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The West uses Kinshasa as a dumping ground, this collective makes it into art

Three models stand in a development site in Kinshasa wearing masks made out of trash.

Photographer Prisca Munkeni Monnier captures the Kinshasa collective who are making intricate masks out of the city's trash.

24 Jan 2023

Standing above Kinshasa’s main street, Kabeya appears like a bird watching over his city. But instead of delicate feathers, his wings are made from disused metal parts, broken pieces of tech reformed and recycled as a costume illustrating the story of his hometown. 

Kabeya is a member of the artists’ collective Bakeli, meaning ‘to create’, based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s capital. The artists make arresting masks and sculptures out of discarded electronics and waste in a country whose natural resources are being ravaged by mining for the technology industry

Photographer Prisca Munkeni Monnier spent weeks with the collective capturing portraits of the creatives wearing the masks – largely designed by artist Junior Mvunzi – across the city. She describes their work as a “revolution and political statement”, but also a message of hope. “Creating something beautiful with recycled cell phones or cans and other objects is a way of getting our land back,” she says. 

Kinshasa, one of the largest cities in Africa, experiences huge waste problems with some streets said to be impassable because rubbish is piled so high, or that rivers are polluted by overflowing dumps. But crucially, this is not solely a local problem due to failings in municipal waste collections – DRC and much of the continent are becoming dumping grounds for the rest of the world’s electronic, plastics and clothing waste. 

The Bakeli collective and Prisca’s portraits are trying to raise awareness and open eyes to this exploitation. Alongside the issue of trash, DRC sits at the heart of the world’s electronics industry. The country is rich in natural resources that are being devastated by multinational corporations and armed groups.

 Creating something beautiful with recycled cell phones or cans and other objects is a way of getting our land back

DRC’s biggest industry is cobalt, with the south-eastern provinces producing more than 60% of the world’s supply of the mineral used in lithium-ion batteries to power our smartphones, tablets, laptops and even electric cars. It produces a huge amount of damaging waste to the environment and communities, but also, the industry has been exposed for severe human rights violations and use of child labour

Prisca’s liberatory photography series is about “taking control” by transforming pieces of trash into art. Through her work more generally, Prisca says she explores issues affecting communities and tries to “magnify it into something beautiful, because there’s always something beautiful at the end of the tunnel or the rain”. 

She shares a similar ethos with the Bakeli collective. “We learned from each other,” Prisca says. “We just fell in love with each other’s work. I love what they did, and I also love the philosophy behind it. It was very profound.”

Their work is a critique of modernity, Prisca explains. “They have this idea of questioning, what are we doing with our resources? We’re creating those machines but we are trashing our land. We are asking ourselves in the modern world, what are we doing? I thought it was very interesting because there is also the colonialism [element] inside that question.”

She adds the artists in Bakeli told her: “We are taking all the trash that white men ‘stole from us’. We’re just taking it back using the same electronic devices they created with our resources.” This point of reframing the narrative is essential to Prisca’s own work. Within the destructive context of the mining industry, she hopes her portraits can tell a more beautiful story. “We can take it back, recycle it, and show you that we can make it better.”

Prisca is Zairean, born in Brussels but grew up in Kinshasa. She studied in South Africa before settling in France 10 years ago. Her photography series, La Vie est Belle, meaning life is beautiful, is her first professional artistic work in her home city and has been a way for her to reconnect with the place she once lived. “You can never get Kinshasa out of a girl, right? It’s always there.”

La Vie Est Belle is currently being shown in an online exhibition in collaboration with photography organisation Fellowship.