To some, he is a photographer. Others define him as a painter. Still others insist he is a filmmaker or a new media artist.

Rodney Kimbangu, who received the Outstanding Master's Student Award from the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design and graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in creative technologies in May, explains that he is all of these.

"I am an artist who lets content dictate which medium is best suited for the work," Kimbangu said. "For example, in looking for a way to to dispel a narrative that too often perceives Africans in a negative light, I have an ongoing project in which I’ve chosen to photograph beautifully attired Africans in a way that reflects their humanity.”

Artistic beginning

Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kimbangu started finger drawing on the sand as a young child. He had no idea he was or would ever become an artist.

"Growing up, I was fascinated by taking toys apart and putting them back together," he said. "I wanted to build aircraft and machines and knew I would need to study engineering to make that happen."

In high school, his curiosity knew no bounds: ceramics, sculpting, painting, drawing, dance, photography, graphic design, 3D modeling, video editing, web development, and even acting. All of these influence his current work.

While pursuing an associate's degree in civil engineering in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he began freelancing as an artist, diving deeper into video and filmmaking. In 2016, a Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders allowed him the opportunity to come to the United States. He studied business and entrepreneurship at Dartmouth College before pursuing a bachelor's degree in painting and film production at Berea College.

In his junior year, he was awarded a grant to attend a summer filmmaking program at the New York Film Academy's Los Angeles campus. Berea also honored him by inaugurating the Rodney Kimbangu Achievement Award for Excellence in Film Production while he was still a student. He was nearing graduation from Berea when he learned about Virginia Tech's Master of Fine Arts in creative technologies.  

Virginia Tech as a place to grow

"Virginia Tech was exactly what I had been looking for all along because it offered me a perfect way to mesh my engineering background with my artistic interests," he said. "My experience at Virginia Tech helped me grow as an artist because it boosted my confidence in accepting my being transdisciplinary without the fear of being regarded as a charlatan. I have grown to accept that when someone is really good at what they do, it does not matter if that is the only thing they excel at or if it is one of many. The work always speaks for itself."

In 2022, he received the NMC Judson — Morrissey Excellence in New Media Award. This scholarship, offered by the New Media Caucus, is given to a select group of students of color from across the country who work in new media art.

That same year, Kimbangu collaborated with Qingwan "Cecelia" Cheng, a student from Boston College, to win a Smithsonian-sponsored ACCelerate Student Fellowship. In 2023, they were invited to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History to present the results of their work to representatives of ACCelerate and the National Endowment for the Arts Research Lab.

"Our project involved digitizing displaced Indigenous artifacts coupled with a curriculum that would not only introduce elementary school age children to these works of art but also show them how digitization works and instill a seed of social justice and repatriation in the minds of these future leaders," Kimbangu said. 

Toward the end of 2022, Kimbangu secured a Student Initiated Research Grant from the College of Architecture, Art, and Design to support his thesis, which expands on the idea of using evolving technology and coding to "softly" repatriate displaced artifacts.

Kimbangu's thesis, "Past, Present, Future: Repatriation of African Art via Virtual Realities," was included in an art installation in the Cube a day after he graduated from Virginia Tech. He put displaced Congolese and African artwork into their original cultural context through virtual reality and projection mapping.

"These artifacts – sometimes stolen outright, sometimes obtained through imbalanced terms of trade, and sometimes obtained by fair trade – often appear in exhibits as disembodied objects devoid of explanation or reinterpreted through the conceptions of the exploiters," said Kimbangu. "By challenging the viewer's culturally conditioned thinking regarding artwork 'consumption,' I want to start a conversation about physical repatriation and provide a model that Congolese scholars and artists can use to preserve and reclaim their cultural heritage."

James Kiscaden, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in creative technologies in May, attended the exhibition of Kimbangu's work in the Cube.

"What I literally saw is a sort of fantasy-oriented setting with very real sculptures that came from Earth,” he said. “It is a fascinating contrast between dreamlike structures that you know are not quite real. But then you look at these statues, and you say, 'Oh, those look like they came from human hands,' and that pulls your attention to the statues and makes you want to ask more questions about them."

people using virtual reality around an art installation

people using virtual reality around an art installation
Rodney Kimbangu’s thesis exhibition in the Cube in May, "Past, Present, Future: Repatriation of African Art via Virtual Realities," presented displaced Congolese and African artwork into their original cultural context through virtual reality and projection mapping. Virginia Tech photo

"Rodney is on track for an amazing career in creativity and scholarship alike," said Rachel Lin Weaver, director of the M.F.A. program in creative technologies and associate professor in the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design. "His pursuits are ambitious, mature, timely, inclusive, innovative, and poignant. He combines advanced creative technologies with personal ethical commitments to confront the violence of racist colonial histories and legacies of cultural loss and imagine better futures."

Weaver also praised Kimbangu's hands-on contributions to faculty projects and support of efforts across the School of Visual Arts; the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT); and Virginia Tech more broadly.

To mention just a few examples, he collaborated with Weaver to facilitate virtual reality workshops at the 2022 New Orleans Film Festival and assisted Thomas Tucker in various capacities for his Senses Swirling exhibition both at Film Gate Miami 2022 and NYU SEAMUS 2023. Kimbangu also was responsible for documenting Celestial Garden, a two-day user-input-based exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. The videos he produced, “Celestial Garden — The build” and “Celestial Garden — The exhibit” are being used by ICAT for promotional purposes.

"Rodney truly embodies the spirit of Ut Prosim," Weaver said.

Future plans

Kimbangu is staying in Blacksburg for the near future, turning his focus to documentary film. In particular, he is creating a more in-depth version of "Lituka," a story of courage, which has already won a number of awards at film festivals.

He will also work with ICAT to explore virtual production, a practice that combines traditional filmmaking with virtual realities, projection mapping, motion capture, and other technologies to create environments and visual effects on a virtual set during the production, rather than in post-production.

"I will continue to embrace as many art forms and media as I can," he said. "Nature, dreams, observing human beings, and a desire to humanize people all influence my work and drive what I create."

man wearing a hat and tie

man wearing a hat and tie
Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rodney Kimbangu found the perfect situation at Virginia Tech and the M.F.A. in creative technologies program where he could mesh his engineering background with his artistic interests. Photo courtesy of Rodney Kimbangu.
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