Precy NUMBI en zijn alter-ego’s
Precy Numbi is a young artist with many identities. Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1992, he grew up with a head full of Western superhero stories. In 2015, he graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Kinshasa. Although he studied in a department dedicated to interior architecture, he turned his attention to performance art. In 2018, he performed with the collective Kin-Act Jardin de Sang, a work that commented on political current events with its condemnation of the Beni massacres. The company’s subsequent arrest for public disorder, followed by ten days in prison, made Numbi understand the importance of having a superheroic identity to shield his civilian identity; it also led to the birth of his alter-egos, who collectively form the “Kimbalabala Republic”.
In Numbi’s performances materials and ordinary objects take center stage. He sees art as full of ‘precarious materials’ from our daily lives, ordinary objects that sometimes are more durable than they were intended to be. He questions the trajectory of the scraps he encounters, and the habit of Western countries to send their waste to Africa. He condemns the speed with which goods expire and lose their original ‘added value’, and regards the massive quantity of waste that he observes around him as an emblem of the over-consumption of contemporary neo-liberal societies. Numbi’s materials, although emptied of their primary role, generally are still identifiable. For example, by integrating various electronic circuits for mobile phones into his costumes he highlights how their manufacture requires the extraction of coltan (columbite-tantalite). The DRC has between 60 and 80% of the world’s reserves of this mineral, which is mined in terrible conditions by 40,000 children and subsequently sent abroad, to the profit of large companies based on other continents. Once the mobile phones cease to function, they are sent back to Africa as waste. In Numbi’s hands, these trivialized waste objects become symptoms of various issues related to overproduction; their presence an indicating that a mounting problem, a manifestation of a failure, technical as well as societal and ecological.
These reflections, among others, have given rise to the Robot-Sapiens Kimbalabala, which Numbi often uses in his perforances. The name is a neologism derived from “kimbala”, a Lingala slang term for the wear and tear of a vehicle that has undergone several successive repairs. Numbi thus plays with the slipperiness of language, the doubling of the suffix emphasizing the obsolescence of the machine. The fungible, expendable nature of the elements with which he makes his compositions does not imply that they are fragile or ephemeral, as generally these objects have had a short initial existence but are destined to last as waste. By reusing them, Numbi inhabits them, brings them back to life. The armored suit in which Numbi performs curbs his movements, which are dictated by the suits hooks and weight (ca. twenty kilos) and follow a robotic choreography so as not to collide with the body wearing the costume. Numbi’s robot-sapiens are reminiscent of characters in dystopian fiction and enable him to visualize the future of the debris. They give expression to eco-futurist considerations and show how the degradation of the environment by humans also has effects on the nature of the human being himself.
Numbi links these notions of futurism and ecology to a decolonization of public space and thought. He invites those who come across him to become their own heroic figure. In Kinshasa, he works with children, whom he invites to think outside the references disseminated by the West and to decolonize their imagination. He reminds them that Africans do not have to be the ‘Others’ as presented in the Western imagination. He encourages them to be the superheroes instead, and to decide for themselves what their superheroes look like and to embody them as they see fit. All the children can become heroic actors in the struggles of their community.
The members of the Kimbalabala Republic serve different roles and specific functions. One of the costumes is conspicuous in size and color, and when wearing it Numbi warns his audience against bad driving. Its visibility allows it to be spotted from a distance by drivers, who must therefore slow down. While this alter-ego is dedicated to road safety, other identities allow him to highlight other problems he perceives around him.
Numbi also performs in Belgium, where he criticizes the tendency of local institutions to try and distance themselves from the issues he raises by limiting his practice to the vague label of “African Art”. He makes people think about their own involvement in the issues he raises. For instance, in his studio in Brussels, Numbi creates outfits with locally found rubbish on the Belgian roadsides. He confronts the population with their own litter, which turns out to be similar to what he finds in Kinshasa. By thus exploring the world around him in performance, Numbi adopts a living art practice that is resolutely contemporary.