The Phillips Collection galleries have been dark and empty and our staff and visitors have been missing our beloved collection. In this series we will highlight artworks that the Phillips staff have really been missing lately. Vradenburg Director and CEO Dorothy Kosinski on why she misses Aimé Mpne’s Maman Calcule (2013).
I definitely miss one of our newer acquisitions, Maman Calcule, a large (almost seven by six feet) mural constructed of individual pieces of wood by Congolese artist Aimé Mpane. I met the artist and fell in love with his work years earlier at the (e)merge art fair here in DC that used to take place at Capitol Skyline Hotel. We actually added a work to the collection then in 2012, Mapasa, through The Herbert and Dorothy Vogel Award. Many of us were drawn to Mpane’s work, and you’ll find his small ten-by-ten-inch wood carvings in a variety of collections across the city, several of them designated as promised gifts to the museum. Mpane carves and shaves his plywood with a traditional African woodworking tool, an adze. He depicts people—men, women, and children—often emphasizing brightly colored traditional clothes and hair styles, capturing with uncanny brilliance the vibrant life of the street scenes of his native Kinshasa.
Maman Calcule presents a large portrait head, staring straight ahead with a penetrating, even severe gaze. This is a figure of dignity and authority. Tightly wound braids of hair surround the face like an aureole. The versos of each “brick” of wood is painted red, creating a glowing atmosphere that pushes the image forward and further amplifies its presence. Mpane splits his time between the Congo and Belgium, pointedly living out the post-colonial complexities that tether the former European power and its exploited subject state. It is very important to include Mpane’s work in our growing collection, thereby further expanding the story we tell of modern and contemporary art, beyond the confines of an old-fashioned European-American narrative.