Belgium's African MuseumA couple days ago I wrote about the eclectic "packratism" of one Sir John Sloane of nineteenth century London. I referred to it as a museum curator's nightmare. Well, since then I've found a museum curator's worst nightmare. Imagine an art museum where most of the best pieces are listed as "anonymous." Imagine a museum where, instead, only the names of donors are listed. Imagine a museum where most of the art is stolen. Imagine a museum whose collection and presentation is so outdated that the only contemporary work is displayed in the attic. Imagine a museum that is an embarrassment to its country. That museum is located in Tervuren, Belgium. It's called the Royal Museum for Central Africa. On the one hand, it's a treasure chest displaying the remarkable depth and diversity of art garnered from the huge Congo River basin. On the other hand, the whole enterprise is an antiquated monument to the most brutal colonial empire ever to infest the African continent.
The museum was founded in 1897 by Belgium's King Leopold II to drum up support within his country for colonial expansion along the vast tributaries of the Congo River basin. Its aims were artistic, political, and scientific. Positioned in its marble entrance hall are three large, gilt statues, Belgium Bringing Security to the Congo, Belgium Bringing Civilisation to the Congo, and Belgium Bringing Well-being to the Congo. Each depicts white men or women heroically lifting the "noble savages" of equatorial Africa from tribal darkness into the "light" of modern times. This initial presentation says a lot about the moral mindset of the museum as it dictates the tone for nearly everything else seen within. Nowhere within the 20 exhibition halls of the museum's vast, Beaux Arts edifice is there even the slightest hint of the millions of Congolese natives who died (some say as many as TEN million) in the brutal, slave-driven colonial empire Belgium ruled in Central Africa for seventy-five years. The museum is an ageing anachronism, an outrage to Europeans of African decent, and an embarrassment even to modern Belgians. The museum has come to be an acute symbol of the failure of the Belgian people to come to grips with the horrifying details of their country's colonial domination of black Africa.
Belgium gave up its colonial empire in 1961, installing Mobutu Sese Seko as puppet dictator. He ruled for several decades, during which time he renamed the country Zaire. He was succeeded by Lauren Kabila who was recently assassinated. His son now rules the country (for the moment at least). Except for its most recent exhibition, "Exitcongomuseum," (the show in the attic), the displays in the Royal Museum of Central Africa have remained largely unchanged since 1961. A few months ago, a travelling exhibit of African artefacts returned after a much-heralded four years "on the road" to museums all over the world. Of the 125 items included, all but one item was labelled as being by an anonymous artist. At the same time, the tags accompanying each item list an embarrassing litany of military, political, and ecclesiastical donors who had "expropriated" the items from various tribal factions they'd encountered during their stays in the Belgian Congo (then apparently donated the items to the museum to assuage their consciences). In a country extremely sensitive to the theft of Jewish art by Nazis during the WW II era, no one raises an eyebrow with regard to the similar theft of African art over nearly three-quarters of a century. The irony is enormous.
"Exitcongomuseum" is a tentative first step as the museum, and indeed all of Belgium, begins to try to come to terms with its "African experience." The show makes no excuses for the looting of African art treasures by trophy-hunting soldiers and by zealous missionaries eager to rid the country of pagan idols, nor for the greed of European collectors hungry for "primitive" artefacts. In one instance, the show's catalogue tells of several villages razed and well over a hundred native Africans herded into slavery during an 1884 raid at which time were acquired a pair of wooden figures displayed in the show. It presents films and TV documentaries detailing Belgium's role in the 1961 killing of independence leader, Patrice Lumumba. A slide presentation illustrates the creeping conquest of the Congo, year by year, as Belgium extended its rule over the area around the turn of the century. The show delves into the enforced obscurity of native African artists and the disregard for individual creativity as Belgium sought to bring "civilisation" to the "dark" continent. More importantly, the show seeks to rectify this lapse by presenting the work of several contemporary Congolese artists. It's a promising first step. Now if the curators can just manage the nightmarish task of getting it down from the attic to replace the dusty, musty stuffed animals in the main halls, maybe the museum can begin making amends for its past role as King Leopold's African propaganda palace.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
4 March 2001