Located right outside Brussels is one of the most (if not the most) controversial museums of Brussels –the royal museum for central Africa. Since it opened its doors to the public, it has sparked a lot of discussions, arguments and debates.
The museum was commissioned by King Leopold II to store the collected, mostly stolen, art works from Congo. During Leopold’s reign, he unhesitatingly plundered and exploited Central Africa, which lead to the killing of about 10 million people in forced labour, violence and illness. The museum, designed by architect Charles Girault, was built for the glorification of King Leopold II and his ‘successful’ colonisation of Congo. It is a legacy that is difficult to unearth.
After visiting the museum for a school project, I could see with my naked eyes why it had triggered lots of debates.
To my surprise, the museum was packed with racial images and sculptors of Africans as wild and sexualized creatures –for example a naked African female dancing and a masked African gentleman with a leopard skin coming to attack another man on the ground – it unveils the abusive colonization of Central Africa.
As an African this made me extremely uncomfortable. Most Belgians however see the collection as ordinary art, but don’t know how it was acquired, the emotions and the real tales behind it. They don’t know how ruthless Leopold was because it was never profoundly was taught in the schools. Also, you often hear people talk more about the good aspects than bad aspects of colonisation. People do not take the whole picture into account. You never hear anyone talk about the positives and negatives of the Nazi system.
leopard skin man: nytimes.com
The museum has been renovated to change the racial image that it projects. There are now rooms that enable the Belgian African community to tell a story. A “living” exhibition has now been introduced with for the first time works by ten contemporary African artists.
Also, the problem with the 1600 colonial Belgian names engraved on the marble wall, for example, has been creatively ‘solved’ by a work of art by Freddy Tshimba. On a frame facing the carved names, Tshimba has now carved the names of the dead Congolese males and females, and with the help of light is able to launch the names of the seven first Congolese citizens who died in Belgium and those who died in the human zoo established by Leopold.
The most outstanding piece of art in the building is at the main entrance, where architect Mpane Aimé has designed a large human head in the form of Africa opposite shiny colonial golden sculptures that encircles the building.
The board reads that it is precisely placed there to ‘defy’ the contemptuous and race-like sculptures that surrounds it. Nevertheless, this tiny board does not explain the way in which this ‘African’ head defies the golden statues in the marble alcoves. Additionally, this work of art is intrinsically not powerful enough to convey that statement in a clear and unambiguous way.
Even though it is called the royal museum for central Africa, it is by no means a museum for or of present-day Congo, neither for Congolese or African communities of diasporas in Belgium.
african head surrounded by golden colonial images: brusselstimes.com