The spell of the single story about the Congo, its rainforest and its people, was broken on November 15th, 2018, at the launch for Congo Tales (Random House / Prestel) at New York’s iconic Rizzoli Books.
A freak November blizzard descended on the city that morning, interrupting what had been an unseasonably warm New York fall. But the tempest of sleet, ice and snow that made getting to Rizzoli like a scene from The Day After Tomorrow (not to mention hailing a Taxi or getting an Uber impossible) did not stop over 100 of New York’s sharpest in the arts, media, publishing and fashion from showing up to find out everything they don’t know about the Congo Rainforest and the mythology of the Mbomo, and why both should matter to them.
Congo Tales editor and Tales of Us initiator Eva Vonk of Berlin’s Storming Donkey Productions flew in to New York from Chicago where she had just accepted the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival award for Best Short Film for Stefanie Plattner’s direction of The Little Fish and the Crocodile, based on the Mbomo myth recorded for the very first time in Congo Tales. Photographer Pieter Henket joined her to tell the tale of how Congo Tales came to be. (An aura of nervous excitement added electricity to the evening because The New York Times had interviewed them both that morning for an upcoming piece in the Book Review, which would bring the message of Congo Tales to millions.)
With scenes from the Congo Tales making-of documentary playing on a flat screen behind them, Vonk regaled the crowd with the story of how she had the inspiration to help communicate the ecological significance of the Congo Rainforest to the world by curating never-before-recorded mythologies of the Congo Basin; having them acted out by the Mbomo and photographed by a world-renowned celebrity portrait photographer; and publishing them in a book…and, of course, how she convinced the Mbomo to go along with it.
Henket followed with what it was like to leave the controlled settings of professionally-lit studios filled with professional models; head into the heart of the utterly wild and pristine jungle called the Odzala Kokoua National Park; cast shoots using people who had not only never modeled before but had very little concept of or interest in being photographed; shoot fantastic, fantasy-like scenes straight out of Congolese mythologies; and somehow produce Rembrandt-inspired portraits that made the ancient mythos of the Mbomo seem to come alive.
Summing up, Henket concluded emotionally, “it was the most amazing thing I’ve ever done.”
Vonk then asked the crowd, “Does anyone have any questions?”
The rapt looks on the faces of otherwise cynical, seen-it-all New Yorkers spoke volumes to the fact that maybe they had not, indeed, seen it all.
A flurry of questions followed — about the Mbomo, how they live, how they are allowed or not allowed on to protected areas of their own home, how the Congo rainforest prevents global warming, on and on — showing that the single story of the Congo, had, indeed, been changed.
Rizzoli sold out of Congo Tales that night.