Each Piece in Kim Mupangilai’s Debut Furniture Collection is a Meditation on Cross-Cultural Identity
The seven pieces in Kim Mupangilai’s debut furniture collection Kasaï — an armoire, chaise, room divider, side tables, chair, and bench — are stunning at first glance. But these are works whose depth and complexity also become apparent the more time you spend with them and the closer you look. Sinuous curves, smooth contours, and rich materiality draw you in but then details emerge. You notice how different elements fit together to form a whole. How each of Mupangilaï’s pieces, on view in a solo exhibition called HUE/I/AM – HUE/AM/I through August 20 at Superhouse Vitrine, is comprised of numerous, sometimes unexpected aspects that all cohere. Without being heavy-handed, and as the name of the show implies, the collection embodies the ways we might understand and conceive of our own identities.
For Mupangilaï herself, it’s been a process of discovery. Raised in Europe by her Belgian mother and Congolese father, she moved to New York City in 2018 to work in interior design and architecture (her projects include the Greenpoint cocktail bar Ponyboy). Living in New York prompted her to learn more about her Congolese heritage, which she hadn’t really felt able to explore while growing up in Belgium. That urge, combined with the pandemic, led her to focus on creating furniture and what resulted is a sculptural collection that is both intimate and broad in its sweep, touching on the personal and familial but also the complicated history of colonialism. (The Democratic Republic of Congo declared independence from Belgian rule in 1960).
Mupangilaï set out to use specific materials related to the Congo: Teak and stone are natural resources of the region, rattan is woven in traditional baskets and mats, and banana fiber references banana leaves involved in food preparation and presentation. The shapes and forms are both playful and weighted with meaning, like the Mwasi armoire, whose door resembles an African shield and whose astounding limb-like support evokes femininity and movement. (The names of these pieces include Mwasi and Bina, which mean woman and dance, in Congolese Tshiluba, one of the native languages spoken in the DCR.) In a recent conversation, Mupangilaï told us more about the research that went into this project (long phone calls with her dad, the old books he sent her inscribed with his name), what influenced her and what didn’t, and how she developed a kind of design language to make these pieces say so much.
You’ve spoken about trying to blend in as you were growing up in a small town in Belgium, never fully understanding your identity, your Congolese background. When and how did you start exploring that part of your identity?
It was always important, but I didn’t really feel like I could explore it in some capacity when I was living in Belgium. So when I came to New York, a little over 5 years ago, I was kind of bombarded with all these different cultures and it made me feel like I didn’t have to go in search for this group that I belonged to because New York is just such a melting pot of people and it made me re-think my own cultural upbringing and my own background. There are all these cultures in New York and everyone kind of feels like they fit in, and I didn’t really feel that in Belgium. So that made me want to dig deeper and understand who I was, from a cultural aspect.
What prompted your move to New York?
I always knew when I was younger that I wouldn’t necessarily stay in Belgium and that I would want to explore and of course, New York has so many opportunities. I was like, Why not try it? I landed a traineeship with an architecture and design firm and that started in February 2018 and then I stayed.
Does it feel like home now?
It does, yes. That majority of my adult life, I feel like I’ve spent more time here than in Belgium.
What motivated you to produce a furniture collection at this point in time?
If I go back to when I was studying interior architecture at school [the LUCA School of Arts/KU Leuven in Belgium], one of my assignments was to make your first piece of furniture. And I did that with my grandfather. He taught me all the skills, about joinery and chiseling. And back then I always felt I really needed to do something with furniture later on in life. I really like that aspect of architecture and design. I always had that desire but never felt there was an opportunity to do so, or that I had the resources or the time. Especially after moving to a new country, you have to settle first.
When the pandemic hit, like so many others, I started thinking, well, now I have this time on my hands and I should pursue what I’ve always wanted to do which is furniture. At the same time, I also had this urge to dig deeper in my identity and my cultural landscape. So, I was like, what better way to try to understand it than through a passion of mine, which is furniture. That’s how it all came to fruition.
Where did you start when it came to research for this project?
It started with books and countless phone calls to my dad. Like, tell me, I need to know more, I need to understand. When I first told my dad that I was starting this work, he was like, Okay, I’m going to send you a package with all these books. It was this big heavy box of books that he’d owned and his name is written in them. I just started reading through them, studying and understanding them.
What kind of books? What were they about?
They’re books about the architecture in central Africa, and primitive artifacts and household tools, as well. One book that really stuck with me was about currency tools. Currency tools could be anything — jewelry, lots of weapons not necessarily to use in a war or anything but to cut through the woods. All these tools are so intricate and have all these symbols, they’re almost like jewelry because they represented some form of social status. They symbolized marriage, birth, death, all these different things in life. They held a lot of power and I was drawn to that because there are so many different currency tools with all these different shapes that it’s almost like they have their own language. Which then, for me, started becoming my own individual language. I started sketching them and understanding the shapes and extracting from those shapes, so they became more abstract and they formed the base of these design pieces. I started adding the shape of this tool with that tool and then all of the furniture came out of the abstract shapes of all these different tools. Out of that, I developed my own design language, in a sense, which became the thread throughout the work. Because it held so much importance and symbolism in that culture.
And then of course the stories of my dad, what they used during cooking. He mentioned the use of banana leaves to preserve, store, or even hold food. And the use of raffia, rattan, is also something that is so common in Congo. And then of course wood. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to work with natural materials but also materials that are specific to the Congo so it would all tie in.
When you were growing up, or even more recently, did you ever visit the Congo?
I’d wanted to, always, I still do. But my dad migrated at the age of 15 to Belgium, and I think for him, that’s the part that he left behind. I don’t know how that is for other families, but I think he kind of closed that chapter and was so focused on, like, I live and breathe the Western world and I want my children to grow up in that as well. Even though I had all these questions, he never encouraged us to go there because he was like, it’s so entirely different from Belgium and maybe not entirely safe either. I always was like, but I need to see where I come from. It’s on the list, especially now that I’m older. I regret that I never went as a young kid, so I could understand more and not have all these questions at a later age.
Clearly it’s still so important to your dad, the fact that he had all these resources on hand to send to you.
The names of these pieces include the words Mwasi (woman) or Bina (dance), and the pieces evoke femininity and movement. They’re not exactly figurative forms but there’s definitely something human and bodily about them. I’d love to get your thoughts on that. What influenced that?
Throughout this work I was asking my dad about the native languages. Bina means dance and I know that rhythm and music is such an important thing in the culture and I wanted to have that articulated in the work itself, by playing with mass and volume and scale. And the femininity about it is a reference to how, back in the day, most people who worked with wood were always men. It was not necessarily something that women were allowed to do or did often, so I wanted to bring that feminine part into it as well. The movement and the elegance, I thought that was really important, as a woman, to articulate that in the work. And then another part was that I’ve never met any female relatives of my Congolese heritage either. Only male. So it was a tribute to that part. I was never able to meet my Congolese grandmother because she had passed before I was born, but she was a huge factor in the work because all these stories that my dad had told came from his mom and my grandmother. So it all tied in and I wanted the work to embody the femininity and the rhythm in the culture.
Related to that, I want to ask you about shapes and forms. There are so many wonderful details in these pieces like the little paws that serve as arms on the daybed or how the screen fits together like a jigsaw puzzle. There’s something almost macro and micro going on: Each piece is stunning as a whole, as an object in itself, and as a collection, but then, as a viewer, you’re drawn to all these incredible details within the object. I felt like that spoke to issues of identity, how we think of our identities or present them to the world — we’re all made up of so many aspects that only become visible on closer inspection or introspection. Is that something you were going for?
You said it exactly as it is. Truly, that hit. I always want the work to somehow trigger viewers to also look inward at their own identity or cultural landscape or upbringing.
It definitely comes across. Do you want to continue making more furniture?
Absolutely. I feel like this is just the beginning. You try this for the first time and you see how it goes, but I really really loved it and just want to keep exploring, even with different materials and even dig deeper into the cultural history of the Congo. I feel like this is just the start. But I also want to keep pursuing interior design projects, as well.
Do you see the furniture as extension of that work or as separate things?
Both. It is separate because this is a very personal body of work. But it can coexist in these interior projects if it’s for the right client or the client relates to it or is attracted to it.
How did you and Stephen from Superhouse link up?
Stephen first contacted me in December 2021 to ask if I’d like to be a part of a group show he was putting together. I loved the idea and concept — “women who work with wood” — but the timing didn’t work out. We kept in touch and I would keep him in the loop on my progress. Six months later he asked if I wanted to join him at Design Miami with a piece created specifically for that. Simultaneously, he asked if I’d be interested in doing a solo show with him a year later and now we’re here.
Did the process of creating this collection reveal something to you, in terms of your own personal history or how you think of your identity? Did you learn or discover something?
In terms of discovery, obviously a lot about the Congolese culture. And in terms of design, personally that I really enjoyed it and that it’s important to create something with a narrative as well. So that you fully stand behind it. I wanted it to be something unique coming from me, so I could really represent it and tell the story if people had questions. That was really important to me. And to just persevere and keep going. It’s so much work, so much more than people think. It took me over two years to design the series. It took time, but I enjoyed it. People say the process is more important than the end result and I get that. It’s true, it’s important to see how all that came about.
In terms of moving from the idea or concept to the finished product, was that process all new to you? Did you have someone fabricate the pieces for you? How did that work?
I started with the sketches, then digitalizing it and then rendering it, the whole process, but that’s a very good question. I think it’s important to acknowledge that depending on the complexity or the scale of the work, most designers or artists require a team to bring this to life. I had to look for a small team that could help me realize the production of it. In a perfect world, I would have the means to have my own studio and the tools and all that and maybe in the future that would be lovely. But for this work I definitely needed help. I would create everything prior to the actual physical work and then be in close communication with the people who would actually bring it to life. In a sense I built it with my head and my hands through sketching, but I needed help for this to work.
And you were able to find people that you trusted.
Yes, absolutely. With a lot of revisions and back and forth, because it’s always harder to articulate your vision to someone else. Trial and error is part of it. And there’s a certain beauty in that as well. The imperfections and little changes that happen throughout the process is also part of it.
Were there pieces that turned out differently than how you initially envisioned them?
I think, which is pretty wild, all pieces that I designed turned out exactly how they were initially sketched. But also that’s because I really took my time with these pieces. Each design took me maybe three, four, maybe sometimes five or six months to come up with. Aside from the aesthetics, I needed to make sure they would function. The engineering part of it, I wanted to make sure that was all figured out before I went into production.
The materiality of these pieces is so striking. The teak, stone, rattan, and banana fiber all have meaning related to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Did you know you wanted to use these specific materials from the outset? Did you start with the materials first and then design? Or the other way around?
That’s a good question because the first page in my sketchbook is literally the words “raffia this, that, and that.” So I wanted to inform myself first, learn more about the materiality in our region, and then start designing. I had that figured out prior to designing, thinking how can I incorporate that material for that piece but I always made sure that I would use the same materials for everything so it would all tie in. So I looked for the materials first and then the design process started.
I’m curious about your design influences with this. I know a lot of personal history and cultural history went into it but are there specific design influences you drew inspiration from?
No [laughs], but it’s a good question because a lot of people refer to Art Nouveau with my work which to me is very interesting and the Congo was a colony of Belgium in the 19th century, the same time the rise of Art Nouveau came about. During that time, a lot of woodworkers, furniture makers — they were inspired by the materials that were extracted from the Congo. So when people say Oh, I see such a big influence of Art Nouveau, it’s not necessarily like a compliment, but it’s almost like a full circle moment, because indirectly they’re seeing the link to Africa in my work, which is literally what I’m doing, but without them actually knowing certain parts of the history of Art Nouveau. They don’t realize that Art Nouveau was largely inspired by unacknowledged African influences. In that sense, it’s like full circle, which was really wild to me. It was kind of like an a-ha moment: it makes sense now why people say that. I was like, Art Nouveau? Why would I look at that specific time? And then it clicked.
That’s so interesting. I think maybe that’s what I was getting at earlier, asking if this process revealed anything to you or what you discovered in the process. Maybe it’s a realization like that.
Yeah, at the same time I think it also says something about art history in general. In a sense, it needs to be rewritten because if people are unaware of these influences — and they’ve never been acknowledged in Belgium, especially not with these very influential architects and woodworkers to this day. I feel like there’s a larger conversation to be had. It’s one thing to see a piece as Art Nouveau but it’s important that you know the history of an art movement before labelling it. It’s 2023 but there’s a much larger conversation to have about the history of these art movements. So, in that sense it was a discovery. We need to talk about this more.