Jean Depara: Night fever in Kinshasa – Kin-the-joy, Kin-the-madness
It’s difficult to write about DR Congo without thinking of the country’s tragic history. A brutal Belgian colonial rule dominated the country from 1908-1960, during which it was one of the most oppressive, violent and segregated societies in colonial Africa. But instead of following in the footsteps of Heart of Darkness, we are following the footsteps of Groove. Because despite of a cruel and oppressive rule, the 50’s and 60’s in Kinshasa was full of swing and groove. The music scene exploded and the youth forgot all about taboos, oppression, and rules and danced the night away to the new generation of funky musicians. The nightlife was pure madness, and if it wasn’t for photographer Jean Depara it would have been difficult to imagine just how things were in Kinshasa back then.
Jean Depara was born in 1928 in Angola, and exiled with his family to Congo when he was 15. He fist picked up the art of photography when he got married in 1950, and bought his first camera (an Adox 6×6) to record his wedding. After a few years he opened his own photo studio in Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) called “Jean Whisky Depara”.
No local photographers were allowed to photograph outdoors during the Belgian Colonial rule, and Jean Depara along with other photographers thus achieved refined skills in studio photography. Depara worked in his studio taking portraits of mainly local women and their children, who seem to be very aware of the way they wished to be represented. They posed proudly in front of Depara’s camera in their best clothes, and sometimes with modern props such as radios, cars, motorcycles and the like. Like his contemporary fellow photographers from Mali, Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibé, Depara created stylish and earnest portraits of his subjects, communicating growing self-awareness and cosmopolite influences among the Congolese people.
But it was with the exploding music scene in Kinshasa in the 1950’s that Depara made his big break-through. Dance and music was flourishing among the youngsters in Kinshasa as Congo moved closer to independence. Rules and taboos were forgotten at the dance floors of Kinshasa’s bars where yongsters were shaking their booty to musical influences from West Indian and Latin rhythms: mambo, merengue, beguine, foxtrot, rumba and cha-cha. One of the hottest bars was OK Bar, hangout place of legendary maestro of rumba Franco Luambo Makiadi, also known just as Franco – or “the sorcerer of guitar”. Depara’s career kickstarted when he was discovered by Franco who made Depara his personal photographer. His photos were featured on Franco’s album covers and posters for concerts, and Depara was soon welcomed with his camera at every nightclub in Kinshasa. He became a chronicler of Kinshasa’s nightlife and also the first Congolese photographer to take his camera outside the studio.
After end of colonial rule in 1960 Depara’s studio work had a revival. Influences from overseas made it to Congo and this meant new clothing styles, cars, motorcycles etc., and the city blossomed with hopes for the new freedom and cosmopolite energies. Just like in the studios of Sidibé and Keita in Mali everyone in Congo wanted to flash their new style, wealth and fashion posing in front of the camera with various modern props. Depara kept roaming the streets and nightlife of Kinshasa and working in his studio most of his career. In 1975 he became an official photographer for the parliament, a position he kept until he in 1989 retired to devote himself to fishing and building pirogues.
Depara’s photographic work lies somewhere between reportage and portraiture. Some photos are clearly staged, while others present fragments of a certain time and space. He had a weakness for beauty and youth, and a large body of his work evolves around these subjects: Beautiful girls in beautiful dresses making themselves attractive in front of the camera, cool boys in chic outfits not cracking a smile, bodybuilders with voluminous idealized bodies posing in tight trunks and so on.
Depara documented the electric atmosphere in Kinshasa and the blossoming youth culture in the 50’s and 60’s always representing subjects in a non-prejudices and democratic manner, leaving judgments, taboo and criticism out. He was a part of the crowd – partying, dancing and drinking as them and with them. And this personal and friendly relation to his subjects stands out in most of his work where one senses the relaxed and entrusted interaction between photographer and the photographed. In a sensible and personal way Depara documented the Congolese youth living, breathing, loving, dancing, and partying in times of transition. He captured the craziness of days where the music scene was at it highest, and freedom was in the air.
Jean Depara’s work is in another league than most of the images usually connected with and seen from the Congo. His photographs serves as a reminder of good times in a country that still these days seldom has positive resonance. The moments captured by Depara are invaluable as a memory of an otherwise forgotten past and the images give us the opportunity to relive them over and over again.
Read more about Jean Depara and see more photos on Revue Noire