From Fashion to Art: How A New Generation of Congolese Creatives Are Expressing Themselves

Image Credit: Hanifa

Noella Coursaris Musunka, international model and founder of non-profit grassroots organization Malaika, speaks to four upcoming artists and designers from the Democratic Republic of Congo about their work and how they are inspiring a new generation of Congalese creatives.

Africa is bursting with creativity in all areas of its cultural life, from fashion and art to music and photography. Having spent my years as a young adult growing up in the fashion industry, and as a proud African born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I find it exciting and inspiring to see new, creative talent coming from the continent.

Now, as the founder of Malaika, I can see the exponential creative potential of our 370 students. At our school in the rural village of Kalebuka in the DRC, we teach creative subjects as well as entrepreneurship in our holistic curriculum. We also teach women to sew at our community centre and recognise the importance of creative expression in enterprise and business.

For me, empowerment is linked to the ability to express oneself creatively. We need to see more people uplifted and equipped to support the development of Africa economically, socially and culturally through this kind of innovation. Four Congolese creatives – Anifa Mvuemba, Pamela Tulizo, Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, and Laëtitia Kandolo – are all gaining recognition in their respective fields, showcasing the creativity that is coming out of the country.

I caught up with these four shining examples from the new generation to find out how, and why, they took to the arts as their medium of choice to express important messages that will impact culture and society for years to come.

Anifa Mvuemba: Paving the way in fashion

Anifa Mvuemba is a fashion designer and founder of the label Hanifa. Anifa’s designs represent the empowerment of women and also the people of the DRC. Her pieces have been seen on leading names as Sarah Jessica Parker and Gabrielle Union, and one of her dresses was even worn by Zendaya to grace the cover of InStyle magazine. In May, she shook the fashion industry by showcasing a 3D Fashion Show of her new collection, Pink Label Congo, which had been in the making for years.

At the start of the show, attendees watched a short video about the oppression faced by children and adults in the Congo working in cobalt mines. “For me, Hanifa has always been about more than the clothing,” explains Mvuemba. “As much as I love to design and create concepts, I know that without purpose it’s easy to lose your way and even your passion. I find that communicating important messages through my designs allows each piece to live beyond me. They all count for something that serves people beyond being just a beautiful design.”

Pamela Tulizo: Winner of the Dior Photography and Visual Arts Award

Pamela Tulizo is a photographer whose works depict the issue of female identity and the duality of women. Her photography displays Congolese women not as victims but as resilient and strong. “I was very happy and very proud of myself and impatient at the same time about the fact that the Double Identity series was designed from the start with the objective of reaching a great audience, especially internationally, but unfortunately with Covid-19 things have changed,” Tulizo tells me.

Her work has recently been featured in the September edition of Numéro magazine, an international publication on fashion, art, beauty, lifestyle and more, featuring top designers, photographers and celebrities.  

Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga: The impact of colonialism in paint

Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga is a painter based in Kinshasa, Congo. His paintings question the changes that have taken place in the DRC socially, politically and economically due to colonialism and more specifically, the established practices of exploitation. “I like the way the Congolese face the chaos that has reigned in Congo since colonial times,” shares Kamuanga Ilunga. “Nothing is stronger to face complete insecurity and continue to be stylish and beautiful.”

His work has been exhibited across Africa and internationally, with its UK debut in the Saatchi Gallery taking place in 2015 and then in New York in 2016. Eddy co-created the M’Pongo shared studio with other young artists in Kinshasa where they could work alongside one another and exhibit together, creating a vibrant and inspiring community. 

Laëtitia Kandolo: A ‘magic’ brand full of African culture

Laëtitia Kandolo is a freelance stylist and designer. Still in her twenties, she has already achieved incredible success in her career as a stylist and has worked with big names such as Rihanna, Kanye West, and Madonna. Born and raised in Paris to Congolese parents, her African heritage was present in her family life in their food, music, and clothing. As a young adult she educated herself on African culture and history, which has always been an influence in her work, but even more so when she launched her own clothing brand called ‘UCHAWI’ – a Swahili word that means ‘magic’. 

The first collection was a womenswear line that is inspired and influenced by the patterns and textures of Kinshasa and aims to express the strength, power and ambition of women. When speaking about her brand, Kandolo said: “I want to design to express hope and possibilities. We are working in Congo, a country where a lot of people don’t allow themselves to dream anymore and I really want people to see how powerful and magic Congo, but also Africa, can be.”

It is encouraging to see these artists exhibiting such pride over the country of our origin. I know their successes will pave the way for more of the next generation to pursue creative, unconventional and important avenues. “Despite all the difficulties, [I see in them] the joy of living every day as if this is the last,” Tulizo poignantly shares, referring to the hope of the young people of Congo. Meanwhile, Mvuenba herself takes inspiration from her fellow creatives: “I feel so much love just by observing the resilience and creativity of our people,’ she summarises.  

We want to see more African creators of culture, and more people daring to follow this creative path. As Kamuanga says, “Art has the power to change the world.”

Laëtitia reminds us of this important truth, with a few words of encouragement and advice to othrs embarking on this journey. “Keep dreaming but don’t forget to work hard. This is the major key to a pretty career.”

As for my own message to other proud African creatives considering a career in this field: Take hold of your talent and be an innovator, a doer, a dreamer, and a risk taker. There’s never been a better moment.