Culture / Art Republik

Urban Artist Kongo on His Love Affair with Asia

The Paris-based self-taught artist, who started off painting graffiti in the streets and today counts Richard Mille and Pierre-Alexis Dumas as his friends, now sets his sights on Southeast Asia.

Feb 25, 2021 | By Nina Starr

Kongo in Karl Largerfeld’s studio. Photo by Laurent Segretier

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, jewellery, champagne bottle, humidor, car or even airplane, multiplying collaborations with French brands like Chanel, Hermès, Richard Mille, Daum and La Cornue to showcase traditional European savoir-faire. The 51-year-old French-Vietnamese artist likes the idea of being able to appropriate an everyday object and transform it into a work of art, something that makes life more beautiful. An early proponent of the Parisian graffiti art scene who earned a reputation for his pictorial alphabets reconciling painting and writing, he has soared to new heights, reinterpreting varied universes in a language filled with colours, shapes and letters. Now his focus has shifted to his Asian heritage, as he plans to set up an atelier-showroom in Singapore and a boutique-gallery in Hanoi to highlight age-old Southeast Asian crafts that have been given his joyful, energetic and optimistic touch. We sit down with him to find out about his life during the Covid-19 crisis, giving back to society and his plans for the future.

Urban Artist Kongo on His Love Affair with Asia

How did you live out the confinement 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 confinement. 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 travelling, 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 crystallise 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 per cent 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…

The idea was to raise funds to produce The Little Prince tactile art book with drawings in relief for the blind. 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 Saint Exupéry 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.

Kongo portrait by Pramith Lokuge

When did your almost visceral relationship with Asia start?

I am half Asian. My dad is Vietnamese and therefore I have always been linked to Asia, especially Southeast Asia, by half my family. I had the chance to progress between Europe, Africa and Asia, so I am a true citizen of the world.

You were one of the first artists to present street art in China. How did it come about?

I created the Eating Frogs Tour in 2004 with a group of friends comprising big names in graffiti painting, DJing and dance to present French hip-hop in South China: Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. At the time, I met a 16-year-old kid called Fansack, who is a Chinese artist, super passionate, and he told me he started graffiti in China in 2000 and had seen me in various documentaries. I told him if he came to France one day to call me. Two or three years later, I received a phone call from him saying he was in France. He became my assistant and I showed him my savoir-faire. Now, he has returned to China, to Chengdu, to develop his career and I believe he’s an artist who will make it big. He has a head start today because he saw my progression and knows which way to go, so he is positioning himself. He discovered graffiti during its infancy in China. It’s funny how it takes time, how tightly closed the borders were. It’s opening up drop by drop and there are lots of things to do there still.

We’ve seen you in Jakarta, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, etc. What was your best experience in Asia? Your favourite capital?

Each experience is magnificent. I have a special fondness for Singapore, which impresses me by the modernity of its vision. The country is managed like a company and everyone follows the same path. I find it interesting as a Parisian where here everything is all over the place. Sometimes it feels good to have some boundaries for the common good, and Singapore impresses me a lot with regards to that. I find that there is a quality of life there, which is very interesting. I also love Indonesia, especially Bali, where I find a lot of spirituality and a bit of the disorder of Paris. I particularly like Vietnam because it’s part of my blood. I love Japan for its modernity and the total change of scenery that we can have there, and the vision they have of art, too. I am very impressed by China, by its power, how it managed to rebound and become a major force in the world, knowing how to mix politics, industry and capitalism. Asia impresses me enormously – they are progressive, they evolve rapidly every day, they’re determined and they’re categorical. I really like Asia for that.

Tell me about your collaboration with Singapore’s finest bespoke tailor, Kevin Seah.

Kevin is above all a friend. Once again, it was an encounter. I held my first exhibition in Singapore in 2012, and Kevin was working in the same building. Kevin is someone who’s very well dressed and very British, but at the same time he was a skateboarder who understands urban culture. Therefore, when we met, it attracted me straightaway and there was mutual respect. I was impressed by his know-how, all his suits are sewn by hand. He asked me to make a painting for him and I asked him to make me a jacket, and that’s how it started. He made me a denim jacket, and for the lining inside, he used the silk scarf I’d done for Hermès. It was super chic and casual at the same time. I loved it. Then he made me a camouflage jacket. Then we had the idea of making jackets out of linen canvases that I paint. But it’s not the same linen that I use for my paintings, which is very stiff. He has a linen that is very fine, so I can’t put a lot of paint on it. He sent me the linen to Paris, I painted the canvases, sent them back to Singapore and he reinterpreted my paintings, cutting them to make jackets. The lining was taken from a colourful painting where I marked Kevin Seah, Kongo, Kevin Seah, Kongo. We made three or four unique jackets. They are priceless works of art that you wear. We did that in 2013, then I did the collection with Karl Lagerfeld in 2019, but what I did for Kevin was much more precious because everything was original. Chanel was a fabulous collection that they put in store windows worldwide. It was a completely insane experience. But I didn’t make the collection for Chanel. I met Karl who offered me to make a whole series of paintings at his atelier on Quai Voltaire, and he chose the paintings to make dresses and bags out of. It was a real meeting between creators.

After your successful pop-up studio in one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in Paris in 2017, you opened one in Singapore, too…

In November 2018, I went to see Kevin Seah in Singapore and I told him about the experience of my ephemeral workshop on Rue François 1er in the 8th arrondissement. He asked me why don’t I do it in Singapore? I told him I didn’t have a place and I didn’t want to do it with a gallery. He told me to look next door, where there were premises that were available. He introduced me to the landlord of The Mill, Roy Teo, who left me the space to create my workshop for a month, so I did the same pop-up studio concept. However, it is no longer ephemeral since I kept it in the end to set up my showroom-atelier in Singapore because I feel good in Singapore and I’m planning to settle there to create my works to continue the Asian adventure. It will be a private atelier-showroom not open to the public, where people can visit by appointment.

Tell me about the boutique you’ll open soon in Hanoi.

Some Vietnamese people asked me to come back to Vietnam. At the beginning, I was moderately keen because I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. Finally, I decided to do it, so I partnered with a financier who’s opening a Cyril Kongo brand boutique for me to highlight Vietnamese and Southeast Asian artists. He had approached me by telling me that in all Vietnamese families, both north and south, there are family members who went overseas, who were immigrants in the United States, England, Canada, Europe, who travelled far. But he said, “Your case is very special because the Vietnamese and all the Asians who have succeeded consume the brands by whom you have been recognised. Therefore, you’re like a hero to them because you left. We know very well the pain that all Vietnamese families who left far from their countries suffered to get back on track, but very few have succeeded in doing what you have done: collaborating with Richard Mille, Chanel, etc. It was an incredible journey because you left as a political refugee, immigrated, without speaking French, and now in your midlife, you are recognised by the biggest brands that to us are at the summit of the excellence of chic. You’ve made us proud and we’d like to give you the opportunity to express yourself in Vietnam.” So it will be a flagship store-gallery. I will present objects and original drawings, but I also want to develop the savoir-faire of Southeast Asia, like Vietnamese lacquer, carving and Indonesian batik. I’ll go around Southeast Asia and reinterpret – just as I interpreted traditional French skills through my work with Daum or La Cornue – Southeast Asian savoir-faire. I want to highlight all these traditional skills that we have at home that we are proud of, but which seem a bit old-fashioned, and give my contemporary vision to them. For example, sang-de-boeuf ceramics, I want to give my take on them. Batik, which is very traditional and coded, I want to remake it. I will present all of this exclusively in my boutique in Vietnam, and will set up an e-commerce website linked to this store. Currently under construction, it should open in early September.

Hymne a la beaute premontage 450x400cm 2020

What is your most recent painting?

My latest painting is 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 takes 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 last November, and I’ve been at it for eight months already. I come 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 metres wide and 4.5 metres high and full of tiny letters, so it requires a lot of work and a lot of time.

This article was written by NINA STARR.

All photography is courtesy of KONGO.

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