How Artist Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga Connects the Past and the Present

In bold, symbolic canvasses, the painter was inspired by a broken iPhone

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Lost by Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, 2015. The acrylic and oil work is from a series on the Mangbetu people of Congo, whose distinctive traditions, such as skull-elongation, are on the brink of disappearing. ©Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga. Private Collection. Courtesy the Artist and October Gallery, London.

Ever since artist Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga learned about the coltan industry in his native Democratic Republic of Congo, he has been obsessed by the contrast between the rare metallic ore’s role as a vital component in the infrastructure of our digital age and the legions of underpaid workers who dig it out of the earth by hand. Collected in a new monograph out this month, Kamuanga Ilunga’s paintings of figures traced with circuitry allude to European portraiture, dystopian science fiction and Congolese sculpture and textiles. But, as the 31-year-old artist says, it was the inner workings of his broken iPhone that inspired him to “tattoo the badges of contemporary technology into the skin of those who procure these materials for others’ profit.” Kamuanga Ilunga’s work explores parallels between Congo’s past—the slave trade and exploitation as a Belgian colony—and the harsh conditions of coltan mining today. Still, he persists in “the hope that we can revive traditional values from which we’ve become estranged,” he says. “If so, there’s a real possibility of a different future.”

Oubliez le passé et vous perdez les deux yeux by Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, 2016. Acrylic and oil on canvas.
Oubliez le passé et vous perdez les deux yeux by Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, 2016. Acrylic and oil on canvas.

  ©Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga. Collection of October Gallery, London. Courtesy the Artist and October Gallery, London.
Reconnaissance by Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, 2016.
Reconnaissance by Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, 2016. Acrylic and oil on canvas. ©Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga. Scheryn Art Collection, Cape Town, South Africa. Courtesy the Artist and October Gallery, London.
Fragile 5 by Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, 2018. Acrylic and oil on canvas.
Fragile 5 by Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, 2018. Acrylic and oil on canvas. ©Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga. Zeitz Collection on loan to Zeitz MOCAA, Cape Town, South Africa. Courtesy the Artist and October Gallery, London.
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This article is a selection from the October issue of Smithsonian magazine