Friday, June 12, 2020

World Pandemic: Claude Bosana

Claude Bosana, World Pandemic, 2020
Claude Bosana (Kinshasa, DRC)
World Pandemic

Reflections by Elaine Sullivan, Mark Auslander, Laurie Kain Hart

Overview: A painting of the Kinshasa School. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is represented as a giant, invading monster, out of horror film, its protein spikes protruding with menace. Explosive force seems to emanate from the virus, with a darkened field on the left. A uniformed medical worker tries to hold the creature at bay, as a kneeling woman prays for mercy beneath it, an open bible and various national flags and medicines scattered before her. To the left, we see a running skeleton and other human bones, to the right. young men flee down the road. Behind them green-uniformed medical workers their arms rasised in supplication.  Various world leaders, most prominently Queen Elizabeth II and the Pope.  are seen in masks. On the upper horizon line, we see identifying world landmarks, from Big Ben and St. Peters to the Statue of Liberty and the Great Pyramids. Small red viruses float through the air.

Elaine Sullivan (UCLA World Arts): This painting feels like a snapshot of the first month of the pandemic. The virus had already spread widely in parts of Asia, Europe, and the US, as represented by the monument sin the top right. Masks became the symbol of our individual responsibility to the collective (though this painting is the first time I’ve seen one on Donald Trump). Many made do with what they had, such as bandanas or in the case of our health-worker hero, foliage. Chloroquine stands next to a bible, its placement a reminder of the near-religious fervor with which it was discussed in the early months of the pandemic. A ghostly group of medical professionals appeal to impassive poltiical leaders of China, the U.S. and France. Scattered across the lower half of the painting, Bosana has included the DRC’s corona-vocabulary: “confinement,” “quarantine” “depistage” (screening) “OMS” (WHO). Online, some parts of social media seemed to be eagerly awaiting the uncontrolable spread of the virus on the African continent, and in the painting the virus building up against our hero, ready to topple him at any moment. The virus’ energy moves from top left to bottom right, but luckily our leaf-masked hero holds it back. On the bottom right, where the virus seems headed, young men run away, out of the path of destruction.

Mark Auslander:  The kneeling medical worker constitutes the key vertical dividing line in the painting, between scenes of danger to the left and imperiled humanity to the right. In the bottom left we see a skeleton, avatar of Death, running away in the darkness; in the upper, lighted right, we see the beloved figures of Queen Elizabeth II and the Pope. This binary distinction is consistent with a tendency noted by Georges Dupré (1992) in the work of Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu  (1947-1981) and other Congolese (then Zairois) painters to organize their canvases in a Manichean fashion, with death, evil. and darkness to the left, and  life, good. and light to the right. (Many thanks to Allen Roberts for alerting me to Dupré's insightful essay). Dupré suggests that this mode of thought, that left is to evil as right is to good,  is deeply anchored in traditional Congolese cosmology. As noted by Robert Hertz (1907)  in his classic essay, "Death and the Right  Hand," numerous cultures around the world draw this distinction, and tend to assign rightness to the male, and leftness to the female: consistent with this scheme, the heroic male medical figure is to the right of, and above, the kneeling, praying female figure.  The deadly protein spikes of the virus on the left are contrasted on the upper right with the spires of human civilization, including the Eiffel Tower, the Tokyo tower, and the Statue of Liberty (her torch appropriately held high in her right hand.)

Hertz, it should be noted, also observes these dense binary contrasts have a paradoxical consequence in ritual and cosmology the world over: a profusion of negative valuations on the left (sinistre) side has the productive effect of constituting and calling into existence goodness itself. There is no light without the dark. Such is clearly the case in the Bosana painting, in which the phantasmagoric plague to the left actively catalyzes a sense of united humanity on the right side.

The large virus that towers over the hero  (whose gloved hands try to keep the creature at bay) is rather like a massive military mine, its exploding force scattering international flags, its protruding protein spikes a bit reminiscent of old blunderbuss firearms or artillery cannon, expelling tiny red viruses like fall from above like the bombs of the Blitz. The skeleton, skull,  and bones in the lower left may evoke the Danse Macabre of early modern European paintings, reminders in a time of pestilence that all earthly things may imminently pass away.

Bosana's exuberant image can be thought of as a kind of homage to garish "B" grade horror film posters, as an otherworldly, grotesque creature threatens of all of humanity, a lone hero standing firm as the rest of the world watches in horror. These poster themselves  borrowed liberally from earlier paintings of St. George slaying the Dragon and saving the maiden. We may even in Bosan's corpulent virus see of a hint of Star Wars bloated' Jabba the Hutt, slain by Luke Skywalker as he rescues Princess Leia.

Speaking of movies, Bosan's picture, while born of our moment of anxiety, is equally a celebration of how the global community is now bound together through the images we view every day on screen. To my eyes, the large virus and the glowing round blue field surrounding it are reminiscent of the shape of an old television receiver.  The delightfully malevolent virus in effect bursts through the TV screen, right into our living room and city streets.  Like an old horror flick, the scene is both terrifying and enormously entertaining, as we are all around the world bound together in the shared pleasures of being spectators to the Apocalypse, brought to us live in living color.

Laurie Kain Hart (UCLA):  It is striking that the most prominent world leader pictured here is in fact Queen Elizabeth II, who is awarded honorary right hand "male" status.  The other large scale figure is the Pope, which suggests imperial and ecumenical associations that are consistent with a resurgent "globalism" as opposed to nationalism per se, at this moment of world crisis. To be sure, the Queen and the Pope, especially when viewed historically  have ambivalent moral stature: they could be considered icons of the worst abuses of Empire, and yet at the same time they signal an infrastructure of global interconnection. In contrast, the male national political political leaders (from China, the US and France) shown here are relatively puny: the real emphasis is on leaders whose standing (and ambiguous historical reach) extends beyond the nation per se.


Dupre, Georges 1992. "La signification de la perspective dans sept tableaux de
Tshimbumba Kanda-Matulu" in Art pictural zaïrois. Sous la direction de
Bogumil Jewsiewicki
. Lille : Presses du Septentrion,

Hertz, Robert, 1960 (1907). Death and the Right Hand (trans. Rodney and Claudia Needham.) London; Cohen and West

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