Muralist Lio Bumbakini may be based in Denver, but his work knows no borders. Born in Brussels in 1993 to parents who'd uprooted their live s in the Congo for the sake of survival, Bumbakini proudly describes himself as a global citizen.
“I’m a student of the world,” he says. “An ambassador of the world.”
He’s not the only ambassador in his family. Bumbakini’s uncle is the current permanent representative of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the United Nations; his mother earned a Ph.D. in art history and went on to be an art curator at museums in Brussels and across the United States. Before Bumbakini was born, his father was exiled from the Congo for speaking critically of the government, which is how the family ended up in Brussels in the early ’90s.
Bumbakini moved to Colorado in 2008, when his mother was offered a job in Denver, and later attended the University of Colorado Boulder, where he studied international affairs; he graduated in 2016. The self-taught artist's body of work blends neo-expressionism and synthetic cubism; it's not unlike the collage-style works of SAMO, the late-’70s subway graffiti collaboration between Jean-Michel Basquiat and Al Diaz that combined text and various art styles to create pithy, often political statements all around New York City.
“But see, I can’t be a Black man making my art in New York, because everyone will just think I’m trying to be the next Basquiat,” Bumbakini says. Although his work draws from the revolutionary path paved by Basquiat, it gravitates more toward Afro-optimist themes, which envision a bright future for Africa as countries throughout the continent continue to re-establish self-rule after untethering themselves from colonialism.
While much of his work is focused on Africa, the treatment of Black people in the United States is also an important theme for Bumbakini. In 2017, he held his first-ever art exhibit, at Denver's Dateline Gallery. The show, titled Witnessed, explored police brutality through chilling installations. Police tape crisscrossed the gallery space, and a nearly naked Bumbakini laid on the ground, his face covered with a blank cloth and a rope draped around his neck. Still images and footage of Black protesters being hosed down, assaulted and harassed by police lined the walls, and a boxy sculpture of a white officer subjugated a sculpture of a Black man struggling to flee.
Over the past three years, Bumbakini has evolved from strictly depicting Black suffering to works that tackle themes of beauty, mortality and the many interpretations of freedom in dreamy, abstract forms. His work celebrates Black bodies and Black femininity while honoring his Central African artistic roots.
His paintings often include brightly colored foliage, wild animals and abstractions of the human body — still referencing colonialism, but not only portraying violence inflicted upon Black bodies. Rather than focus solely on the pain derived from oppression, Bumbakini creates works that portray the strength that comes with adversity. His art carves out a space for Black bodies to simply exist, in the same way that Renaissance paintings such as Sandro Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” marvel at white figures.
His most recent project, he says, explores vacuous artists — “clowns” who create works that are lacking in substance and are designed to “go viral,” catering to Instagram algorithms instead of substantive themes.
“[Instagram] has really disrupted the whole 'mystique' around artists, who now have to post photos of them[selves] making the art, rather than just the art itself, in order for their content to appear in people’s feeds,” he says.
In 2014, Bumbakini took a break from school to return to Brussels, residing there for a year to immerse himself in the street-art world of his birthplace. He even painted a couple of walls in Paris in 2019, yet he feels most at home in Denver.
“The street-art scene here, in my opinion, is in the top five in the world,” Bumbakini says, adding that cities like New York make him feel boxed in, categorized and restrained, commodified and fetishized. He's grateful that in Denver, his art is seen and appreciated as his own, and he’s not constantly being compared to other Black artists.
“I think I just related to Denver as a city because when I first moved here, it felt like Denver as a city was searching for an identity,” he explains. “I was searching for my identity, too, and I feel like the city and I came into ourselves, our identities, together.”
Now, he adds, both he and Denver have found that identity, and both are ready to take on the world.
“As an artist, you have to live somewhere that inspires you,” says Bumbakini, and for him, Denver provides that needed inspiration. “The music scene, the parties, the local DJs — all of it. There’s so much talent here." Paris is covered in graffiti, he explains, and while one would assume a street artist would draw inspiration from the sheer volume of art, he disagrees: “Nobody is just going to cover up your [murals] in Denver. When you put up art here, it stays up.”
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