Exhibition pulls colonial monuments out of the shadows
Antwerp artist Jan Kempenaers’ photographs of colonial monuments in Belgium, both well-known and overlooked, continue the debate about how this dark past should be represented
Antwerp-based Jan Kempenaers voiced the idea while discussing his images of 40 colonial-related monuments, which are currently on exhibition at the Mu.ZEE museum in Ostend. “The question is: What are we going to do with them? Leave them? Explain them? We could let them go to ruin.”
Or they could all go to the Africa Museum in Tervuren. “There’s space enough,” says Kempenaers, “and then create a publication explaining the history.”
Moving the “disgraceful” monuments to the park is an idea that’s been circulating for a while, says art historian and curator Anne Wetsi Mpoma, who campaigns for the decolonisation of public spaces in collaboration with organisations such as Bamko-cran. “Why not? Provided that this displacement is accompanied by a real campaign of information and education on the colonial history and on the realities – the atrocities often underlying the history of these monuments.”
Education is key, she emphasises, or such collections risks becoming “another invitation to come and celebrate racist folklore”.
The question of how to “decolonise” Belgium’s public spaces has long been debated. There have been calls to take down statues of the “mass murderer” Leopold II, who made the Congo Free State his own personal fiefdom in 1865.
It remained as such until the Belgian state took over in 1908 and ruled until independence in 1960. The policies of both have had ramifications that go way beyond the most overtly oppressive era.
Consensus has yet to be reached over what should happen to monuments and other tributes – such as street names – which, arguably, celebrate a period that killed an estimated 10 million Congolese people, brutalised countless others and pillaged the country by extracting vast amounts of natural resources.
When I went to school, they didn’t talk about it. It’s amazing that they don’t talk about this part of Belgian history
A few actions have been taken. Some monuments have had contextual plaques added; a Brussels square was named after Patrice Lumumba, first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who was assassinated with the complicity of the Belgian state.
And Tervuren’s Africa Museum was reopened last year after extensive work to try to recalibrate the narrow, uncritical story it told. The results, though, have faced criticism from some in the Congolese community.
Many have called for the story of this dark period in Belgium’s history to be taught properly as part of the school curriculum. Kempenaers started looking into the subject after visiting his brother in Bremen, Germany, and seeing a museum’s historical video of a stone elephant that was labelled as being from “our colonies”.
“Because I photograph a lot of monuments, I wanted to photograph that one,” he says. He found it, but the sculpture was unlabelled, and the name of the park changed to Nelson Mandela park.
“I started to wonder about similar monuments in Belgium. Many of them you hardly look at as you pass by.”
He read up on the subject. “It was very interesting because when I went to school they didn’t talk about it. It’s amazing that they don’t talk about this part of Belgian history.”
He then spent about a year travelling the country and capturing images of statues, monuments, busts and obelisks – both the infamous and the obscure – in various locations, from hidden local streets to public parks and major thoroughfares.
They include statues of King Leopold II, missionaries, army personnel, politicians and Congolese people as seen through the Belgian eyes of the era. In Blankenberge, a naked Congolese woman is placed at the feet of two Belgian soldiers, Lieutenant Jozef Lippens and Sergeant Henri-August De Bruyne, who are said to have “died a hero’s death for civilisation”.
It’s strange that they still build this kind of stuff in the 21st century
One of the most jarring monuments, agrees Kempenaers, is that of a double-headed statue in Mechelen, said to represent the Congolese people who “gave their lives for civilisation”.
Some – such as a monument to murdered missionary Father Désiré Pellens, in Neerpelt, Limburg – were erected relatively recently, Kempenaers discovered. “It’s strange that they still build this kind of stuff in the 21st century,” says the artist, who has produced several books and also teaches photography at the Kask School of Arts in Ghent.
The Africa Museum “garden of monuments” idea is similar to a project in Moscow, where more than 700 relics of the Soviet era were gathered and placed together in a city park, he points out.
It’s not the first time his artistic gaze has landed on monuments of a bygone era. One of his most significant works was a project photographing large-scale monuments in the former Yugoslavia – a few images of which appear alongside his current Mu.ZEE exhibition.
Collectively known as Spomeniks, these vast modernist structures were built between the 1950s and 1990s, during Tito’s Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Interpretations vary, but in general they were constructed to honour the people’s resistance struggle during the Second World War, and those remaining are dotted all over the landscape.
Kempenaers published a book on Spomeniks, which led to something of a resurgence in interest, including the publication of an online database, an Instagram page with more than 19,000 followers, and more people visiting the sites.
The story of the Spomeniks is coming to the public’s attention again, but Kempenaers’ images – as is the case with his work on Belgian colonial monuments – are unaccompanied by explanatory text, leaving the viewer to come to their own conclusions. “My main thing is making an interesting image,” he says. “I’m not a writer.”
But, there are consequences to his work, he adds, “and that happened with the project in the former Yugoslavia. It was good to see people become interested, and these guys are doing research on them now. Maybe someone should do that with this?”
Jan Kempenaers: Colonial Monuments in Belgium, until 13 October, Mu.ZEE, Romestraat 11, Ostend