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Friday, August 3, 2012

Belgium's African Art Museum

Belgium's Art Museum of Central Africa
Some time ago I wrote about the eclectic "packratism" of one Sir John Sloane of 19th 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 Imagine a museum whose collection and presentation is so outdated that the only contemporary work is displayed in the attic.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.
Belgium Bringing Security to the Congo
Belgium Bringing Civilization to the Congo

Belgium Bringing Prosperity to the Congo
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 Civilization to the Congo (above, left), Belgium Bringing Security to the Congo (above, right), and Belgium Bringing Prosperity to the Congo (left). 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 aging 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 assassinated. His son, Joseph, has ruled the country since.

Luba Mask, as with so many
of the museum's items, this
one has no meaningful
Except for its exhibition, "Exitcongomuseum," (the show in the attic), the displays in the Royal Museum of Central Africa have changed only slightly since 1961. A travelling exhibit of African artifacts 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.

Few Royal Museum anthropologist worked in the field during the early 20th century. Soldiers, missionaries, and colonial administrators were responsible for acquiring objects for the museum. It was left to scientists in other fields, such as zoologist G. De Witte, seen here in 1931, to carefully record information on items they collected.
The irony is enormous. "Exitcongomuseum" was a tentative first step as the museum, and indeed all of Belgium, began to try to come to terms with its "African experience." The show made 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" artifacts. In one instance, the show's catalogue told 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. The show presented films and TV documentaries detailing Belgium's role in the 1961 killing of independence leader, Patrice Lumumba. A slide presentation illustrated 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 delved into the enforced obscurity of native African artists and the disregard for individual creativity as Belgium sought to bring "civilization" to the "dark" continent. The show sought to rectify this lapse by presenting the work of several contemporary Congolese artists. It was a promising first step. Now if the curators could 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 could begin making amends for its past role as King Leopold's African propaganda palace.

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