Plan your visit
  • From: 14 september 2019
  • Through: 05 january 2020
  • Location: Museum de Fundatie

CONGO TALES - Told by the people of Mbomo

Exhibition with photographs by Pieter Henket for Tales of Us.

Congo Tales tells the stories and myths of the inhabitants of the Congo basin, the world’s second-largest tropical rainforest, after the Amazon. Tales of Us has been working on Congo Tales in this region of Africa for the past five years. The initiators behind the organisation – producers Eva Vonk and Stefanie Plattner – invited Dutch portrait photographer Pieter Henket to collaborate on the project. Working with local inhabitants, the team has created a large series of photographs which they are now using to draw attention to this largely unknown rainforest and those who call it home. Henket’s filmic and surrealistic portraits bring to life the magic and mysteries of this region, which is so important to the planet.

Pieter Henket, 'Bird' from the series Congo Tales, 2017. © Pieter Henket, courtesy Kahmann Gallery Produced by Tales of Us. 

“What Wisdom Looks Like” – The New York Times

Congolese people who live in the Mbomo District of the Congo basin present their myths, which have never before been recorded, as photographed by leading portrait photographer Pieter Henket (known for his portraits of Lady Gaga, Eddie Redmayne, Mary J. Blige). The Congolese, their myths and the rainforest are the stars of Henket’s photographs. Dozens of children forming the shape of an Mbomo (or Boa Constrictor); over a hundred Congolese women assembled at the border of the forest; Congolese men on the hunt for a mythical bird – these images tell the story of supernatural forces that control life and death, of ritualistic initiations, of the laws of nature that lie outside human laws, bringing to life the magic and mystery of this little understood place, and its incalculable value to the planet.

Henket is not a photographer who ‘captures’ reality. He carefully builds his compositions, stylising his subjects and mixing light and colour in the manner of a painter. He subtly refers to the Dutch masters of the 17th century, which as a Dutchman he knows through and through. For his images created in the rainforest, for example, he used a powerful stroboscope powered by a battery to create Rembrandtesque lighting, evoking an atmosphere in the photographs that ties in perfectly with the myths of the Congolese.

The extraordinary Congo Tales series was worked on for five years. Congolese artist and philosopher Steve Regis ‘Kovo’N’Sondé and award-winning author Wilfried N’Sondé committed 24 selected stories to paper, which have been published in a book of the same name. Channelling the primal heartbeat of one of the world’s most powerful ecosystems and the people who call it home, the mythological tales of the Congolese – of supernatural forces in control of life and death, of ritualistic initiations into adulthood, of the laws of nature that lie outside the laws of people – are revealed as a treasure trove of universal wisdom that is both existential and pragmatic, with the unspoiled Odzala Kokoua National Park as stage and actor.

Pieter Henket, 'Partners in Crime' from the series Congo Tales, 2017. © Pieter Henket, courtesy Kahmann Gallery Produced by Tales of Us.

The groundbreaking Tales of Us project is a feat of innovative environmental messaging and cross-cultural and cross-continental collaboration intended both to prevent the loss of this all-important bastion of nature, and to reveal its priceless value to the world and our communal future in it.  

Tales of Us aims to create social awareness through the cultures of local population groups. It is an ongoing multimedia project that hopes to introduce a new perspective on the urgency of protecting the world’s mightiest yet most vulnerable ecosystems and the people for whom they are home. Tales of Us categorically rejects the common, fear-based environmental message about preserving regions that are critical for the global environment, preferring instead to tell the stories of the people who live there in a completely new way. The local mythology, legends and lore which form the basis of cultures that existed long before our modern civilisation are portrayed by the world’s most celebrated portrait photographers, in staged images set in the natural, ecologically vital setting from which they originate.

Pieter Henket, 'Father Bosco' from the series Congo Tales, 2017. © Pieter Henket, courtesy Kahmann Gallery Produced by Tales of Us.

The show at Museum de Fundatie is the exhibition’s fourth stop. It was first shown in Mbomo and Brazzaville (Congo), followed by the Barberini Museum in Potsdam. Besides 43 photographs by Pieter Henket the exhibition also includes the film The Little Fish and the Crocodile and soundscapes of the Mbomo rainforest by sound artist David Kamp. Congo Tales has already helped change how the Congo basin and the people who live there are seen in the rest of the world. The project made the front page of the international New York Times and the front page of the art section of the national edition.  PBS News Hour, National Public Radio, Public Radio International and BBC World News have all carried items on Congo Tales.

Pieter Henket, 'Gluttony' from the series Congo Tales, 2017. © Pieter Henket, courtesy Kahmann Gallery Produced by Tales of Us. 

‘Stunning new visual book tells stories of the Congo and its people through lush and imaginative photography’ – The New York Times

Six photographs from the series were recently acquired by the Rijksmuseum. Photographer Pieter Henket donated three, and the others were purchased with the help of the Stefanie Georgina Alexa Nühn Fund/Rijksmuseum Fund. The Rijksmuseum has agreed to loan these photographs to Museum de Fundatie for the exhibition.

Selfportrait Pieter Henket, 2019.

The team behind Congo Tales

PHOTOGRAPHER: Pieter Henket is a fine art portrait photographer in New York City known for his cinematic style and use of light inspired by 17th-century Dutch Golden Age painting. He has photographed celebrities such as Mary J. Blige, Eddie Redmayne, Mary-Kate Olsen, Sir Ben Kingsley, Kristen Stewart and William Hurt. In 2010 he shot the cover for Lady Gaga’s debut album The Fame. The iconic image was included in the American Woman exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Pieter Henket had his first major solo exhibition in 2013, at the newly reopened Museum de Fundatie. He worked closely with Roger Inniss at Boom Productions to help produce the shoots for Congo Tales and bring international attention to the project.

TALES OF US: Tales of Us is an organisation based in Berlin, Germany. It works with a diverse team whose members come from all four corners of the globe.

Pieter Henket, 'The Last Hug' from the series Congo Tales, 2017. © Pieter Henket, courtesy Kahmann Gallery Produced by Tales of Us.

TALES OF US MANAGING DIRECTOR: Stefanie Plattner is a film producer and managing director of Storming Donkey Productions in Germany. She developed the feature film Hördur, directed by Ekrem Ergün, which was awarded the prize for Best Children’s Film of 2015 by the German Film Critics Association at the Berlinale Film Festival. In her role as managing director of Storming Donkey Plattner produced and funded Congo Tales and continues to work on the multimedia project Tales of Us to support and give a voice through storytelling to people in unsung places on our planet, such as the Congo Basin.

TALES OF US EXECUTIVE PRODUCER & CREATIVE DIRECTOR: Eva Vonk (NL) developed the concept for Congo Tales in 2013, and subsequently spent three years working closely with people in the Mbomo District of the Congo Basin to curate and record their mythologies for the very first time during ten trips to the Congolese Odzala Park. Eva studied at the Dutch Film Academy in Amsterdam and has produced several music videos, commercials and short films in the Netherlands.  She is currently conducting research in Iran, Pakistan and Romania for Tales of Us.

Pieter Henket, 'Ground Squirrel' from the series Congo Tales, 2017. © Pieter Henket, courtesy Kahmann Gallery Produced by Tales of Us.

RESEARCHERS: Annie Lydie Idime and Maret Mouendet run the Odzala radio station, and Bosco Ekany is a community activist in the Odzala region. Together they helped curate the local fairytales, lore and myths for Congo Tales.

STORY ADAPTATIONS BY: Wilfried N’Sondé, author of the award-winning novel Le coeur des enfants léopards; and Congolese philosopher, performer and musician S.R. Kovo N’Sondé.

Pieter Henket, 'The Mole and the Sun' from the series Congo Tales, 2017. © Pieter Henket, courtesy Kahmann Gallery Produced by Tales of Us.

CONTRIBUTOR: Auguste Miabeto is a specialist on Sub-Saharan African oral literatures and traditions, and director of C.I.R.E.C.K., the International Center for Research-Education of the Kongo Civilization.

CONTRIBUTOR: Saïd Abitar, art director with whom Pieter Henket worked on the shoots. Abitar is a lecturer in stage design at the La Cambra art academy in Brussels and he works on a variety of films, theatrical productions and operas.

Photo header: Pieter Henket, 'The Twins' from the series Congo Tales, 2017. © Pieter Henket, courtesy Kahmann Gallery Produced by Tales of Us.

  • From: 14 Sep 2019
  • Through: 05 Jan 2020
  • Location: Museum de Fundatie