2 February 2021
News from Kongo
Kongo: Life In Lockdown and The Journey from Graffiti Artist To Teaming Up With Pierre Hermé for Valentine’s Day
Kongo aka Cyril Phan has never been particular about the surface he leaves his mark on, whether wall, canvas, shop window, trunk, dress, bag, scarf, jewelry, champagne bottle, humidor, car or even airplane, multiplying collaborations with French brands like Chanel, Hermès, Richard Mille, Daum, La Cornue and Les Ateliers Victor to showcase traditional European savoir-faire. The 52-year-old French-Vietnamese artist, whose art is based on graffiti, stylized lettering and bright hues, appropriates ordinary objects and transforms them into artworks, all in the aim of making life more beautiful.
Now to celebrate love in all its forms, he has teamed up with Pierre Hermé, the world-renowned French pastry chef and chocolatier famous for his multicolored, gourmet macaroons, for Valentine’s Day. He has adorned the packaging of boxes of macaroons and chocolate, retail displays and storefronts of Maison Pierre Hermé with his signature colorful esthetic, mixing the letters of the word “macaroon” with symbolic hearts, which are sure to capture the attention of lovers everywhere.
I sit down with Kongo to find out about his life during the COVID-19 crisis and giving back to society.
How did you live out the lockdown in France put in place to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus?
The first month was a month of forced rest, which allowed me to ease off from my hectic pace in 2019. The second month, as I live next to my studio, I went directly to my studio and all I did was work. I worked on large formats and drawings. It was a moment that really inspired me, that especially inspired in me a lot of gratitude to the medical personnel, who have a dedication to their profession, saving thousands of lives with ridiculously little means. So I proposed a project to the Paris hospitals: I donated a painting to the Hospitals of Paris – Hospitals of France Foundation, which they sold at auction to raise funds to help these hospitals. My second initiative was an installation at Lariboisière Hospital to thank the nursing staff directly, and then I made a digigraph of this work, which I’m currently selling via my website, where all profits will be donated to the hospital. These guys had no masks and wore the same PPE while treating several people, when usually they’re supposed to change them each time. They had to wear cooks’ outfits to work. It was completely crazy. It’s absurd in a country like France. That’s why I wanted to serve, but I felt so helpless. As an artist, I wanted to bring something more, so I carried out these actions during the lockdown. I also drew and painted a lot. It was even easier to create because it was very inspiring and I was blocked in one place, when normally I spend my life traveling, meeting people for projects, going abroad to exhibit my works. I was stuck for over two months in my universe developing my e-commerce and things that I wanted to do or that I could push a little further.
Did the subject of your artworks change?
I did a whole series on paper on the present moment called Confinement, where I forced myself to make one drawing per day to crystallize this unique moment. Over several generations, we didn’t have the occasion to experience a global pause. No country, person, government or law has succeeded in stopping the world like that, and there are certainly going to be catastrophic consequences compared to the old world, but in the new world, a lot of reflexes will be created where the planet will also have a real break in terms of pollution, new forms of intensified communication and a new form of consumption. During confinement, there were a lot of Instagram Live events where artists exchanged and plenty of online creation, which was very interesting. Whether the pandemic is a good thing or not, I can’t answer. That’s how it is, but I’m sure the world of 2021 will not be the same as that of 2019.
What role can artists play in such a context?
In a world of anxiety like the one we’re living in, we need to offer something fun, enjoyable, some positive emotion. For example, when I stress, I like to drink a glass of wine and eat cheese – this is my French side. For people to have a painting of a given moment, that they put at home and change their decor, I think it’s something that de-stresses, that gives a desire for renewal. What an artist can offer in such a context is to bring a little beauty into the world and uplift spirits, which is necessary, because if people watch the news all the time, it is so anxiety-provoking. We get so much news, real and fake, even through important media.
How did you go from the street to art galleries and recognition?
With a lot of determination. But the world of art galleries is not the ultimate aim. The ultimate aim is really to continue to express yourself, to be seen by as many people as possible and to always be able to express your art in as many places as possible, so I’m not satisfied with just galleries. However, I’m happy to have recognition and success.
You don’t speak about collaborations with brands, but about encounters between creators from different universes. What do you mean by that?
All the collaborations that I have been able to achieve with these universes have in fact been encounters. I met the decision-makers with whom we exchanged ideas, which then created a bridge between our two universes. That’s why each collaboration was never done by a marketing team, for example. Moreover, I refuse 90% of the projects that have been brought to me like this. I think that the success of a collaboration comes first through an encounter, authenticity, integrity in creation, then comes the sales or marketing work. That’s not my job, but it comes afterwards. That’s why I don’t like to talk about collaboration with a brand, even if I am considered a brand or Richard Mille is considered a brand. It’s true, but above all, it is the vision of someone. This vision has taken on the dimension of a brand, but ultimately it’s more the consumers who see us as brands, not ourselves. For us, it’s a savoir-faire that we have and that we want to convey onto everything. In fact, the idea is to get out of our comfort zone and push our respective universes further. That’s why I don’t like the name “street art” because it puts limits on you directly and confines you to the street. Yes, it’s in my DNA, yes, I spent almost 30 years creating works in the street, but for me, borders do not exist in fact. That’s why I don’t mix too much in street art fairs or group exhibitions, not that I denigrate it, but I find that it pulls us down, and my interest over the past 10 years is precisely to bring my art to universes that surprise and, above all, that aim for excellence. For me, graffiti has always aimed for excellence. When we painted huge walls with my MAC collective, we had a positive competition with other artists and we wanted to impress them. I’ve continued in the same energy, but by creating bridges with the universes of watchmaking, silk, crystal and especially traditional savoir-faire. For example, my collaboration with La Cornue, the two worlds were so unexpected. It was to make a cooking piano, but beyond that, it was the know-how around enamel and sheet metalwork, around people who have dedicated their lives to their skills. That’s what moves me and what I want to express all the time actually.
You’ve also partnered with the Antoine de Saint Exupéry Youth Foundation to paint a vintage Nord 1000 airplane restored by the Association for the Renaissance of the Caudron Simoun…
The idea was to raise funds to produce The Little Prince tactile art book with drawings in relief for the blind, published by the association Arrimage founded by Professor Claude Garrandès. My grandfather was blind. He had jumped on a mine in Vietnam and lost his eyes. As a kid, I read the newspaper to him, so when the Antoine de Saint Exupéry Youth Foundation proposed this project to me, I accepted because it was in the direction of my life and it served others. I believe the most important thing in the life of a person is to serve concretely for a cause and to be able to inspire people.
Tell me about one of your recent paintings.
I did a painting based on a poem by Charles Baudelaire that I reinterpreted called Hymne à la Beauté (Hymn to Beauty), which is part of Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil). It’s a painting that took me a lot time, in which I put in a lot of energy, but I always work on several paintings at the same time, otherwise I get bored very quickly. Sometimes, when I’ve advanced well on a painting, I let it sleep for a while. With Hymne à la Beauté, I had started to sketch it in November 2019, and I worked on it for months. I came back to it regularly, at least a good week or 15 days every month, but there was a moment when I couldn’t take it anymore because it’s really big. It’s 4 meters wide by 4.5 meters high and full of tiny letters, so it required a lot of work and a lot of time.