Whimsy under the stars

Bodys Isek Kingelez (Congolese, 1948-2015). "Ville de Sète 3009." 2000. Paper, paperboard, plastic, and other various materials, 31 1/2 × 9' 10 1/8? × 6' 10 11/16?. Collection Musée International des Arts Modestes (MIAM), Sète, France. © Pierre Schwartz ADAGP; courtesy Musée International des Arts Modestes (MIAM), Sète, France
At MoMA, Bodys Isek Kingelez’ 3-D fables enchant

It is impossible to stay in a bad mood at MoMA’s new exhibit, ”Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams.”

This U.S. first retrospective of Bodys Isek Kingelez (1948-2015), a Congolese artist who created miniature models of fabulously whimsical future cities, is a tonic for modern angst. Visitors will recognize ordinary materials — thread spools, soda cans, corrugated cardboard, bottle caps, ballpoint pen shafts, cardboard tubes and more — transformed into construction materials for fanciful structures: hotels that fan out like peacocks’ tails, a United Nations building with what looks like a Ferris wheel, and entire cities reimagined in bright colors with scalloped edges, festooned with stars.

Kingelez’ 30-year career was as improbable as his art. This self-described “designer, architect, sculptor, engineer and artist” was born in Kimbembele-Ihunga, a rural village in the Belgian Congo, and educated in missionary schools. About 10 years after the country gained independence from Belgium, Kingelez, then in his early 20s, moved to the capital, Kinshasa, to study industrial design amid an environment charged with post-freedom energy and enthusiasm about the future.

He must have picked up on the excitement. One day, compelled by a vision, he picked up an exacto knife, some glue and cardboard, and created his first model building. He took his second work, “Musée National,” to the Institut des Musées Nationaux du Zaire, and produced another work, the “Commissariat Atomique,” as disbelieving staffers watched. They offered him a job as an art restorer, which fueled his growing obsession with what he called “extreme maquettes.” A blurb about him in a feature about art in African capitals led to an invitation to display at the Pompidou Center in Paris in 1989 and sparked his career.

From then on, he focused on crafting wildly inventive buildings and, eventually, entire cities within “a better, more peaceful world.”

“To create a future, you need a model. Without a model you can’t have a vision” he explained in “Kingelez: Kinshasa, A City Rethought,” a 30-minute documentary by Dirk Dumon being shown in conjunction with the exhibit. His works ranged from single models small enough to fit in one hand to large-scale cities (three of them are shown here) with dozens of fanciful buildings amid colorful boulevards, near-blue canals and verdant parks.


Everything on display combines uplifting optimism and hope about a literally bright future — bursts of yellows and reds, sky blues, deep greens and oranges color his craft — and richly patterned designs. Stars, diamonds, scalloped edges, slides, circles, semicircles, fantastically shaped towers, (he loved skyscrapers) and improbably fan-shaped buildings rise from inventive bases. His “Stars Palme Bouygues” looks ready to take flight. (This work, created during six months in Paris, is his response to the Grande Arche de la Défense, just west of Paris, and Bouygues, the multinational conglomerate that built it.)

There’s a spin on traditional African architecture in his homage to Kinshasa, where he went to university. “Kinshasa La Belle,” is a fanciful, round building with a twist on the brise-soleil, an architectural feature used by post-independence African architects. He reimagined these window overhangs, which reduce heat by deflecting light, as gracefully scalloped pediments in bright blue over each window. He said in an interview he wanted to create a swarm of butterflies, “sky blue butterflies, flying around and around the building.” His first attempt, in 1994, to create a city transformed his birthplace, Kimbembele-Ihunga, into a cosmopolitan city with architecture straight out of the Jetsons. “This town” he wrote, “represents the shape of my imagination; it is the very image of my ability to create a new world.” It took him a year to fashion this glittering metropolis with skyscrapers, broad boulevards, a soccer stadium and restaurants where, he wrote, “everyone can feel at home.” Nestled amid the towers shaped like rockets or minarets, curved roofs and star-spangled apartment buildings, are the names of local families. Atop one shining edifice is a single meticulously cut out and painted human figure: his father.

The showstopper is his largest cityscape, “Villa Fantome,” a fantasy city with shops, hotels, a sports stadium, a power plant, a post office, apartment and plenty of parking, but no police station or hospital. Kingelez described it as “a peaceful city where everybody is free. It’s a city that breathes nothing but joy, the beauty of life. It’s a melting pot of all races in the world. Here you live in a paradise, like heaven.”

There is almost too much going on to take in at once: skyscrapers wrapped in metallic paper, soda-can towers, curves, slides, stepped facades and even stars. One round skyscraper, sheathed in silver paper, resembles the office tower at Lexington Avenue and 57th Street, while another, topped by three bright red stars, would not be out of place in Las Vegas. Several buildings, with their undulating façades, are reminiscent of Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau Hotel (there are even miniature palm trees).

If it’s all too much to survey, the exhibit includes a virtual reality experience that allows visitors to “walk” the streets of Villa Fantome. Somewhat ironically, Kingelez in the documentary comments that “people can’t work with their hands anymore, they do it all on computers.”

Of all the motifs in this show, the most frequent is the star, sprinkled on pavements and buildings. Religion was an integral force in his life. Kingelez’ career was sparked by a divine vision, and it continued to inspire him throughout his life (he never made preparatory drawings). “God is the first artist, He created the mountains and forests,” he said, “It is our duty to follow His example.”

The star, he said, is“a magisterial symbol for which all powerful God the Creator communicated to His people on earth.”

Regrettably, none of the buildings envisioned by this inventive soul exists, but we can always hope. After all, we have the models.