Cyril Kongo’s Come Up: ‘I Just Wanted to Be Recognised’

The graffiti artist, whose practice expanded into other media and collaborations with Karl Lagerfeld, Hermès, and Airbus, is the subject of a survey show at Seoul’s Museum Wave.

Cyril Kongo’s Come Up: ‘I Just Wanted to Be Recognised’

Cyril Kongo with designs by Chanel that drew on his paintings. Installation view, GRAFFITI ALCHEMIST: Cyril Kongo’s Journey of Knowledge and Chromatic Craft (14 March–1 June, 2024), at Museum Wave, Seoul.

Born to a Vietnamese father and a French mother in 1969, Cyril Phan grew up in Vietnam and spent a period in his teens living in Brazzaville. When he began throwing graffiti on the walls of Paris, he took the name Kongo.

‘I’m half Asian and half European,’ he said. ‘Taking the name Kongo was my way of speaking to universal humanity.’

Feeling connected to other people was especially important to Kongo as a highschool student in Paris, where he was a foreigner and an outsider.

‘When I was a teenager, I was a political refugee. My concern was to be recognised. Graffiti became my voice,’ he said.

Installation view, GRAFFITI ALCHEMIST: Cyril Kongo's Journey of Knowledge and Chromatic Craft (14 March–1 June, 2024), at Museum Wave, Seoul.

Installation view, GRAFFITI ALCHEMIST: Cyril Kongo’s Journey of Knowledge and Chromatic Craft (14 March–1 June, 2024), at Museum Wave, Seoul.

He went on to paint murals and more from Rio de Janeiro—’I don’t speak Portuguese but they understood my work’—to Bali, where he now lives.

Graffiti features prominently in Kongo’s exhibition GRAFFITI ALCHEMIST: Cyril Kongo’s Journey of Knowledge and Chromatic Craft (14 March–1 June, 2024), which opened this week at Museum Wave in Seoul.

In addition to his paintings, which include not just spray paint but brushwork in oil and acrylic, the exhibition includes Hermès scarves and Chanel dresses that feature his work. Kongo has also designed an interior for the Airbus ACJ TwoTwenty business jet, and is currently working on a carbon-fibre yacht.

Installation view, GRAFFITI ALCHEMIST: Cyril Kongo's Journey of Knowledge and Chromatic Craft (14 March–1 June, 2024), at Museum Wave, Seoul.

Installation view, GRAFFITI ALCHEMIST: Cyril Kongo’s Journey of Knowledge and Chromatic Craft (14 March–1 June, 2024), at Museum Wave, Seoul.

For our interview, Kongo proudly reps his creations, wearing one of the Hermès scarves around his neck and a tourbillon watch he co-designed with Swiss luxury watchmaker Richard Mille on his wrist.

For Kongo, it’s important that he connects with and learns from skilled craftspeople during these partnerships.

‘I don’t collaborate with brands; I collaborate with knowhow,’ he said.

A Chanel dress incorporating painting by Cyril Kongo. Photo: Audiran Sarzier, December 2019.

A Chanel dress incorporating painting by Cyril Kongo. Photo: Audiran Sarzier, December 2019.

Among his collaborations, Kongo’s time working with Karl Lagerfeld stands out. He stayed in the Chanel designer’s house and worked in his studio for several months. Chanel purchased 15 of his works, which they drew on for works in the Metiers d’Art collection that debuted at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018.

‘I really enjoyed being with Mr Lagerfeld,’ Kongo said. ‘To share the last months of his life, to eat with him each breakfast. He was full of advice, kindness, and humour.’

While Kongo has had an enduring art career, he was awed by Lagerfeld’s indefatigability.

‘From the window of his studio, I could see his apartment. At 2am he was still drawing the next collection at 85 years old.’ —[O]

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