Art Republic of Kongo (Part 1)
Born to Vietnamese and French parents, Paris-based Cyril Kongo has grown from street graffiti to become a darling of the luxury world.
Describing himself as a ‘true citizen of the world’, Kongo is a regular visitor to Asia, where he spent his early years before living in Africa and settling in Europe. Born in Toulouse in 1969 to a Vietnamese father and French mother, Cyril Phan spent much of his early childhood in Vietnam until the war ended in 1975 and later lived for several years in the Republic of Congo, which inspired his artist name, Cyril Kongo.
An early proponent of the Parisian graffiti art scene who earned a reputation for his pictorial
alphabets reconciling painting and writing, the French-Vietnamese artist spent decades painting in the streets. More recently, though, his art has decorated everything from walls and canvases to shop windows, jewellery, kitchenware, clothing, luggage and bags, as well as a champagne bottle, humidor, car and even an airplane.
Kongo’s ability to appropriate an everyday object and transform it into a work of art has made him a favourite of the luxury world and a collaborator with French brands like Chanel, Hermès, Richard Mille, Daum and La Cornue, showcasing traditional European savoir-faire. Following is part one of a two-part interview by Nina Starr on YachtStyle.co.
How did you spend the confinement period in France earlier this year?
The first month was a month of forced rest, which allowed me to ease off from my hectic pace in 2019. In the second month, all I did was work at my studio, which is next to where I live. I worked on large formats and drawings.
This period inspired in me a lot of gratitude to medical personnel dedicated to their profession and saving thousands of lives with little means. I donated a painting to the Paris Hospitals Foundation, which they sold at auction to raise funds. My second initiative was an installation at Lariboisière Hospital to directly thank the nursing staff. I made a digigraph of this work, which I’m currently selling via my website, and all profits will be donated to the hospital.
These guys had no masks and wore the same personal protective equipment (PPE) while treating several people, when they’re supposed to change their PPE each time. They had to wear cooks’ outfits to work. It was completely crazy, absurd in a country like France.
I drew and painted a lot because it was a very inspiring time and I was confined to one place, instead of meeting people or travelling or exhibiting my works. For over two months, I was stuck in my own universe, also developing my e-commerce and other things.
Did the subject of your art change?
I did a whole series on paper called Confinement, where I forced myself to make one piece a day to crystallise this unique time. For several generations, we haven’t had the occasion to experience a global pause.
No country, person, government or law has succeeded in stopping the world like this. There are going to be drastic changes compared to the old world, but in the new world, the planet will have had a break in terms of pollution and there will be new forms of intensified communication and a new form of consumption.
During confinement, there were a lot of Instagram Live events where artists exchanged and there was plenty of online creation, which was very interesting. I’m sure the world of 2021 will not be the same as that of 2019.
What role can artists play at such a time?
In a world of anxiety like the one we’re living in, we need to offer some positive emotion, something fun and enjoyable. For example, when I stress, I like to drink a glass of wine and eat cheese – this is my French side. Like when people put up a painting at home and change their decor, it de-stresses them and gives a desire for renewal.
In these times, an artist can bring a little beauty into the world and lift spirits, which is necessary because we get so much news that provokes so much anxiety.
How did you go from the street to art galleries?
With a lot of determination. But the world of art galleries is not the aim. The aim is to continue to express yourself, to be seen by as many people as possible and be able to express your art in as many places as possible. I’m not satisfied with just galleries, although I’m happy to have recognition
I don’t like the name ‘street art’ because it puts limits on you and confines you to the street. Yes, it’s in my DNA and I spent almost 30 years creating works in the street, but for me, borders do not exist. My interest over the past 10 years is to bring my art to universes that surprise and, above all, aim for excellence.
For me, graffiti has always aimed for excellence. When we painted huge walls with my MAC collective (from the late 1980s), we had positive competition with other artists and wanted to impress them. I’ve continued with the same energy but by creating bridges with the universes of watchmaking, silk, crystal and especially traditional savoir-faire.
You don’t speak about collaborations with brands but instead about encounters between creators from different universes. What do you mean by that?
All the collaborations have stemmed from encounters. I met the decision makers and we exchanged ideas, creating a bridge between our two universes. No collaboration was done by a marketing team, for example, and I refuse 90 per cent of the projects brought to me like this.
I think the success of a collaboration comes first through an authentic encounter, then integrity in creation, and then comes the sales or marketing work, which is not my job. That’s why I don’t like to talk about collaboration with a brand, even if I am considered a brand or Richard Mille is considered a brand.
It’s true, but above all, it is the vision of someone. This vision has taken on the dimension of a brand but it’s more the consumers who see us as brands, not ourselves. For us, it’s a savoir-faire we have and want to convey onto everything. The idea is to get out of our comfort zone and push our respective universes further.
For example, for my collaboration with La Cornue, the two worlds were so unexpected. It was to make a stove, but beyond that, it was the know-how around enamel and sheet metalwork, around people who have dedicated their lives to their skills. That’s what moves me and what I want to express all the time.
Note: Part Two of the interview will appear on YachtStyle.co