Portrait

A Skype chat with young artist Pierre Mukeba. By Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung.

Artist Pierre Mukeba

Pierre Mukeba seems relaxed as he troubleshoots our video chat. He punctuates his sentences with a laugh, amiable and resonant. My own laugh – skewed and pulled apart by some glitch – translates as a hollow, metallic scrape. I can tell he’s studying my face, perhaps in search of life, or at least a reaction. I hope I am digitally intact. I make a point of smiling back right into my webcam.

“Seven is a bit late to finish, isn’t it?” I ask, once we’re finally back online. Mukeba has just finished work. “Nah, man,” he replies, “it’s only 6.30 here.” Unaware of the covert time difference between Sydney and Adelaide, I’ve called ahead of schedule. Unperturbed, he grins and moves on without missing a beat, conjuring a new topic to curb my embarrassment.

Against a white wall in a fluorescent room somewhere in Adelaide, the 23-year-old is a spectre of the floating subjects that define his work – obsidian bodies playfully suspended in limbo, juxtaposed with the empty space of sprawling textile canvases. It is a striking synthesis of space and contrast. When I query these aesthetic decisions, he assures me it is mostly due to the practicalities of a modest studio.

“I paint in small parts on a desk in my bedroom,” he admits, drawing a miniature diagram with his index finger. Using both hands to frame the invisible picture he continues, “There’s emptiness because I can’t see the whole painting!”

In the past year, Mukeba has experienced a rapid ascension in the art world, a rise that started when he emailed Adelaide gallery GAGPROJECTS asking if he could hire out the space for a solo show. It’s a tactic that is seldom successful. But gallerist Paul Greenaway invited Mukeba to a meeting. The young artist has since been propelled as a burgeoning voice for the complexities of African–Australian refugee experiences. Proud and forthright, he answers my questions with conviction.

“There aren’t enough black eyes in Australian art. There aren’t works that black people from Africa can relate to, or even works that teach people what’s happening in Africa.

“People are killed and burned to death every day,” he continues. “It’s normal. We do not know what trauma is in the Congo. I make art about this because it needs to be understood by everyone.”

The result is potent. Rendered in crashes of crimson red and iridescent yellow, Mukeba’s aesthetic narrative is bold and developed, depicting themes drawn from his birthplace – the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He tells me it has been 11 years since his resettlement in Australia. When he reflects on life in the Congo his tone is thoughtful – articulated in terms that are equal parts expressive and empirical.

Though his perspectives on contemporary art are perhaps a little more controversial.

“I don’t think people know what art is anymore,” he declares. Mukeba, like many others, conflates the depiction of realism with artistic quality, a value judgement that venerates the old masters as unshakeable gatekeepers of Western art. “I don’t want to be ignorant either,” he qualifies, “I just don’t know what some works are trying to say.”

“I love Michelangelo, man, I could look at his work forever.” I find myself falling into a sermon on art history, marking the parameters between technique and concept, condensing centuries of Western art history into an unexpected monologue, and only realising how condescending it all is once the words have spilt out.

Mukeba has achieved astounding commercial success without the institution of fine art academia. However, while his oeuvre is little concerned with the developments of Western art, his participation in the industry quietly demands of him to appreciate the history he sits in. It’s a precarious balance.

Nonetheless, he is receptive as I speak. A pensive look of engagement sits in place of his usual grin. As my points dry up, I mention Robert Hughes and John Berger. He leaps at the names.

“Send them to me when we finish speaking!”

There’s nothing austere in Mukeba’s manner. He is expectant, brimming with hope and spirit. He speaks in future tense and toys with the possible, careful to always remind himself of his art’s core purpose. His foremost desire is to propel narratives relevant to the African–Australian experience. You can sense his youth, but his conviction is tough. The potency of his paintings derives from neither realism nor his retreat from contemporary art theory. He is aware of the canon but does little to embrace it. Instead, his artistic character comes from a place of sincerity. His works are candid descriptions of truths he knows and feels are important to share.

The connection begins fading and the sound distorts his voice into an otherworldly bellow.

We both laugh. He hangs up first.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 4, 2018 as "Hidden figures". Subscribe here.

Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung
is an art critic based in Sydney.

Continue reading your one free article for the week