At the heart of Paris is home to one of its newest art galleries, which recently opened their doors to the public. At first glance, it may appear like your typical African art portrayal, as in recent years, this movement has become more and more prevalent in the Western media. However, there lies a twist to it all since Angalia doesn’t represent just any African art on their walls; they particularly focus on Congolese artists directly from its capital city of Kinshasa.

As I arrived at the location, I was greeted by Pierre, one of its founders. We walked to the back of the gallery, where we entered a doorless office. He offered me a glass of water, which I accepted, and during this little period I had for myself, I began staring at the many books and images that were surrounding me in this back office. One particular old photograph that sparked my interest was of two individuals sitting outside in what seemed like a backyard with wooden fences. It reminded me of the time in London when Congolese families would organise barbecues that my father and I would attend. Pierre later explained to me that this was a gift from a Congolese artist of a newly married couple photographed at an outside get-together. He proceeded to tell me that there was a rumour that the woman under the man’s right arm was underage at the time; however, his Congolese friend reassured him, that this was not the case. Although I shared a similar sentiment, we both agreed that the photograph was beautiful. If you’re familiar with Congolese art, one could have said that this photograph had a spitting resemblance to a lot of series from Angolan-born photographer Jean Depara or Ambroise Ngaimoko, both prominent visual artists who immigrated to Kinshasa in the late 50s.

You can be Congolese on both sides, but our realities differ.

First and foremost, thank you, Pierre, for such a warm welcome. Would you mind telling our readers when the gallery was founded?

Well, there are multiple dates. The gallery was officially founded in 2011. However, for over 10 years, until this year, Angalia operated as a gallery without a permanent home. This meant the gallery was mainly on the web, and therefore, that’s why you call it a gallery without walls (Une galerie sans mur in French). Since we had an apartment, we’d name it "a gallery in an apartment."

At first, I thought you were referring to a gallery that organises exhibitions from door to door, but, if I’m not mistaken, what you are saying is that the gallery was virtual.

Yes, exactly; the gallery was virtual. We had an apartment near Paris. Once people had viewed the art pieces online and were interested, they’d come to look at them in person. That was in 2011. On the 4th of February this year, we officially opened our doors to the public at this location, so we’re actually brand new. In a systematic way, we began encountering our artists in 2007 in Kinshasa.

At Kinshasa? That’s something not to expect! So this means you do not focus on Congolese immigrants in France but from the African continent directly?

We only represent artists from Kinshasa. It’s a bit of a philosophy, but it’s not intangible. At some point, we can also represent artists from the diaspora, for example. However, we prefer to be Congolese natives because we tend to express ourselves differently when we are from the heart of Africa compared to when we live in Europe or Montreal. Our minds don't produce the same things. What we produce (in Congo) interests us more when it comes to our choice of display because it is their thought process and the vision of the artists within the African context. You see, whether you’re here or over there, you can be Congolese on both sides, but our realities differ. This is what we would like to showcase.

In 2007-2008, I would frequently make visits to local galleries (in Kinshasa). We had already started to form small groups of artists that we were interested in and kept in contact with. I had to do a lot of back-and-forth between France and Kinshasa. This was before WhatsApp, which changed everything [laugh]. Not long ago, we would still function by phone and mail only. This is why I can state that the gallery was founded on multiple dates.

Interesting. I am sure everyone else has the same question in mind at the moment: where did the desire to showcase only Congolese artists come from?

In 2006–2007, we wanted to start a project for African contemporary art, which had not been seen much in the past. It seems like a very ancient idea because things have drastically changed now. Today, you can walk across Paris and find dozens of galleries that represent African contemporary art. In former times, there was perhaps one gallery, and for that reason, we wanted to do it—my wife and I, and a friend. Because I was already traveling to Kinshasa quite a lot for work, we told ourselves we would start from there.

Meanwhile, our friend, who had a ton of money, disappeared. Unfortunately, he passed away. We started to wonder, "What do we do now?" and we decided to continue with Kinshasa. It seems like only Kinshasa is sufficient for our business, but it depends because you have around 15 million citizens; we don’t know exactly. I am an entrepreneur, and what I see is that there is enough to make up a gallery without issues, and by the way, all these people are here, and some do not close their doors. There are all of the mediums, and you can showcase everything; that is enough for me.

We have to see the artists. We have to know each other very well because then you wouldn’t do all of this. This means we are with them and they are with us, and it is important that we know each other.

You can head to the last village in France and you will find a Congolese person [laugh].

Just so we may know a little bit more about you, Pierre, what was your story before Angalia Gallery?

I used to work for a business that supported developing countries. So it is the effort of all rich nations to help what is known today as "immigrant countries." I spent all of my career in this field; I worked for a French company that operated in Asia and Africa, and I am a specialist in microcredit. It is a little sum that we lend to people who are in the informal sector. Today, as a consultant, this is what brought me to this space.

As a well-travelled individual across the African continent. In your opinion, what is something exceptional about the arts in the Congo?

In Congo, there are perhaps two or three particular things that come to mind. Firstly, there are a lot of artists for the reason I gave before: it is an immense country, but I forgot to mention that we only work in Kinshasa. We could work elsewhere, but for reasons of practicality, I tend to gravitate completely towards Kinshasa. For example, I am never at Goma, maybe once in a while. Congolese artists in the Province would travel to Kinshasa because this is where they can showcase their work. It is really rare that an artist can succeed without ever crossing Kinshasa, and I applaud those who do. In France, they are one of the few that succeed without ever having to come to Paris.

Due to a lot of diversity, you can find anything in every medium. At our gallery, we have a sculpture artist who works with metal, a photographer, painters and animators, photo collage, mixed techniques, and right now, a new artist who paints with bleach. You know, Congolese people are everywhere. You can head to the last village in France, and you will find a Congolese person [laugh]. They move a lot and take what they can. There is a way of Congo that prevails in popular painting. It is what you see on the street or at home, and everyone can understand it. You do not need to have a formal education, and a person who knows little about art understands what it is. That is something that you find in the Congo, primarily because it was developed by artists such as Chéri Samba and Moké. There are around 10 popular Congolese artists who have developed such art. It is simple and observable.

Of course, you could do something similar elsewhere, but it isn’t a school as strong as the one you will find in Congo. In a sense, there were really a lot of artists who practised such a form of movement. As a result, Congolese art is quite known because of it. The third point is their youth. On one hand, the youth don't want to repeat what the elders did, which is normal, and they have new ideas by default. Thanks to the internet, they are much more connected externally. In 10 years, a lot has changed, which means they can be over there and reach us from here more efficiently. Like this, you have a level of creativity that is exponential. “For the first time, Africans are able to state we exist and this is how we exist, this is what we think, whether you like it or not”.

Since February of this year, you have opened your doors to the public. I imagine there are a ton of people who have marched in here. What were the first reactions you received?

I can’t be really specific because there is a bit of everything. A group would be very surprised to see a gallery that chooses to mainly focus on a single nation because there aren’t many. Some people don’t show any interest at all, and they would just leave the gallery as soon as they enter. There is such a variety that it is really hard to pick something specific. We are personally only interested in those who are interested, of course. Those who knew us before are just happy to see that we now have our own space and are in better conditions than before. There are those that know about African contemporary art, know about the subject, and have seen an exposition somewhere like the famous one in Paris in 2015 that was called "Beauté Congo/Congo Kitoko."

Afterwards, you also have a small public of Congolese people who come here to discover because they’ve heard that there is a gallery that concentrates on Congo. Finally, there are those who will just pass by. This road is quite known for galleries, and those who spend a day visiting galleries will most likely come through here. These types of people are a bit more knowledgeable and are perhaps art collectors.

How often do you believe black art is represented in the Parisian scene?

You have to look at history. A very long time ago, you know art that represented black people was exotic, which means it was made by white people for white people. Therefore, it would represent black people in an exotic way. Afterwards, European societies have evolved, and things are changing rapidly. 30 years ago, you could not imagine seeing all of this. Back then, it was mainly tribal armours and masks. We couldn’t even fathom that Africans could make art.

One of the most recent references to such was in 2005, in an exhibition called "Africa Remix," where we started showcasing art pieces produced by African artists. There was a bit of everything in there to see; however, it did not provide access to black representation. It’s only recently that Africans would display a piece of art as a black individual with the pride of being black. Of course, South Africa has played a massive role in the popularity of this movement, so to speak, because they needed affirmation and they have an artistic catalogue that is far richer than that of most African countries. Over there, you will find an artist in every dimension who likes to demonstrate the black figure, the black body, and more. Right now in Africa, there is a movement in portraiture focusing on black figures.

This particular artistic expression is starting to assimilate with the public. In Paris, for example, I think that residents won’t be surprised to see African art that represents an African vision of the world and an African vision of the body. However, I am not saying that this is a reality everywhere, I’m not sure what is currently occurring in Vienna.

I don’t think we should go to that route… [laugh]

What I’m trying to say is that there might be a few countries that are still reluctant to engage in this conversation. Paris is definitely far more open these days, and I would say South African art is highly regarded here. I think we are in the most interesting time period. Of course, the discovery period was eye-opening, but I have to admit, it is a scandal to think that, from the Western perspective, at some point in time, African art did not exist. It was absolutely necessary that we taught ourselves what we had missed.

For the first time, Africans are able to state that we exist, and this is how we exist; this is what we think, whether you like it or not; and this is how we view Europe and the rest of the world. It’s remarkable, and we are delighted.

Which is what is most important here. Where do you see Angalia Gallery heading in the coming years?

We would like to establish ourselves. For now, we are a bit known because of our story. We’re not interested in resonating in terms of development because it’s a family business. What we want is to be established as a dynamic place where artists feel safe and can produce for years. If we make this happen, it is good enough.