Friday 25 September 2020


Chéri Samba has a sly sense of humour, both in person and in his work. Standing in front of his 2018 painting “J'aime le jeu de relais” (I Love the Relays) - which criticizes politicians who cling to power instead of passing the baton - Samba is asked about the resemblance of one of his subjects to a famous statesman.

“Oh, I was just portraying a politician in general. I didn’t really have a particular person in mind because they all have certain characteristics,” he responds. Then he adds mischievously, “Isn’t it me though? Doesn’t it look like me?”

In this case it doesn’t, but the Congolese artist sometimes depicts himself in various guises in his paintings. Visitors to the current exhibition in Paris featuring his work and those of two of his equally acclaimed countrymen will have fun trying to spot him on canvas.

The show - Kings of Kin - brings together the work of Samba, Bodys Isek Kingelez and Moké, known affectionately as the kings of Kinshasa, as their art is closely linked with the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, their home and work base. All three have participated in numerous exhibitions around the world, in group and solo shows, but this is the first time they're being shown together in galleries.

Kings of Kin is being held jointly at the MAGNIN-A and the Natalie Seroussi galleries (running until Oct. 30) and features some 30 works, including Samba’s latest paintings. He is undoubtedly the star attraction with his bold, massive canvases commenting on social and political issues in Africa and elsewhere, but the others command attention as well.

Samba also is the only surviving “king” as Moké died in 2001 and Kingelez in 2015.

On a recent unseasonably hot afternoon, the artist is present at the MAGNIN-A gallery, speaking with a visitor who’s wearing a mask, although he himself is without one. He says he came to Paris in January, then got caught in the lockdown as the Covid-19 pandemic spread in France. He has used the time to complete several paintings in the current show.

Asked if he doesn’t miss the “inspiration” that Kinshasa provides, Samba replies that all artists should be able to produce work wherever they find themselves.

“I live in the world, and I breathe as if I’m in Kinshasa,” he says. “In my head, I want to live where I can speak with people and where they understand me. I travel with the same brain. I would like to be in Kinshasa, but this doesn’t prevent me from creating. The world belongs to all of us.”

His new paintings fill the entry and the main hall of the MAGNIN-A gallery, with bright greens, reds, blues - inviting viewers into his mind or current state of world awareness. 

The first work that strikes the eye is “Merci, merci je suis dans la zone verte” (Thank you, thank you I’m in the green zone), which depicts a man - the artist - seemingly caught in a vortex of some sort. Painted this year, the painting reflects the current global upheavals with the Covid-19 and other ills.

Another equally compelling work features the faces of six girls of different ethnicities, produced in acrylic with particles of glitter, and titled: “On Est Tout Pareils” (We’re All the Same). Samba says that his daughter served as the model and that the painting is a call for peace, equality and the ability to live together without discord.

The oldest of his paintings on display dates from 1989 and reveals a very different style, with softer colours and intricate workmanship, as he portrays a Congolese singer – the late feminist performer M’Pongo Love - wearing an attractive dress. Here the broad strokes are absent, and the designs on the dress are meticulously captured.

He says that although viewers may notice variations between his earlier output and the new works, he tends not to take note of such differences.

“All the paintings are like my children,” he says. “I can’t make distinctions between them.” 

In contrast to Samba, the paintings by Moké comprise softer hues and have a more earthy feel, but they also compel the viewer to see into the lives of those depicted.

Moké’s subjects nearly always elicit a certain empathy, a certain melancholy, and sometimes hope - whether these subjects are performers or an older couple simply having dinner together.

Moké lived for only 51 years, but his output was impressive - dating from the time he arrived in Kinshasa as a child and began painting urban landscapes on cardboard. He considered himself a “painter-journalist” and portrayed the everyday life of the capital, including political happenings. One of his paintings from 1965 depicts then-general Mobutu Sese Seko waving to the crowds as he came to power in Zaire (the previous name of the DRC).

In the Paris show, Moké’s paintings depict boxers, performers, frenetic city scenes, and portraits of women staring out with expressions that are both bold and solemn.

Meanwhile, the work of Kingelez takes viewers into a sphere of colourful towers and other “weird and wonderful” structures with a utopian bent, as he imagines a world that might possibly rise from the ravages of colonialism, inequity and bad urban planning.

The first Congolese artist to have a retrospective exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (“City Dreams” in 2018), Kingelez used everyday objects such as paper, cardboard and plastic to produce his first individual sculptures before creating  whole fantastical cities.

His futuristic urban settings, which also address social issues, thus form a perfect companion to the “surreal earthliness” of Samba and Moké in Kings of Kin.

“These are artists who worked because of deep necessity, because they had something to say. It wasn’t about the art market or commerce,” said French gallery owner and independent curator André Magnin, who first encountered their work in the 1980s in Kinshasa.

The author of several books on Congolese art, Magnin said he hoped visitors to the exhibition would discover the unique artistic richness of the Congo region as exemplified by the “kings”. As for “queens”, he said that there weren’t many women artists working at the time, but that more are now becoming known and will be the focus of coming shows.

Dorine, a French art student of African descent who visited the exhibition, said she admired the artists and particularly Samba because he “speaks of African reality”.

“Their work is very interesting, and the message is extremely strong,” she told SWAN.

Monday 7 September 2020


(This is the second article in SWAN’s series on translators of Caribbean literature.)

Laëtitia Saint-Loubert is a French translator and an early-career researcher whose much-anticipated book on Caribbean literary translation is being published this fall. Titled The Caribbean in Translation: Remapping Thresholds of Dislocation, it explores 20th- and 21st-century Caribbean literature in translation and aims to shine a new light on a range of works, while promoting a “rethinking” of translation theory from a Caribbean perspective.

The book is based on Saint-Loubert’s doctoral dissertation which won the Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in Comparative Literature.

Book by Laëtitia Saint-Loubert.
The award came as Saint-Loubert completed a PhD in Caribbean Studies at the University of Warwick, in the UK, in 2018, after two Master’s degrees in literary translation at the Université Michel de Montaigne in Bordeaux, France - where she “came to develop a passion for Caribbean literature”.

Her current research “continues to investigate Caribbean literature in translation and focuses on bibliodiversity and non-vertical modes of circulation for Caribbean and Indian Ocean literatures”, she told SWAN.

She has translated a number of Caribbean texts, including a short story by Guadeloupe-based writer Gisèle Pineau and an essay on Puerto Rican impressionist Francisco Oller for a trilingual project (Spanish, English, French). The Pineau story - "A Little Fire of No Consequence / Un Petit Feu Sans Conséquence" - appeared in the journal Vernacular: New Connections in Language, Literature & Culture based at the University of Tennessee.

Saint-Loubert said she’s also in talks to translate a novel by a Jamaican writer into French, and she’s interested in working with Caribbean-based publishers to promote intraregional circulation of Caribbean literature. The following interview was conducted by email and telephone.

SWAN: You speak English, German and Spanish, in addition to your mother tongue French. How did your interest and proficiency in these languages develop?

LAËTITIA SAINT-LOUBERT (LS-L): I grew up in a fairly monolingual, French environment but have always loved other languages and cultures. When I turned 16, I left France to participate in an exchange programme in the US, where I studied and lived with a host family for a year. This experience was crucial in a number of ways, as it opened up whole new horizons that allowed me to start conceptualizing and dreaming (of) the world differently.

I started learning German in middle school and later did an Erasmus year abroad in Germany, before completing two MAs in Literary Translation in France, one in English and one in German.

I came to Spanish much later, as an adult. I was very fortunate during my PhD at the University Warwick to be given the opportunity to attend classes in the Department of Hispanic Studies, and to later conduct a research project in Puerto Rico, where I was completely immersed in the local culture and language. This was my first time in the Caribbean.

I have since been based in La Réunion, in the Indian Ocean, where people speak French and Reunionese Creole. Unfortunately, I do not speak any French Creoles fluently, but have a basic understanding of Kréol rényoné and Kreyòl ayisyen (Haitian Creole).

Scholar Laëtitia Saint-Loubert.
SWAN: What motivated you to study translation, and how would you describe your university experience of focusing on literature from other countries?

LS-L: I always wanted to live “in translation”. When I was in high school, I wanted to become an interpreter. Years later, when I studied conference interpreting, I realized that it wasn’t for me. I was more of a literary person and decided to major in literary translation to combine my two passions, literature and translation.

I started developing an interest in postcolonial literature during my year abroad in Germany, where I concomitantly studied GDR literature and art movements. It was then that I started familiarizing myself with writers of French expression from the Caribbean, writers that I had never heard of before in my country, despite my initial background in literature. When I returned to France, during my second MA in Literary Translation, I began working on the French translation of a Jamaican novel for which I felt the need to further immerse myself in Antillean writing to try and do the text justice.

I would say that my interest in literature from other countries, including the various Francospheres, comes from a profound love of cross-cultural encounters and a deep need to interrogate the power differentials in transnational literary circulation. This is one of the reasons why it was important for me to do a PhD in Caribbean Studies and in a different academic setting - in this case, the UK. I wanted to keep shifting my referential framework and look at translation and literature from a somewhat different angle and location. This is also the reason why I felt it was essential to carry out research in the Caribbean to address issues of (in)visibility and access in the circulation of Caribbean literature in the region and beyond.

SWAN: Your doctoral dissertation explored 20th- and 21st-century Caribbean literature in translation. Why did you choose this topic?

LS-LThe Caribbean in Translation: Remapping Thresholds of Dislocation was born out of a desire to work at the intersection of Caribbean and translation studies. I wanted to look at the transnational circulation of contemporary Caribbean literature from a comparative lens, across the region’s multiple languages, cultures and literary genealogies. To do that, I chose the theoretical concept of the threshold which I connected to Glissantian theory and transoceanic theoretical concepts from the Pacific and the Indian Ocean to explore the aesthetic, sociocultural and political aspects of Caribbean writing in translation. My aim was to challenge vertical models of global literary traffic and to invite readers to envisage alternative pathways of cultural exchange from archipelagic latitudes, beyond a binary North-South axis.

SWAN:  What do you hope readers will gain from this work, especially as regards the sphere of translation globally?

LS-L: For readers with little knowledge of the region, its diaspora and their literary production, I hope the book somewhat contributes to placing the rich, multilingual field of Caribbean literature on the world map. For those who are more familiar with Caribbean texts, I hope the book helps bring into focus the need for more interdisciplinary studies to initiate further cross-cultural and cross-linguistic dialogues.

With regards to the sphere of global translations, I hope that looking at transnational literary circulation from a Caribbean perspective contributes to increasing translations from and into minoritized languages, and to addressing asymmetrical flows in global literary circulation, so that we can all engage in more equitable and sustainable modes of exchange.

Saint-Loubert translated an essay on Puerto Rican artist Oller.
SWAN: How important is translation to Caribbean and world literature, now?

LS-L: Translation is foundational to Caribbean and world literature. Without translation, we would not be able to access works originally written in a language we are not fluent in. In that sense, I see translation as not only a part of the afterlife of a text, but also as part of its making and its genesis, even. After all, any form of writing is the translation of inner thoughts and ideas put down into words. With regards to our day and age, I think that untranslatability is an indispensable part of translation, something that ought to be stressed in the globalized world we live in, so that translation is seen as a driving force of linguistic and cultural diversity. This is why I believe that rethinking translation theory and practice from a Caribbean perspective is essential.

SWAN: France is one of the countries with the highest number of translated books. What, in your view, are some of the reasons for this?

LS-L: France has a longstanding tradition of translation that can be explained by its strong literary culture. Nowadays, French literary translators can benefit from professional support and guidance from the Association des Traducteurs Littéraires de France and publishers can also obtain funding for translations, which I think contributes to the presence of translated books in the French literary market. That said, translation is still perceived as an additional cost, which a lot of publishers can’t afford, and that makes it even more difficult for less visible texts and writers to enter the French literary scene. If there is indeed a number of translated books in France, especially when we compare figures in the US and the UK, most of these translations are still carried out from European languages, and mostly from English, thereby confirming inequalities in the transnational circuitry of literature.

SWAN: What can writers, scholars and the publishing industry do to further support and promote translation?

Writers / presenters at a literary festival in France.
LS-L: Writers, scholars and the publishing industry could work together towards organizing more literary events to democratize translation and make it more visible to readers. I think incentives like the Festival VO-VF, which has been held every year in Gif-sur-Yvette since 2013, is an excellent platform for translated fiction and translators, for example. (ED's Note: the biennial Festival America also showcases translated literature.)

SWAN: What advice would you give to students who wish to become translators, and what are the main challenges in the field?

LS-L: In all honesty, I’ve found it very difficult to earn a living as a literary translator. I’ve had to diversify my skills and work as a freelance and in-house translator for various companies, doing technical and commercial translations and learning how to use CAT tools, which eventually led me to doing more literary translation. To students who wish to become translators, I would say, however, that with a good deal of perseverance and hard work, all good things come to those who wait.

SWAN: You are currently in talks to translate a Jamaican writer’s novel into French. How do you approach the translation of Creole?

LS-L: I’m very excited about this project which I started working on many years ago as an MA student. At the time, I knew less about Caribbean literature, and going back to this translation makes me approach the original quite differently.

From the beginning, I did not wish to transplant the original Jamaican voices onto another French regional soundscape, let alone silence them. It was equally important for me not to turn Jamaican patois into an ethnolect that would be based on the systematic elision of r’s at the end of words or syllables, a contentious strategy that has been used in French translations to “imitate” black speech patterns. Rather, I’ve come to look at the presence of Creole and the oral dimension of the original as features of a unique Caribbean voice, one that has its own idiosyncratic characteristics, but that also dialogues with other Caribbean voices, with which it shares commonalities. The idea, with this translation, which I hope will be published in the Caribbean, is rather to recreate a sense of pan-Caribbean linguistic and literary continuum. In so doing, I hope francophone readers can get a sense of the polyphone and porous nature of the “French” voice in the translation.

SWAN: How do you regard the current increased interest in translation, and what are your plans for future projects?

LS-L: I’m very pleased to note a certain interest in translation and hope that Caribbean literature and Caribbean Studies at large will benefit from this trend. I would certainly be very happy to continue contributing in any way that I can to the circulation of Caribbean texts in the region and beyond. I think that this is particularly important for the circulation of Caribbean theoretical texts, for instance. Otherwise, besides doing a joint-translation of a Reunionese novel into English with a friend of mine, I am currently working on a new research project that examines the book industry and/in the Caribbean ecosystem from a decolonial perspective. (Copyright SWAN)

This series is being done in association with The Caribbean Translation Project, an initiative to promote the translation of literature from and about the Caribbean. (Twitter: @CaribTranslate)

Tuesday 1 September 2020


Even as their income dries up and their touring opportunities disappear because of the Covid-19 pandemic, some artists are using their work to call out injustice, criticize inept leaders and spark social change.

The members of Megative - a Brooklyn-based, reggae-dub-punk collective - are among those aiming to fight negative global currents, and they’re doing so through edgy, scorching music.

The members of Megative, with Gus van Go (far left).
Photo copyright: Daviston Jeffers
“I think activism is the most important thing we have right now in 2020. It’s do or die right now for humanity. The injustice absolutely must end, and it will not end with silence,” says music producer Gus van Go, leader and co-founder of the group.

In a year of uncertainty and division, Megative stands out for its multicultural composition as well as its fusion of styles and thought-provoking lyrics. This past July, watching the incompetence of certain heads of state in the face of the  pandemic, the group released the song The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum, a cover of the Fun Boy Three hit from the early Eighties, combining dub and punk music. (Clip:

The original was a critique of the Ronald Reagan-Margaret Thatcher era, and Megative thinks the track is just as pertinent in 2020, with the current presence of problematic leaders on both sides of the Atlantic.

“We still believe the message is important, and it’s almost more relevant now,” van Go told SWAN in a telephone interview from Montréal, Canada, where he grew up, and where he has a studio along with one in Brooklyn.

The group was due to take their songs on the road - scheduled to perform at “five or six festivals” in France, for instance - but the pandemic has caused all these events to be cancelled. The musicians now find themselves, like so many other artists, struggling to maintain an income and to keep their overall work going.

“I think Covid-19 is exposing something that I’ve always thought about in the music industry,” said van Go. “So much inequality. We’ve always had this one percent of artists who have been insanely rich … and the rest of us are working our asses off, in order to eke out a living.”

The cover of Megative's first album.
He explained that with the massive decline in album sales over the past decade, musicians had turned to touring in order to “just barely make a living - travelling together in a shitty old van”. But now even that has dried up with the global health crisis.

“Covid has shone this giant light on it,” he added. “The universe took away the one single piece of the pie that the artist still had. All of a sudden, nearly every single musician cannot make a cent. One day, the universe just said ‘no you cant have that’. There is no income for all these artists. You see how dangerous it is to have just one source of income? Do we not need music in this world? What if Covid continues for two or three years, what if this goes on for multiple years?”

He said it’s time for artists to band together and demand change - in their industries, communities and countries. “Megative supports activism,” he declared.

Discussing the origins of the group, van Go said the idea for the collective grew out of an overnight drive from New Mexico to California that he took with fellow musician Tim Fletcher 10 years ago. There were only two CDS available in the car - Combat Rock by The Clash, and More Specials by the 2 Tone and ska revival band The Specials, both English. The sounds got van Go thinking about the “conscious lyrics” and the history of the musical styles and their influences.

“We have a love for Jamaican reggae and dub culture of the early Eighties with bands like Steel Pulse and The Clash. But reggae in North America, where we are from, is associated with vacation spots, coconut trees and irie vibes. We were lamenting the darker reggae of the early Eighties. Our Clash discussion morphed into how a reggae band would look in 2018,” he said.

Back in New York, they invited a producing-engineering duo called Likeminds and Jamaican MC Screechy Dan to join the conversation. The enthusiasm for the project was so strong that they recorded three songs which almost immediately led to a signing with Last Gang Records and the subsequent release of their debut album in summer 2018.

Megative - trying to drum against
negative currents. Photo: D. Jeffers
The collective now brings together disparate artists including the Grammy-nominated Likeminds (Chris Soper and Jesse Singer); Jamaican-born singer, MC and dancehall veteran Screechy Dan; singer-guitarist and punk rocker Alex Crow; percussionist-DJ-singer JonnyGo Figure; and the rising Brooklyn drummer Demetrius “Mech” Pass.

All the members have their own individual projects but contribute their respective skills to create the Megative sound – a fusion of UK-style punk, Jamaican dub and reggae, and American hip-hop. The music is a response to today’s world, to everything that’s happening including the “hyper-noise of incessant information”, according to the collective.

The overarching theme is existentialist angst amidst precarious conditions. Tracks such as Have Mercy, Bad Advice and More Time call upon listeners to take control and rely on their own sense of what’s right, with lyrics set against dub beats and a punk vibe, and skilful singing mixed with mindful rapping.

For van Go, born Gustavo Coriandoli in Argentina and raised in Canada, the historical alliance between punk and reggae was central to Megative’s formation. He recalls growing up in Montréal in the late 1980s and early 90s, when the “punk rock movement was taking hold” among the youth.

“The shows had trouble finding venues, so they always tried to rent space … and sometimes that would be at Jamaican community centres. All these punks would be at these shows, but also the Rastafarian community. So, dub music was playing. I was 16, had never heard dub, had never been been to a punk show, so it fused in my brain,” he told SWAN.

Don Letts' autobiography.
Similar congregations or collaborations in the UK had led Bob Marley to release Punky Reggae Party in 1977, a reflection of the bridging of cultural divides; and punk-dub pioneer Don Letts wrote about the movement in his 2006 autobiography Culture Clash: Dread Meets Punk Rockers.

“It’s all about social message – in punk and reggae, so they’re natural allies or they should be,” said van Go. “There’s a positivity but also a dark side. I love the energy that this creates, in punk and reggae and in early hiphop.”

When asked about Megative's views on the current discussion around cultural appropriation in the arts, van Go answered: "This is an ongoing discussion with us, and we really encourage dialogue on the subject." He added that the group takes a multicultural approach to creating music, as can be seen from their output so far.

Regarding the future of the collective, van Go said Megative planned to continue producing music with a cause, and to get back to touring when possible. They are currently "writing new material" but aren't certain in which format(s) it will be released. 

“Like nothing else can, I think music can definitely help heal,” van Go told SWAN. “We have to topple these terrible people who are in power right now. We have to find concrete ways to end systemic racism. Music has to play a part as it did in the Sixties. It needs to.”

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale