'Brave New Worlds'
"In China, I experienced an advanced country that is developing itself and making strides toward the future - but that also bears its traditions in mind," said Freddy Tsimba from Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"The situation in DR Congo seemed so chaotic to me. Nothing really worked well - neither the police, nor the transportation system nor the political system," said Pak Chuen Sheung from Hong Kong, immediately excusing himself, should he come across as being impolite.
Both men are artists taking part in the "Brave New Worlds" project at the Theater der Welt (Theater of the World) festival in Germany's Ruhr Valley - part of this year's European Capital of Culture programming.
There's a world of distance separating the capital of an African nation shattered by civil war and the busy textile center of a nation that is among the most powerful in the world. Those economic and political contingencies affected not only the observations of the "Brave New Worlds" artists, but also their creative output.
'Made in China'
A cultural center in Muelheim, Germany, was transformed into an open studio for the project. There, Vitshois Mwilambwe spread balls of yarn out on a large table. Every size and color was represented; some unraveled while others were still tightly coiled.
"These days, our culture is dominated by products from China," said Vitshois. "These colors symbolize 'made in China.' Nearly everything that you can find at the markets in Kinshasa - whether it's t-shirts, sneakers, bags, suitcases or toys - was manufactured in China."
Freddy Tsimba put together an imposing installation made up of machetes, which were China's first mass export to reach DR Congo and continue to sell extremely well there. They are used as farm tools, but the swords also invoke the violence and genocide the region has witnessed.
Pak Chuen Sheung found numerous traces and remnants of war in DR Congo - an unsettling experience for an artist more accustomed to the bustling world of finance and markets. For instance, he brought a few small toy soldiers dressed for war that he found in the markets of Kinshasa.
His colleague Jiang Jun described sensing aggression and tension everywhere he went in DR Congo. He took around 4,000 photos during his trip and said, with a touch of pride, "There, photography is illegal, but I did it anyway. Everyone is angry when photographed. That's totally different for us in China, where you can photograph everything."
During his trip to DR Congo, architect Chen Shuyu gave five Congolese colleagues a small amount of money and let them decide what they would like to buy. Then he photographed them with their purchases.
His subjects included a mother who purchased a small toy and a backpack for her child and a young man who bought flip flops. Their choices represent the everyday items that many in DR Congo cannot afford.
"The point of the project was to encourage the artists to think about the roles of their respective countries - it's a process, a work in progress," said one curator of the project, Els Silvrants of Belgium.
As such, the conversations stimulated by "Brave New Worlds" are more important than the artistic results alone. It's also an experiment that shows how difficult it can be for people from such different culture to see eye-to-eye, despite the participants' best efforts.
Many Africans share Mwilambe's view that Chinese products dominate Africa, while many Chinese may agree with artist Jiang Jun, when he said: "Many Africans come to China because they want to work with us and live with us."
According to the artists, the image of China in Africa is heavily influenced by the mass-produced items that find their way there along with massive, complex building projects, while the image of Africa in China is influenced by the skyscrapers in Chinese cities in which African laborers live communally and without contact to their neighbors.
Architect Cheng Shuyu views the entire situation rather critically. "What I saw in the markets in Kinshasa were the cheapest, most artificially reproduced things - objects that we in China have not needed for a long time. That's somehow troubling. It's strange that all of these cheap products are flooding Kinshasa, while we in China are trying to accommodate ourselves to Western standards."
Els Silvrants acknowledges that China is after sturdy raw materials in Africa, but still she sees China as a possible way into the future for Africa.
"It's a different future than is available in Europe, where so many restrictions exist and so many debates about values take place," said Silvrants.
Europe turning its back?
In this discourse, Europe is largely neglected. It plays almost no role other than occasionally being described as arrogant or withdrawn.
"Why is Africa turning to China? Because Europe is turning away," said Tsimba. "China is willing to give us year-long visas, but being able to stay in Europe is extremely hard."
Indeed, three of artists participating in the Brave New Worlds exhibition were unable to travel to Germany for the show because they did not receive visas. On the other hand, one Congolese participant was also denied entry into China. In her passport, her occupation is listed as journalist.
Author: Cornelia Rabitz (gsw)
Editor: Kate Bowen