“I do not live by bread alone
In the early morning cold
I soaked up in the river
A piece of clear sky...” / Varlam Shalamov
North American Street runs through the town over several kilometers with its neighborhoods changing radically as one goes up north. The American Dream dissipates, slowly, starting from Fairmount and finally goes up in flames at Girard Avenue. North American Dream indeed or what remains of it. There are several courtyards, crumbling walls, piles of bricks, barrels, scrap metal piled-up here and there, with only the deep blue sky for a roof, a majestic red brick smoke stack cutting into the heavens. For three weeks, we occupied one of those numerous unused industrial spaces – “vacant” spaces that have become ubiquitous from Baltimore to Detroit and in a city that lost 75% of its industrial fabric between 1940 and 1980. Under the Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia project, Faustin Linyekula chose to work in this former factory – on the American Dream Street in the Puerto Rican neighborhood, where Spanish holds sway – in order to read the city and its emblematic history, though not through its monuments, museums and statues, but through its vulnerability, through crumbling, vacillating, squeaking, and scratchy things, all things that are also living and evolving every day. Or finding a way to talk to the city from its most fragile part? “But time. Time has stopped. The sky, the earth, things, everything / Completely grounded,” wrote Sony Labou Tansi. In fact, on North American "Dream" Street, everything is somehow grounded; even the “world-famous” strip club across the street had to close its doors. But people are still there - Carmen, Celina, Daniel and the young artists he accompanies, and Julio, the guarding angel of the building who came, long ago, from Nicaragua and with whom we awaited nightfall drinking Coronas and listening to salsa from his car radio.
In Lubunga, thousands of kilometers away to the east, beyond the ocean and forests (or what remains of it), people are, also, still there, even though at this hour, everyone is already long asleep; Isaac, Uncle Ignace, Jacob and Bi Atosha who is guarding her house from above. In Lubunga, everything is equally grounded and only old people could remember that there was, once, tap water and electricity in, at least, the Belgian neighborhood, close to the station where the trains (with first, second and third class coaches) ran daily, but these old people are becoming rare. Those who like Faustin are in their 40s remember the free ferries crossing, hourly, the Congo River. But, the young ones, they just remember that everything has always been grounded. In Lubunga, the sky is rarely startling blue and “vacant” spaces do not exist. There is always a church or a family to occupy them. As for piles of bricks or scrap metal, they will not last for long. Here, everything can be made useful again, items have a long lifespan, from empty bottles to rusty sheet metal. In Lubunga, the city seems to only know, by heart, one day or maybe two days of the week, (weekdays and Sundays inclusive), as invariably the days are all similar though always different because nothing is guaranteed, especially not the meal for dinner. Each person displays an overwhelming inventiveness in creating something out of nothing - a wonderful improvisation. The Congolese are wizards at getting by each day, from popular Kinshasa neighborhoods to mud houses in Lubunga.
Since 2010, Studios Kabako have gradually been making forays into Lubunga, little by little, first with concerts and performances, at the station on a stage built upon a carriage, in the Catholic parish, and at the motor boat beach. Using the inhabitants’ imaginative inputs and some scientific analyses, Studios Kabako and [applied] Foreign Affairs carried out the mapping and drawing of a profile of the town to resolve the water issue - from its collection to utilization and disposal. Additionally, Studios Kabako and [applied] Foreign Affairs did an exhibition, and last year, provided training to school children and high school students on sounds and images.
Why Lubunga? Why has Lubunga emerged as a testing ground, demanding Studios Kabako’s presence? For so many reasons: Because Faustin grew up there;
because situated off Avenue Hassan II is Avenue Kindu, where Faustin’s dear grandmother, the mischievous-looking Bi Atosha, lived; because there is no bridge over the Congo River and because artists are born to build bridges; because Lubunga is, precisely, situated on the outskirts, facing the five districts on the other side of the river and the outskirts have always been of interest to Faustin, who frames his creations to get a better look of the fringes. On the outskirts is Kisangani facing voracious Kinshasa, on the outskirts are the northern neighborhoods of Philadelphia.
Decentralization has always been at the heart of Studios Kabako’s projects;
because Lubunga has this unknown beauty with its entire walkway bordering the river and providing a contemplative view, from the opposite side, of the "real" city. Lubunga with its rivers, luxuriousness, and almost 200,000 inhabitants (in a country where numbers have become unimportant a long time ago), as well as its abandoned train station, big market, magnificent church, rammed earth houses and dirt avenues, is, timidly, caught up trying to be either a village or a city, a rural or urban location. Lubunga, because there is water everywhere though this water makes people fall sick and die and because we realized that something could, perhaps, be done; since according to Sony our companion, artists do not produce engaged art but art produces engagements.
“When pious people say: ‘It is,’ and sad people say: ‘It was,’ the artist says with a smile: ‘It will be.’”, wrote Rainer Maria Rilke. What will Lubunga, then, become? We have thousands of dreams, we have never lacked dreams. To hold onto these dreams, we chose Baraka Avenue, aptly named Avenue of Luck, by acquiring a plot of land last December. Baraka Avenue will, therefore, be home to a pilot water treatment plant that will supply water, daily, to 10,000 persons; a beginning that will hopefully incite the authorities. This is not about replacing Regideso; no pipe dreams on our part. But if Lubunga inhabitants are already making daily trips on foot, motorbike or bicycle to wells for water that is allegedly potable, then they could go to Baraka Avenue, making similar effort at similar cost, to fetch potable water. Baraka Avenue will also be a neighborhood cultural center, where one can see a movie, listen to a concert, and watch a performance. A room will be provided for students and pupils, who will revise their school work using electricity and access data on computers, put at their disposal - an iota of light in a town often plunged in darkness. Baraka Avenue will be a training venue for the continuation of the workshop instituted last May-June involving about 60 primary and secondary school pupils. Training in writing, sound and image that is not necessarily geared toward creating artistic vocations (but better still if artists are born!), but proposed to awaken the senses, generate perspectives on the environment (that will necessarily be the better for it), to stimulate these children, these young adults and young citizens into developing opinions, taking part, shouldering their responsibility in a country which must become if it does not want to disappear. Indeed, our Baraka Avenue house should have the beauty of the clear water-soaked sky, because it is in such places where life is so difficult that beauty ceases to be a luxury to become a necessity.
Indeed, there should be more Baraka Avenues, providing ideas and inspirations so that other neighborhood cultural centers, potable water outlets, solution-providing dream factories can grow like some rapidly increasing weeds, in Lubunga and in other districts like Tshopo or Mangobo, and in small towns around Kisangani, Ubundu and Yangambi.
VIRGINIA DUPRAY studied European economics (HEC Paris) and art history. She worked for the French Institute in London and was in charge of communication at the National Center of Dance in Pantin. She has managed many artists, among them Nacera Belaza. She has been managing Studios Kabako since 2003. Virginia writes, occasionally, for various cultural magazines.