Art Republic of Kongo: Q&A Part 2
Paris-based Cyril Kongo is returning to his Southeast Asian roots with creative platforms in Vietnam and Singapore.
Following is the conclusion of a two-part interview by Nina Starr on YachtStyle.co
Tell us about your partnership with the Antoine de Saint Exupéry Youth Foundation and painting a vintage Nord 1000 airplane.
The idea was to raise funds to produce The Little Prince tactile art book with drawings for the blind. My grandfather was blind. He had jumped on a mine in Vietnam and lost his eyes.
As a kid, I read the newspaper to him, so when the Saint Exupéry Foundation proposed this project, I accepted because it served others. I believe the most important thing in the life of a person is to serve a cause and inspire people.
Kongo emerged from the Parisian graffiti art scene and still uses a wide array of colours in his work 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.
How did your connection to Asia lead to presenting street art in China?
I am half Asian. My dad is Vietnamese, so I have always been linked to Asia, especially Southeast Asia, by half my family. I had the chance to progress between Europe, Africa and Asia, so I am a true citizen of the world.
In 2004, I created the Eating Frogs Tour in southern China with a group of friends comprising big names in graffiti, dance and deejaying to present French hip-hop in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. It’s funny how it takes time, how tightly closed the borders were. It’s opening drop by drop and there is still a lot to do there.
What are your favourite places in Asia?
Each experience is magnificent. I have a special fondness for Singapore, which impresses me by the modernity of its vision. The country is managed like a company and everyone follows the same path. I find it interesting as a Parisian where everything is all over the place. Sometimes it feels good to have some boundaries for the common good and Singapore impresses me a lot in that regard and with its quality of life.
I also love Indonesia, especially Bali, where I find a lot of spirituality and a bit of the disorder of Paris. I particularly like Vietnam because it’s part of my blood. I love Japan for its modernity, the total change of scenery you can have and the vision they have of art.
I am very impressed by China, by its power, how it managed to rebound and become a major force in the world, knowing how to mix politics, industry and capitalism.
Tell us about your collaboration with Singaporean tailor Kevin Seah.
Kevin is above all a friend. Once again, it was an encounter. I held my first exhibition in Singapore in 2012 and Kevin was working in the same building. He is very well dressed and very British, but he was a skateboarder who understands urban culture, so there was mutual respect.
I was impressed by his know-how and that all his suits are sewn by hand. He asked me to make a painting for him and I asked him to make me a jacket, so that’s how it started. He made me a denim jacket, and for the inside lining, he used the silk scarf I’d done for Hermès. It was super chic yet casual, and I loved it. He also made me a camouflage jacket.
Then we had the idea of making jackets out of linen canvases. He has a linen that is very fine, so I can’t put a lot of paint on it. He sent the linen to me in Paris, I painted the canvases, sent them back to Singapore and he reinterpreted my paintings, cutting them to make unique jackets. We did that in 2013.
I did the collection with Karl Lagerfeld in 2019. It was a completely insane experience, but I didn’t make the collection for Chanel. I met Karl and he asked me to make a whole series of paintings at his atelier on Quai Voltaire, then he chose the paintings to make dresses and bags. It was a real meeting between creators.
After your successful pop-up studio in Paris’s chic 8th arrondissement in 2017, you opened one in Singapore, too.
In November 2018, I told Kevin [Seah] about my ephemeral workshop on Rue François 1er. He asked me about doing one in Singapore and told me to look at a place available next door. The landlord of The Mill, Roy Teo, left me the space to create my workshop for a month, so I did the same pop-up studio concept.
However, it’s no longer ephemeral since I kept it to set up a showroom-atelier because I feel good in Singapore and I’m planning to settle there to create my works to continue the Asian adventure. It will be a private atelier-showroom where people can visit by appointment.
Finally, how is the boutique in Hanoi progressing?
It’s a partnership with a financier who’s opening a Cyril Kongo brand boutique for me to highlight Vietnamese and Southeast Asian artists. He told me that in Vietnam, north and south, many family members went overseas, travelled far and were immigrants in the US, England, Canada, Europe.
He said: “Your case is very special because Vietnamese and Asians who have succeeded consume the brands that have recognised you, so you’re like a hero to them. We know the pain that all families who left Vietnam suffered to get back on track, but very few have succeeded in doing what you have done, like collaborating with Richard Mille and Chanel. You’ve made us proud and we’d like you to express yourself in Vietnam.”
It will be a store-gallery. I will present objects and original drawings, but I also want to develop the savoir-faire of Southeast Asia like Vietnamese lacquer and carvings, and Indonesian batik. I’ll go around Southeast Asia and reinterpret savoir-faire, much like I interpreted traditional French skills through my work with Daum or La Cornue.
I want to give my contemporary vision on traditional skills we are proud of, but which seem a bit old-fashioned. For example, I want to give my take on sang-de boeuf ceramics and remake batik, which is very traditional and coded. I will present all this exclusively in the boutique in Vietnam and an e-commerce website linked to the store.