DRC to call for re­turn of art from Bel­gium’s Africa Mu­seum

The Guardian - - WORLD - Daniel Bof­fey

The re­open­ing of Bel­gium’s Africa Mu­seum, a for­mer colo­nial in­sti­tu­tion hold­ing one of the largest col­lec­tions of African art, has led to calls by the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of the Congo for many of its arte­facts to be re­turned.

Joseph Ka­bila, who has been in power in the DRC since his fa­ther’s as­sas­si­na­tion in 2001, said he was seek­ing to bring back art and doc­u­ments so they could be held in a new Con­golese na­tional mu­seum be­ing funded by the South Korean gov­ern­ment.

Bel­gium’s Africa Mu­seum is lo­cated on the out­skirts of Brus­sels, near the site where a “hu­man zoo” of 267 Con­golese men, women and chil­dren was staged on the or­ders of King Leopold in 1897. It has been closed for five years for a €75m (£67m) ren­o­va­tion and “de­coloni­sa­tion” process.

The in­sti­tu­tion was due to re­open to­day in the pres­ence of Bel­gian and Con­golese dig­ni­taries, to tell the story of Africa and its coloni­sa­tion through the eyes of Africans, with a “very crit­i­cal” view of the racist and cruel Bel­gian regime in Congo.

In an in­ter­view with the Bel­gian daily news­pa­per Le Soir, Ka­bila said he would be seek­ing resti­tu­tion of works and doc­u­ments next year. “We are wait­ing for the end of the works and the open­ing of our own mu­seum, in part­ner­ship with South Korea,” Ka­bila told the pa­per. “We will also re­ha­bil­i­tate our mu­seum in Lubum­bashi. The re­quest for resti­tu­tion will ob­vi­ously be on the ta­ble. One month be­fore the end of the work, which is sched­uled for June, there will be an of­fi­cial re­quest.”

Ini­tially called the Mu­seum of the Congo and more re­cently known as the Royal Mu­seum for Cen­tral Africa, Bel­gium’s newly re­named Africa Mu­seum has been rad­i­cally re­mod­elled af­ter nearly a cen­tury in which its per­ma­nent ex­hi­bi­tion barely changed.

Guido Gry­seels, the di­rec­tor gen­eral at the mu­seum, who has been mas­ter­mind­ing the changes, said he was open to the re­turn of works.

“If Congo asks for the re­turn of some ob­jects, I am cer­tainly will­ing to con­sider that. It is not nor­mal that 80% of the African cul­tural her­itage is in Europe. It is ba­si­cally their cul­ture, their iden­tity, their his­tory. We need to have a very open at­ti­tude. The ques­tion is un­der what con­di­tions. How do we de­fine what was legally ac­quired and what was not legally ac­quired?”

▲ Pres­i­dent Joseph Ka­bila is seek­ing the resti­tu­tion of Con­golese arte­facts

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