Congo Red


For the Kinshasa Biennale 2020 in RDCongo, I will make a floating air mattress in the form of a space filling model of the Congo red molecule C32H22N6Na2O6S2. I will organize photoshoots featuring the “Congo Red Floating Air Mattress” in swimming pools of major international hotels in Kinshasa such as the Memling and the Pullman. The resulting photographs, the air mattress, and research materials will form the core of my presentation of “Congo Red” in Kinshasa.


Congo red began its life as an extremely valuable textile dye—it was first produced in 1883 by a chemist working for Bayer in Germany, who was looking for textile dyes that did not require a fixative. When Bayer showed no interest in the bright red color, the chemist filed the patent under his own name and sold it to AGFA based in Berlin. AGFA marketed the dye under the name “Congo Red”, a catchy name in Germany at the time of the 1884 Berlin West Africa Conference, which marked the climax of the European competition for territory in Africa—a process commonly known as the Scramble for Africa. The dye was a gigantic commercial success and in the following years, for the same reason, other dyes were marketed using the “Congo” label: Congo rubine, Congo corinth, brilliant Congo, Congo orange, Congo brown, and Congo blue.

Once of economic significance, Congo red has fallen into disuse as have all benzidine-derived dyes, owing to their carcinogenic properties. Only Congo blue is still used as the name of a blue-colored lighting filter for motion picture, theatre, and television productions.

References: D.P. Steensma, Arch Pathol Lab Med—Vol 125, February 2001, Wikipedia, Oxford reference, Molecule of the Month January 2016 Bristol University.