"Independance!": The Belgo-Congolese Dispute in the Tervuren Museum

By Bragard, Veronique | Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

"Independance!": The Belgo-Congolese Dispute in the Tervuren Museum


Bragard, Veronique, Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge


I. INTRODUCTION

As I was writing this article, Belgium was celebrating the 50th anniversary of Congolese independence but the country of "Tintin au Congo" is far from having fully entered a postcolonial era of self-criticism, being still trapped in a national myth of glory and civilizing colonialism. Its former Foreign Minister Louis Michel's words that Leopold II was not such an inhuman exploiter ("Leopold II ne merite pas de tels reproches" ["Leopold II does not deserve such criticism"] Le Soir 22.06.2010), or the fact that communities are faced with difficulties when organizing a screening of the film Lumumba for independence celebrations, testify to the country's palpable reluctance to face its colonial past. And yet, the many (post)colonial settings of recent graphic novels or the covering in July 2010 of the statue of Leopold II with a necklace of crocheted chopped hands expose a colonial past that haunts and reaches into the present in strange forms. Contesting the content of Belgium's community-centered debates (Belgium is divided into three linguist communities about to separate), the social anthropologist Bambi Ceuppens is not the first person to notice that "many Belgians pay more attention to Leopold's statues than to the Congolese people living in Belgium" (2007, my translation). If, as we will see, this anniversary has been an opportunity to organize a number of exhibitions and activities around Congolese history and culture, it has remained mostly a cultural/artistic phenomenon that has not raised any significant political debate on how the Congolese community of Belgium is perceived, helped, stereotyped or acknowledged. The king's silence when he attended Congo's official ceremonies is indicative of this lack of engagement with the realities that Congolese people have to face. In the event of such a silence, one must note the growing interest in discussing the Congolese diaspora within the Belgian academia and social spheres.

In an analysis of the presence of Belgium's colonial past in museums, Stephanie Planche and I (2009) have demonstrated how the representation of the colonial past of Belgium revolves around two polarized versions: between imperial nostalgia and incrimination, between politically orientated representations and bric-a-brac accumulation of objects brought back by colonials, and between traditional structures/buildings and innovative creative presentations. As emphasized in our analysis, the main debate focuses on the image of Leopold II, a king whose ghost (1) still oscillates between shame and genius. (2) Adopting a comparative approach to specific museographic representations of Belgium's colonial past, our article argues that confronting and assessing the colonial past of the country reveals the specificity of the postcolonial Belgian context, in which this problematic history has been debated within a broader national identity crisis that is taking overwhelming proportions. Attempting to scrutinize the history of the Congolese diaspora in Belgium, the exhibition "Black Paris--Black Brussels" tackled the question of Congolese migration to Belgium, mostly in a creative fashion. Recent commemoration exhibitions have adopted a similar approach: "Independence" (Tervuren) explores the memory of independence via testimonies and popular culture, Lisolo Na Bisu (notre histoire): le soldat congolais de la force publique focuses on the Congolese soldier in the civil service between 1885 and 1960, Kinshasa Bruxelles: de Matonge a Matonge (Tervuren) exposes the photographs of Jean-Dominique Burton to establish echoes and dialogues between the two neighborhoods (Brussels's and Kinshasa's Matonge situated 6000 km from each other), Ligablo presents popular and symbolic objects that have marked the Congolese imagination since the 1960s, Paul Panda Farnana (by Antoine Tshitungu Kongolo) explores the emblematic figure of Farnana who migrated to Belgium, fought with the Belgian army during WWI, and founded the Union Congolaise de Belgique. …

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