Con­fronting colo­nial demons

Bel­gium’s Africa Mu­seum reopens, crit­i­cal of coun­try’s im­pe­ri­al­ist past

The Star Malaysia - - World -

TERVUREN ( Bel­gium): Bel­gium’s Africa Mu­seum will re­open to the pub­lic af­ter five years of ren­o­va­tions de­signed to mod­ernise the mu­seum from an ex­hi­bi­tion of pro-colo­nial pro­pa­ganda to one that is crit­i­cal of Bel­gium’s im­pe­ri­al­ist past.

The mu­seum, full of arte­facts and stuffed wildlife, was of­ten crit­i­cised for ig­nor­ing the bru­tal­i­ties of King Leopold II’s fief­dom, whose troops col­lected the hands of those who re­sisted slave labour at a time when mil­lions of Con­golese peo­ple are es­ti­mated to have died.

Many of the arte­facts re­main, but there is more com­men­tary from African peo­ple on video screens, dis­plays by Con­golese artists, one in­clud­ing a 120-mem­ber fam­ily tree, in a bid to cen­tralise Africans rather than Euro­peans.

Colo­nial his­tory is now con­cen­trated in one gallery, rather than dom­i­nat­ing the whole mu­seum, which also deals with cur­rent is­sues fac­ing Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo (DRC) and its di­as­pora.

“We also as­sume our re­spon­si­bil­ity that for more than 60 years, we’ve dif­fused, we’ve dis­sem­i­nated an im­age of a su­pe­rior, west­ern way of think­ing to African cul­tures,” said mu­seum di­rec­tor Guido Gry­seels.

In the large ro­tunda, a statue re­mains of a Euro­pean mis­sion­ary with an African boy clutch­ing his robes with a plaque that reads: “Bel­gium brings civ­i­liza­tion to Congo”.

But now the room is dom­i­nated by a gi­ant wooden sculp­ture of an African man’s head, sculp­tured by an artist born in DRC.

The mu­seum also fea­tures a new en­try pav­il­ion.

Many Bel­gians re­main ig­no­rant of their coun­try’s harsh rule in what is now Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo (DRC) in the late 19th cen­tury. It be­came the set­ting for Joseph Con­rad’s in­flu­en­tial 1899 novella Heart of Dark­ness.

Bel­gium’s colo­nial past made the small Euro­pean coun­try one of the world’s most suc­cess­ful trad­ing economies.

The 66mil (RM312mil) ren­o­va­tion to the Africa mu­seum, set in a pala­tial, neo­clas­si­cal build­ing in a land­scaped park just out­side the cap­i­tal Brus­sels, hopes to con­front Bel­gians with their colo­nial past.

But ac­tivists says that by con­tain­ing stolen arte­facts it rep­re­sents a con­tin­u­a­tion of colo­nial­ism.

“There is no de­coloni­sa­tion with­out resti­tu­tion,” said MireilleTsheusi Robert, who was born in the DRC be­fore mov­ing to Bel­gium, where she au­thored a book on racism.

The de­bate about whether colo­nial-era art should be re­turned home has in­ten­si­fied af­ter French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron promised to re­turn some African art to the con­ti­nent and Ger­many this year pub­lished guide­lines for con­sid­er­ing repa­tri­a­tion.

Gry­seels said the mu­seum was open to re­turn­ing some arte­facts.

King Philippe de­clined an in­vita- tion to at­tend the mu­seum’s in­au­gu­ra­tion yes­ter­day, but Prime Min­is­ter Charles Michel and some min­is­ters will at­tend.

Ac­tivists will hold a sep­a­rate cer­e­mony nearby at the graves of seven Con­golese who died of in­fluenza when they were im­ported for ex­hi­bi­tion in a hu­man zoo. The group is de­mand­ing Bel­gium erect a plaque in re­mem­brance.

A plaque was put up at the lo­ca­tion of the hu­man zoo, while a new ex­hibit in the mu­seum casts the shad­ows of names of Con­golese peo­ple who died in Bel­gium over those of Bel­gians that per­ished in Africa.

— Reuters

Nat­u­ral won­der: Stuffed an­i­mals are seen in Bel­gium’s Africa Mu­seum be­fore its re­open­ing to the pub­lic, af­ter five years of ren­o­va­tions to mod­ernise the mu­seum.

— Reuters

Closer look: A jour­nal­ist view­ing African arte­facts at the mu­seum.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Malaysia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.