Kaniemba (c. 1937-), Democratic Republic of the Congo

Oiseaux sur un fond de feuillage

, C. 1961

Oil on canvas

12 1/2 x 17 1/8 in. (32 x 43.5 cm)


About the artist

Kaniemba (or Kanyemba) Yava was a well-known figure in art circles in Lubumbashi and other cities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was said to be a student of Pilipili’s, but Kaniemba claimed not to know him.
Kaniemba, whose full name was Kaniemba Louis Timothée, was born in a village but moved to Lubumbashi to attend school. He changed his name to Kaniemba Yava when the government called for a “return to authenticity,” which included banning the use of Christian names and called for the emergence of an indigenous identity and local names.

He dropped out of school in the 5th grade because he was bored and said he wanted to spend his time dancing in the street with other children. His father, fed up with his lack of seriousness, kicked him out of the house and Kaniemba went to live with his uncle who worked in the household of a Belgian artist named Marcel Piré, who taught at the Academie des Beaux Arts in Elisabethville, now Lubumbashi. Piré showed Kaniemba how to paint, and told him he had talent, and should continue his studies. According to Kaniemba, at that time, he drew only birds and then painted them with gouache.

Kaniemba abandoned his informal lessons with Piré, but in 1956 he became close friends with a young artist named Mwila André. Mwila had learned to paint from Kabinda Kunkula Victor (Bet-bi 2021.8.2), who had himself been taught by another young artist named Kabala, who was a student of Pierre Romain-Desfossés. The artistic genealogy of most Congolese artists from this period can usually be traced back to Romain-Desfossés and Le Hangar.

In an interview, Kaniemba gave a glimpse into the lives of young artists in the region who were trying to find a place in a newly emerging art scene. He and Mwila teamed up and created their own workshop, though at the time they had very little experience. He said they shared their knowledge, gleaned respectively from Piré and Kabinda, and spent all their time practicing their new skills.

Until 1966, Kaniemba earned a living through his paintings, but he said the public became less interested in the type of work he did and his earnings didn’t cover the cost of his materials. He abandoned painting and became an itinerant salesman and driver, and Mwila returned to his previous work as a carpenter.

Kaniemba said Europeans in what was then known as Belgian Congo had begun to prefer landscapes rather than his own style. He called these landscapes “just pictures of clouds” and said they were inferior to what he painted. In his words, landscape painters only copied reality. Kaniemba’s approach, which he said was modern, was to imagine another reality and to paint what had appeared in his mind.

Catalogue: Modern & Contemporary Congo Art. Stanley’s auction. February 28, 2021.

Johannes Fabian. “Archives of Popular Swahili : Conversations about Katanga Genre Painting in the 1970s.” Journal of Language and Popular Culture in Africa 2, issue 2, (October 2009). Accessed May 3, 2023.