Zaire's Metalworking Artists Persevere in Troubled Times

KINSHASA, Zaire -- When he can get a bit of his country's mineral wealth, Zairian artist Nduwa Nawej Jean-Pierre sets to work with hammer and chisel to create a cubist tableau of faces and limbs, or a delicate portrait of a woman in a crown of braids.


These days, his copper canvases are hard to come by. The state mining company has closed its shop in Kinshasa, apparently intent on exporting as much as it can of the precious metal before a rebel army captures copper-rich Shaba province.


"The artist has no importance. The people are suffering, and when you're suffering, you can't think about art," Nduwa said. "People would rather sell copper overseas to make some money."


But artists like Nduwa continue to explore a metalworking tradition that dates back generations. The graceful copper crosses used as currency in ancient Shaba are now prized by collectors of African art.


That art flourishes in this crippled country is testament to the optimism and perseverance of many Zairians.


Makala-Mbuta, one of Zaire's best-known sculptors, mixes his copper with zinc to create sensuous bronzes reminiscent of the work of Henry Moore or Jean Arp. His themes are often agony, despair and resignation -- reflections of life in a country that has become mired in poverty over three decades of military dictatorship. A rebel war to oust President Mobutu Sese Seko has only deepened the fear and uncertainty.


"When I started out, my forms were from nature," said Makala-Mbuta, who uses one name only. "Now, I'm interested in the abstract, the stylized. One has to evolve as an artist, to grow, to learn to express different things. With metal, you can do so much."


His studio in the hills overlooking Kinshasa is filled with dust-covered bronzes and carvings. The foreigners who are his main customers are visiting less frequently. "I keep working, but the work stays in the studio," he said.