Howard Greenberg Gallery opened its Online Viewing Room to Pieter Henkel’s Congo Tales, which explores cultural mythologies of the local inhabitants of the Congo Basin, containing some of the largest tropical rainforests in the world. The 2017 series has rarely been exhibited, and this is the first time the work is on view through a U.S. gallery.
A renowned portrait photographer, Henket achieved acclaim for his work with Lady Gaga, Eddie Redmayne, and Mary J. Blige, among others. Drawing on his mastery of lighting and mise en scène, Congo Tales presents the personal and collective stories of the people living in the Mbomo region of the Congo Basin in central Africa. The stories, which have linked generations together, have been translated into imagery for the first time by Henket who worked closely with the villagers and a team of researchers and conservationists. The project was spearheaded by the environmental activist group Tales of Us, which broadens global awareness of the cultural diversity of the most ecologically vital regions on the planet. The book Congo Tales was published in 2018 by Prestel.
The Congo Basin, the second largest tropical rainforest in the world next to the Amazon, has never occupied a prominent position in the global debate about climate change. Tales of Us attempts to correct this deficiency of awareness by drawing attention to both the importance of the Congo Basin itself, the persistent threats it faces via deforestation, and to the people who call the forest home, for whom it is a source of deep collective meaning.
In 2015, shortly after agreeing to collaborate with Tales of Us, Henket travelled to the Mbomo region to find his bearings and to develop some understanding of what working in that landscape would entail. Alongside Eva Vonk, a Dutch producer; Steve Regis “Kovo” N’Sondé, a Congolese artist and philosopher; and his brother Wilfried N’Sondé, a Congolese writer and musician, Henket developed relationships with the people of the region, collecting and organizing stories, which, historically, had only been communicated and passed along through oral tradition. Once the selection of stories had been made, Henket and the team worked with the villagers to determine which scenes and details to emphasize most in their photographic re-telling.
Over a period of 17 days in November of 2017, Henket, with the villagers as the actors, created multi-image representations of their stories, which communicate cosmic meaning and situational morality in equal measure. Whether needing to work in a remote terrain or deep in the rainforest, the stories were all treated with great sensitivity, and re-created through Henket’s intricately structured and richly-lit photographic tableaux.
Stories once confined to a single family’s history have been connected with those from other families, and those with the village and region as a whole. With the despoiling of the Congo Basin an omnipresent threat, the urgency for those living near the forest to stay and defend it has never been greater.
Born into a family of artists, Henket’s early fascination with film and photography was bolstered when he moved to New York City in 1998 to enroll in a three-month documentary filmmaking course at New York University. Soon thereafter he began interning for the director Joel Schumacher, where Henket learned staging and production. Time spent experimenting in the studio and doing portraits of friends and strangers in equal measure resulted in editorial work for magazines such as Esquire. His photograph of Lady Gaga was used for the album cover of “The Fame” (2008), which sold over 15 million copies worldwide. The photograph was included in the exhibition American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 2010. In 2012 he photographed the Carnaval de Rio, a Brazilian carnival taking place every year in San Luis, a city in the mountains of Argentina. The work, Stars to the Sun, resulted in a book and several exhibitions, which led to a relationship with the environmental activist group Tales of Us.
Henket is the author of The Way I See It (Uitgeverij de Kunst, Uitgeverij Waanders, 2013); Stars to the Sun (Lannoo Publishers, 2014); and Congo Tales (Prestel, 2018). Henket’s work has been the subject of numerous exhibitions at institutions such as the Museum de Fundatie in The Netherlands, and the Museum Barberini in Germany. His work is held in the collection of the Rijksmuseum.
Pieter Henket: Congo Tales will be on view in the Online Viewing Room at Howard Greenberg Gallery through August 5, 2020. Howard Greenberg Gallery is located at 41 East 57th Street, Suite 1406 in the historic Fuller Building, NYC. The gallery is currently closed.