Belgian Museum Looks At Country's History Of Colonialism And Racism

Sep 2, 2018
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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Belgium is confronting a legacy of colonialism and racism. In the 19th century, King Leopold appropriated Congo as his personal colony. Millions of Africans were killed, enslaved or died of disease. The Royal Museum of Central Africa (ph) outside Brussels long hid that ugly history. Now, after a massive renovation, the Congolese will finally tell their own stories. Here's Joanna Kakissis with this weekend's Long Listen.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in foreign language).

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Nearly every evening, Congolese novelists, cartoonists and singers gather at Inzia, a restaurant in a Brussels neighborhood called Matonge. It's a neighborhood settled by Congolese immigrants. And it's where 49-year-old visual artist Aime Mpane finds inspiration for his work.

AIME MPANE: (Through interpreter) My work asks a lot of questions about the memory of colonialism. I want to know my identity and my real history.

KAKISSIS: Mpane's history and his art will play a part in this story.

(CROSSTALK)

KAKISSIS: He grew up in Congo. But in high school, he learned history from a teacher who used Belgian textbooks.

MPANE: (Through interpreter) We were taught King Leopold was honorable and important. We were told we were descended from the Gauls, that they were our kings.

KAKISSIS: Mpane was skeptical. Then he moved to Belgium in 1994 to study art. And he wanted to know how the Belgians saw the Congolese. He found the Royal Museum of Central Africa in a village near Brussels called Tervuren. Inside were statues depicting the king and European missionaries as heroes. Africans were shown as savages or as children clinging to the robes of white men.

MPANE: (Through interpreter) It struck me that our history has been confiscated, that when our children come here, they would not see a positive image of themselves.

KAKISSIS: He didn't yet know the whole ugly story.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

KAKISSIS: Growing up in Belgium, even the museum's director, Guido Gryseels, didn't know it.

GUIDO GRYSEELS: We went to school. A lot of our teachers were former missionaries. So the education that we got was that Belgium brought civilization to Congo, that we did nothing but good in Congo, that, you know, King Leopold was the founder of the Congo.

KAKISSIS: They didn't know the whole truth because the king burned most of his colonial documents. Over the years, journalists and historians pieced together damning accounts from other sources. At least four million Congolese died under Leopold's rule from violence, disease and starvation. Aime Mpane read the accounts with horror. He thought about the museum filled with statues depicting heroic white men.

MPANE: (Through interpreter) I thought to myself, they believe this is normal. I was shocked that people could think this was normal.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

KAKISSIS: The Royal Museum of Central Africa began as a temporary exhibition in 1897 on the woods of Leopold's country estate. The most talked about portion was a mock African village. The king displayed 267 Congolese men, women and children there behind a fence.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "KING LEOPOLD'S GHOST")

KAKISSIS: In a documentary based on his book "King Leopold's Ghost," author Adam Hochschild describes what it was like for the Congolese on display.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "KING LEOPOLD'S GHOST")

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: When Leopold heard that some of them were getting sick because of candy they were eating that was tossed to them by the crowd, he put up the equivalent of a don't-feed-the-animals sign at a zoo, saying the blacks are fed by the organizing committee.

KAKISSIS: Seven Congolese died of pneumonia and influenza at this human zoo. Belgium built another mock African village at the 1958 Brussels world fair. Zana Etambala is a historian at the museum. He says Europeans crowded around the fenced-in Congolese.

ZANA ETAMBALA: They were throwing bananas and peanuts to them. And the Congolese protested against that. They wanted to be respected and not be seen as animals in a zoo.

KAKISSIS: Attitudes did change, but the museum remained stuck in the 1950s. So it was faced with a decision - stay the same or tell the whole story. Guido Gryseels was brought in to make that decision.

GRYSEELS: They brought me here to just reform it. And obviously, our colonial past is something that we have to deal with.

KAKISSIS: There are ex-colonialists in their 70s and 80s who believe they helped Congo. They learned local languages and married Congolese. Belgian diplomat Renier Nijskens represents them.

RENIER NIJSKENS: They felt like a father who were take good care of kids. And the kids would grow. And when the kids will be adult, he will fly his own wings and go away. And they had this sense that it was a normal course of history. No, no, no. No.

KAKISSIS: The Congolese living in Belgium are appalled by this paternalism. Some want to close King Leopold's museum or cut him out altogether.

CESARINE SINATU BOLYA: King Leopold was a madman. Colonization is a bad moment.

KAKISSIS: Art curator Cesarine Sinatu Bolya works with a non-profit that records oral histories from the Congolese.

SINATU BOLYA: (Speaking French).

KAKISSIS: She switches to French and insists that the museum cannot decolonize unless Congolese are in charge of it. In the end, there was compromise. It took five years and cost nearly $90 million. But the renovation is almost finished. Some of the old exhibits remain, but they come with explanations about Leopold's brutality. There's a new building that includes exhibits on Congolese history and culture.

GRYSEELS: This gallery will be about the language of music in Africa.

KAKISSIS: Museum director Guido Gryseels shows me around the galleries.

GRYSEELS: So here they'll be able to bring their own memories and archives. They themselves will fill up this gallery.

KAKISSIS: The old colonial statues are no longer front and center. Contemporary African art is everywhere.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Laughter).

KAKISSIS: Which brings us back to Aime Mpane, the Congolese visual artist. Gryseels encouraged him to participate.

MPANE: (Through translator) I didn't want to. I didn't think it would do any good. But then I was told about a competition to replace King Leopold's statue with an original work.

KAKISSIS: Aime Mpane won the competition with a monumental sculpture of a human rising from roots and looking to the sky. It's called Congo, New Breath. And when the museum reopens at the end of this year, it will be the main statue visitors see. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Tervuren, Belgium. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.