Congo Music everywhere – Anniversary of the Goethe-Institut Kinshasa

Music is very important in Kinshasa
Music is very important in Kinshasa | Photo: Gitte Zschoch

Worldwide, there are 159 Goethe-Instituts. One of the newest is in the capital city of Congo. On its first anniversary, Gitte Zschoch, the director of the institute, talks about the incredible improvisational talents of the country’s artists and the vibrant music scene.

Ms Zschoch, how did you prepare yourself to work in a metropolis with a good nine million inhabitants that just keeps growing?

During my practical training at the Goethe-Institut, I worked for one year at the Goethe-Institut in Johannesburg, which is our regional institute for the region of sub-Saharan Africa. While there, I had plenty of contacts with the other countries in the region. It was during this period that the idea arose to open an office in Kinshasa, an idea that excited all of us.

Gitte Zschoch Gitte Zschoch | Photo: Bettina Siegwart After my training, when I had a position on the staff of the Communications Department in Munich, the job posting arrived and it was clear to me I had to apply. Actually, I had never lost sight of Kinshasa for the entire time.

What projects have you been able to start up since the opening in February 2015?

Kinshasa is the capital city of music, not just in the Congo, but all of Africa. Rumba congolaise is well known beyond Africa’s borders. We therefore organized a workshop together with the Music in Africa foundation to support young musicians in their first steps on the pathway to a professional career. That was the beginning. We also organized a guest performance by Gintersdorfer/Klassen, a dance company that works with Germans, Ivoirians and Congolese. Their piece Mobutu choreographiert was about the rule of President Mobutu and his love of self-projection.

The guest performance was held at the Institut Français, where we are also located. The house was jam-packed! It was a very visible, major event.

We additionally worked a lot with local initiatives. In November 2015 a symposium was held at the art academy in Kinshasa in cooperation with universities in Johannesburg and São Paulo dedicated to the question of how art and art history can be taught in the global South.

What approaches are there?

That was broadly debated since the question is actually how a nation of the global South can write its own art history. Recently, the Fondation Cartier in Paris showed the exhibition Congo Kitoko, which caused a major stir and was managed by a French curator. This led to the central question for the participants of the conference: How can we as Congolese write our own art history? And of course also: How can the art academies of the global South profit from one another?

The Goethe-Institut ran a blog with posts from around the world called “Liebe Heimat” that also contained your impressions. There is an image of men playing music with a crate, bundles of dry grass and sticks used as drumsticks. You can also see the improvised exhibition of art hung on a wall outdoors. Is it noticeable that the people use all of these nooks in Kinshasa to express themselves?

Even a box and dry grass can be musical instruments. Even a box and dry grass can be musical instruments. | Photo: Gitte Zchoch Yes, absolutely. That enthralled me from the very beginning and I wanted to address that in Liebe Heimat. Right now, the Goethe-Institut is working a lot on the theme of the urban space. Kinshasa is an incredibly big city that is very densely populated. The improvisational skills of the artists are really enormous, which is why – in addition to the lack of structures in cultural promotion – they simply use new spaces.

One artist, for instance, simply opened a studio and exhibited his work in his home. Often, the musicians don’t have high quality instruments, but build their own out of what they have – drums, for example. And I think that the sound they create is really impressive and is something special for the arts scene in Kinshasa.

How assessable is the arts scene in Kinshasa?

There are a huge number of artists living here from all genres. If you look around Congo in general, there are other cities, like Goma, Lubumbashi and Kisangani, with quite respectable arts scenes, too. But, Kinshasa is the most striking of all. There is the art academy, the Institut National des Arts, so two large educational institutions. Then there’s the national museum and a museum of modern art.

And the city is influenced by many structures. Visual artists often unite in loose collectives and work on specific themes. But there are also smaller private structures like the KinArt Studio, a centre of fine arts that we cooperate with and where artists are going to great lengths with plenty of personal initiative to establish new structures.

Transcription of a conversation between Gitte Zschoch and Sigrid Brinkmann held on 15 February 2016 (Deutschlandradio Kultur)

Gitte Zschoch has been the director of the Goethe-Institut in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1 April 2015. The literary scholar and Korean expert previously worked for the Goethe-Institut in Johannesburg and Munich.