When we first saw Kito Mbiango‘s artwork, we were blown away the rich colors and textures, layered prints, geometric patterns and captivating subject matter. The Belgium-born artist works out of his New York studio, where he thrives on the energy of the city, but seeks solace between books and photo archives during golden hour in his sun-drenched studio.
Much of Mbiango’s work is a reflection of his extensive cultural and historical knowledge, as well as his own heritage – born to a Congolese father and Belgian mother, and with a grandmother well-versed in Japanese art techniques, his prints evoke a concept of duality, juxtaposing qualities from vintage photographs, botanical illustrations, portraiture and literature. His work reflects blurring cultural borders between Eastern and Western spheres of influence.
Read our Q&A with self-taught artist Kito Mbiango below, as he shares his inspiration and influence behind his process – whether it’s an old scientific print, an ikebana bouquet, or a classical symphony. Mbiango invites us in to his creative space – a place we’re not sure we ever want to leave.
CULT: Do you remember when you started painting?
Kito: There was a period in my life where I transitioned between photography and painting in the 1980s because I was striving to deconstruct images into emotions and capture that which can be seen by the mind but rarely the eye – images that tell stories across time.
Painting for me is like adding music notes to a canvas.
In essence, I’m seeking to find resonance with the collective unconscious of my viewers through paints and colours.
CULT: Tell us about the first piece that you ever sold.
Kito: I had an antique store in Miami where I had brought in couple of pieces that I had moved from my studio. This particular piece was propped up next to an 19th century wedding chest from China – a beautiful South-Indian girl on canvas which I had embellished with rich colours and textures. A South American designer who often bought antiques from me came in and fell in love with it. I explained that it wasn’t for sale but he insisted. Needless to say, this motivated me to return to my studio and continue creating that very afternoon…
CULT: What is your process like – from conception to completion?
Kito: I often start with one image but can be inspired by virtually anything – African Kuba cloth patterns on fabric, 18th century botanical illustrations, vibrantly colored insects from Amazonia, an enchanting ikebana bouquet or a sublime sonata – usually Bach – all things which for me are imbued with romanticism.
I am guided by the works themselves as I am creating them – the way the light falls upon an image, the iridescent shine of a jeweled beetle wing from Thailand or simply the powerful gaze of a indigenous reminding me how nature is the convergence of our respective cultures.
CULT: When you’re painting something or working on a mixed media print, do you ever envision its final destination where it will hang, or are you centered around the canvas?
Kito: When I’m painting or working on a print, I go into a creative state of flow that carries me forward – I never envision where it will hang but allow the work to emerge like a butterfly from a cocoon. I am often surprised to see where or how a designer, decorator or client has chosen to hang or light my piece, but that’s also when I know it has taken on a life of its own. Only then can I can mourn the loss of that piece that was a part of me during the process of creation.
CULT: What do you love about living and working in New York? Favorite local haunts and hideaways?
Kito: I love the dizzying energy of New York but am grateful to find refuge beneath the trees in Central Park. The Brooklyn museum’s majestic Egyptian collection, the rustic elegance of Il Buco and the simplicity of a fresh pasta at Eataly are also part of why I love this city.
CULT: In the past 24 hours, what has inspired you?
Kito: In the past 24 hours I’ve been inspired by my own silence during a relaxing transcendental meditation retreat I went on with the David Lynch Foundation. Since I learned the technique a couple of years ago, I’ve felt an expansion of creativity in my work and this weekend retreat allowed me to plunge deeper into my practice.
CULT: Describe your workspace – what do you love most about it?
Kito: I adore the light in my studio during the “golden hour” before the sunset. This is when I enjoy sitting on my fire escape with a chilled glass of wine as I sift though images I’ve set aside from my countless books and photo archives.
CULT: What is your relationship to your subjects? Are they meaningful to you?
Kito: My subjects are a reflection of my inner states of feeling, take for example, the image of a young woman called “Malaika” – she’s my Mona Lisa or sorts – a young girl who’s portrait was taken on one of the earliest expeditions to Congo. At the time, those photographing people there treated them like anthropological studies rather than as embodiments of divinity embedded in our human tapestry. I am deeply affected by history and the way man has ravaged his land and his people, yet I always try to portray beauty in my work as a constant reminder of our connectedness.
My subjects are pieces of me and of everyone of us.
CULT: How does your heritage influence your work?
Kito: I was born in Belgium but my father is from Congo. I lived there for a few years as a small child. My Belgian grandmother was a master in ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging and I spent countless hours with her learning about flowers and birds – I have many mesmeric childhood memories from my time with her.
My parents were among the first interracial couples in Europe in the 60’s when the US was in the throes of the civil rights movement.
Duality, as experienced through my mixed heritage, is perhaps what drives my incessant search for unity in nature, art and music – visual harmony is what I am striving for.
Words to live by:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” ― Martin Luther King Jr., Light and love are at the core of my creations.