Bill Kouélany

1965 | Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo

Congolese visual artist.

In the late 1980s, after turbulent teenage years marked by vulnerability and rebellion, Bill Kouélany sought paths to newly found freedom. This was the start of an artistic life punctuated by writing, with pioneering plays such as Cafard, cafarde, which she read in Paris in 2003, and Peut-être (2007), created in collaboration with Jean-Paul Delore. Her written pieces are imbued with the works of Tchicaya U Tam’si, a tormented and highly sensitive writer that she also featured in her first canvases. B. Kouélany’s painting is self-taught and autobiographical. It is marked by the Congolese Civil War and, beyond its sociopolitical commitment, it also conveys the artist’s personal struggles. The bodies she depicts in her canvases, which she cuts and roughly sews back together, as if they were part of a therapeutic process, are representations of her own body and express an impossible healing.
Her radical, formal and committed painting shows naked bodies, suffering faces and skeletons – the results of self-criticism tormented by the desire to explore what hurts, to delve deeper and to confront pathos. It is this intimate struggle that makes her work stand out on an international level; first in 2001 during the residency programme of the Doual’Art urban workshops in Cameroon, then in 2002 in the off section of the Dak’Art Biennale with the “Creators of Central Africa”, and in 2006 on the occasion of the seventh edition of Dak’Art. In 2004 she was an artist in residence in Nantes and took part in the exhibition Beautés d’Afrique. Two years later she was awarded the Prix de la Francophonie and Prix Montalvo Arts Center at the Dak’Art Biennale.

In 2007 B. Kouélany was the first sub-Saharan African woman to exhibit at Documenta in Kassel. She presented her largest piece to date: a paper maché wall with excerpts of texts from several international newspapers and warped videos of her face, in which she expresses, as a mother and daughter, her empathy toward the Congolese people. The artist considers this wall, which is dominated by wars, cataclysms and chaos, as her own body. It is a conduit through which she can speak of what she feels in her flesh everyday.

Since 2012 B. Kouélany has served as artistic director of the contemporary art centre Les Ateliers Sahm, the foundation of which is perhaps one of her greatest achievements. This multidisciplinary centre, a one-of-a-kind initiative in the Republic of the Congo, is devoted to supporting young artists from the country and the rest of the African continent. In 2018 her efforts in support of Congolese culture, her excellence and the innovative nature of her undertakings earned her the title of Officer of Arts and Letters, awarded by the French Ministry of Culture. She was also a recipient of the Prince Claus Prize in the Netherlands in 2019. B. Kouélany is an influential woman artist who is seen as a model by young creators in the Republic of the Congo and around the world. She pays close attention to new talents, encouraging them and giving them the tools and courage to maintain their aspirations of becoming great artists. Her unequalled charm and incomparably sharp eye make her a mentor who has left her mark on several generations. In addition to her work at the art centre, she continues to create art: in 201, she took part in the exhibition Prête-moi ton rêve in Morocco, which featured some of the greatest African painters and will travel to several other countries on the continent.


Translated from French by Lucy Pons.

Publication made in the framework of the Season Africa2020.

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