extent, synonymous.
The artists in System K use the streets as their stage and the Kinois as their audience. They abandon the notion of individual authorship and the film’s narrative bestows power on their practice. Tsimba, Tobe and Majestikos might employ different media, but their works are all inextricably linked to the tempo of the city; they are a mirror of the difficulties of life in Kinshasa. By invoking the bisimbi (spirits) of their ancestors through smoke, fire and sacrificial blood, these contemporary urban practitioners reclaim their cultural heritage. They bridge the cultural gap provoked by the experience of colonialism and restore a lifeline to their Kongo lineage. According to the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe, the present can no longer be perceived as a series. It must be understood ‘as an interlocking of presents, pasts and futures that retain their depths of other presents, pasts and futures’. 
The artists in System K summon the spectres of the past, confront the harshness of the present and through repetition and perseverance weld disparate imaginations. They habilitate a space for the creation of a community of sentiment; a projective and collective imagination that can transit from the realm of sentiment to political action and envision new forms of civic association. Through the medium of film and retransmission, the message can travel well beyond the unpaved streets of Kinshasa and generate global solidarity. This limitless community, embodied in the figure of Kongo Astronaut, can rise from the ghetto and aspire to the moon.
The expressive actions of the artists featured in System K are moments of self-conscious affirmation and empowerment, the prise de conscience over the paradoxes of life in the DRC and a vehicle that tempers their anger towards a political regime based on corruption and impunity. The true validation of System K came in 2019 when a free-entry screening was organised at the Institut Français in Kinshasa. At least nine hundred people attended, including the artists, their friends and many people from the ghetto. After ten minutes, the audience stood up and started to applaud: ‘This is us! This is us!’ they cried. Barret’s foreign gaze had not betrayed them.
 See ‘The World Bank in DRC’ 12 May 2020
 Since the arrival of the Portuguese in 1483, who traded ivory and slaves, to the latest ‘mining for infrastructure’ deal signed in 2007 with the Chinese to mine the cobalt, copper and coltan used in electronics, plundering the natural resources of the DRC has been a pervasive feature of Congolese history. Commodities like gold, diamonds, rubber, cobalt, copper, uranium, petroleum, gas, cobalt, zinc, tin, tungsten, water and timber abound. The country’s untapped deposits of minerals are estimated to be worth US $24 trillion.
 See Arjun Appadurai, ‘Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy’, Theory, Culture & Society, Vol 7, Issue 2, 1990, pp 295–310
 Renaud Barret, personal communication, 29 April 2020
 Renaud Barret, personal communication
 Jean Rouch’s ethnographic work was deeply influenced by the possession rituals of the African societies he studied. Les Maîtres Fous, screened in 1954 at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, filmed a possession ritual of the Hauka people in Accra, Ghana. During the ritual, the Hauka would become possessed by the spirits of their colonisers, the British administrators. Following in the footsteps of the Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov, Rouch coined the term ciné-trance. Vertov’s theory of film defined the role of the camera through an anatomical metaphor. The camera functioned as the ciné-eye that was able to perceive a reality that was different from the human eye and could create a fresh perception of the world. The anatomical metaphor was extended to the radio, which Vertov termed ciné-ear. Vertov coined the concept of ciné-truth (Kino-Pravda) and applied it in the newsreel series he launched in 1922. The ciné-eye and the ciné-ear would capture fragments of reality that, when organised together through montage, would reveal a unique truth that could only emerge through the medium of film. Rouch coined the term ciné-trance to describe the state of transformation that the participant-observer filmmaker would experience when following a dancer or a priest in a ritual; the cameraman would be absorbed in the events and become possessed.
 Jean Rouch, Ciné-Ethnography, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2003, pp 154–155
 Kongo Astronaut, in System K
 Freddy Tsimba, in System K
 Following the withdrawal of Belgium, the US and the USSR set their sights on the Congo to play out their Cold War agendas and control the production of uranium in a decade when the accumulation of nuclear weapons was at its height. Overwhelmed by the task of governing such a vast unruly territory, Prime Minister Lumumba asked the USSR for help. The US retaliated, and Lumumba was deposed and then assassinated in 1961.
 Jean-François Bayart, L’ Etat en Afrique: La politique du ventre, Fayard, Paris, 1989. The use of the bodily metaphor to analyse the political system of postcolonial African countries was further developed by the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe in his book On the Postcolony (2001). Mbembe analyses postcolonial state forms through the aesthetics and stylistics of power. Power is expressed and described through bodily functions and organs of copulation. In his novel La Vie et Demi (1979), the Congolese writer Sony Lab’ouTansi analyses the irony of an autocratic leader with an impotent phallus: ‘The Providential Guide went to the toilet for a final check on his weapons … For this woman ... he intended deep penetrations, staccato and foamy as he had done in his youth. No more could he flow, thanks to the trouble his momentary impotence had left in his loins; no more could he produce his favourite pop-popping, his stops and starts. Old age had caught him a nasty blow from below, but he was still a dignified male, still even a male who could perform, able to rise and fall, among other things.’ Sony Lab’ouTansi, La Vie et Demi, Seuil, Paris, 1979, p 42.
 Zoë Strother, ‘Inventing Masks: Structures of Artistic Innovation Among the Central Pende of Zaire’, unpublished PhD thesis, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1992
 Renaud Barret, personal communication
 Kongo Astronaut, in System K
 Dominique Malaquais, ‘Kongo Astronauts: Collectif Embarqué’, Multitudes 77, Winter 2019 (in French), accessed 13 March 2020
 The US Department of State reported in 2019 that ‘authorities continued to reserve the right to implement internet blackouts, citing a 2002 act that grants government officials the power to shut down communications and conduct invasive surveillance ... Following national elections in December 2018, outgoing president Joseph Kabila suspended internet service for 20 days to prevent the dissemination of unofficial results.’ US Department of State, ‘Democratic Republic of the Congo 2019 Human Rights Report’, 2019, p 21, accessed 30 June 2020
 See Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1996
 Ethnoscapes refers to landscapes inhabited by human groups who live constantly on the move, even if they have to settle in a single place. This space includes a variety of nomadic individuals, ranging from refugees to tourists. Mediascapes are produced by the mass ‘mediatic’ systems and products – such as newspapers, magazines and films, among others – that disseminate information at a global level. Technoscapes are landscapes dominated by the diffusion of both mechanical and informational technologies around the world. Financescapes, on the other hand, form the transnational texture of economic relations created by the increasing flow of capital movements. Finally, ideoscapes refer to the landscape of political ideologies and imagery often associated with a particular state or social movement, and include the different discourses about freedom, democracy, human rights, and so on; see Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, op cit, p 229
 See Arjun Appadurai. ‘Grassroots Globalization and the Research Imagination’, Public Culture, Vol 12, No 1, 2000, pp 1–19
 Kongo Astronaut, in System K
 Freddy Tsimba, in System K
 Human Rights Watch documented the widespread use of rape as a weapon of war in eastern Congo; estimates in 2002 calculated that there were 200,000 surviving rape victims in the DRC, Human Rights Watch, ‘The War Within the War: Sexual Violence Against Women and Girls in Eastern Congo’, 2002, accessed 28/02/2020.
 Freddy Tsimba, in System K
 Over two hundred languages are spoken in the DRC; French is the official language and the four national languages are Kinkongo, Lingala, Swahili and Tsiluba
 See Kimbwandende Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau, African Cosmology of the Bantu-Kongo: Principles of Life & Living, Athelia Henrietta Press, 2001
 Freddy Tsimba, personal communication
 Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks , Charles Markmann, trans, Paladin, New York, 1970, p 12
 Ibid, p 173
 Okwui Enwezor, ‘Documentary/Vérité: Bio-Politics, Human Rights and the Figure of “Truth” in Contemporary Art’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, Vol 5, No 1, 2015, p 23
 Freddy Tsimba, personal communication
 Géraldine Tobe, personal communication
 Géraldine Tobe, in System K
 Economic instability and the expansion of revival churches have led to the social phenomenon of the shegué, Kinshasa’s street children. The Congo has one of the highest birth rates in the world with an average of 6.1 children per woman. Overwhelmed by the task of raising so many children, mothers, influenced by pastors, sometimes accuse their offspring of being child sorcerers. Thousands of children are killed, abandoned or dragged into churches where they are isolated, starved, beaten and forced to undergo exorcism. Twenty thousand abandoned children ‘haunt’ the streets of the city. According to the 2019 Human Rights Report: ‘The Constitution prohibits parental abandonment of children accused of sorcery ... The law provides for the imprisonment of parents and other adults convicted of accusing children of witchcraft. Authorities did not implement the law.’ US Department of State. ‘Democratic Republic of the Congo 2019 Human Rights Report’, pp 36–37
 Géraldine Tobe, personal communication
 See John K Thornton, ‘Afro-Christian Syncretism in the Kingdom of Kongo’, The Journal of African History, Vol 54, No 1, 2013, pp 53–77
 Tobe is currently working on a project with thirteen other African artists called The Spirits of the Ancestors. The Africa Museum in Tervuren and other European museums have agreed to loan them several African ethnographic objects. The objects are going to be taken back to their original location so that local artists can work with them and explore the connections between contemporary art practices and ancestral spirituality.
 See Richard Kearney, ‘Narrating Pain: The Power of Catharsis’, Paragraph, Vol 30, No 1, 2007, pp 51–66
 Richard Kearney, ‘The Hermeneutics of Wounds’, in Imagination Now: A Richard Kearney Reader, M E Littlejohn, ed, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2020, p 132
 Géraldine Tobe, personal communication
 Yannos Majestikos, in System K
 Yannos Majestikos, personal communication, 31 May 2020
 Yannos Majestikos, personal communication
 The Museum of Belgian Congo in Tervuren, Belgium was opened in 1910 as a shrine to colonial triumphalism, extolling King Leopold’s grandiose ‘civilising’ project
 In a wonderful moment of retribution, Paul Wissaert’s sculpture of the Leopard Man in the Africa Museum is now exhibited near Chéri Samba’s painting Réorganisation (2002). Samba depicts the museum’s director, Guido Gryseels, watching a tug of war on the steps of the museum as a group of Congolese try to haul Wissaert’s sculpture out of the museum while a paunchy white man tries to drag it back inside; a message is written on a plaque: ‘It’s true that it’s sad, but actually the museum must be fully reorganised.’
 Yannos Majestikos, in System K
 Yannos Majestikos, personal communication
 See Claire Tancons, ‘Curating Carnival? Performance in Contemporary Caribbean Art’, in Curating in the Caribbean, David A Bailey et al, eds,The Green Box, Berlin, 2012, pp 37–63; and Claire Tancons, ‘Occupy Wall Street: Carnival against capital? Carnivalesque as protest sensibility’, e-flux journal 30, 2011, pp 1–21
 Yannos Majestikos, personal communication
 Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony, University of California Press, 2001, p 16
Sol Costales Doulton graduated from the Universidad Complutense of Madrid with an undergraduate degree in philosophy and completed post-graduate studies at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London in the special option ‘Global Conceptualism’. She is currently based in Rome and working as an assistant curator to artistic director Cristiano Leone.