Monday, January 24, 2011

The search for Congolese art

Finding Congolese art is a bit tricky....first off, I discovered that the universities and museums in the Congo are way less tech-connected as U.S. museums. I know, I know, what was I expecting? Anyways, I tried to figure out what museums would have collections of Congolese art, and I realized that since Belgium was mining the Congo for it's natural resources in the 1800s and early 1900s...certainly they also mined their cultural resources and brought back some items for Belgian musuems. Lo and behold, I stumbled on Belgium's fascinating Royal Museum for Central Africa (formerly known as the Congo Museum).

The museum traces it's roots to the 1897 Brussles International Exposition. King Leopold II used the fair as an opportunity to promote his pet project - The Congo Free State. Leopold had several Congolese villages created for the fair, as well as numerous displays, including one that featured the freshwater fish of the Congo. After the fair, Leopold established the Congo Museum on a site named "Tervuren" that he further developed as his own mini-Versailles complete with Japanese and Chinese pavillions, French gardens, and a conference center.

After Congo's independence in 1960, the museum was renamed to the Royal Musuem for Central Africa, and they extended their field work and collections. The museum collections boast thousands of insect and animal specimens, samples from plants and fish, ethnographic items, film footage, thousands of photographs, and about 4,000 works of art. In describing where their collections came from, they mention "Before 1960, mainly military men, missionaries, colonial administrators, traders and scientists laid the foundation of the current collection. " Hmmmmmmm.....I'm guessing the villagers weren't paid for many if ANY of those pieces...but it sounds like they are totally legit today in the way that they acquire objects.

Today it seems they are attempting to, in some limited ways, initiate dialogue around the complexities of Belgium's relationship with the Congo. They have numerous tours and talks about the Colonial era in the Congo, and they have music making workshops to keep traditional music alive. I was most impressed by some of their cultural partnerships, including one where 15 Belgian artists of Congolese origin are involved in dialogue and related artmaking about topics such as maintaining links to their cultural heritage, how they experience shared history, coping with multiple identities, etc.

Anyways, here's a selection of some of the items that caught my attention from the museum's collections:

This is a mask from the Songye peoples that was "acquired" by the museum around 1910.

This scultpure is typical of many created in the 1930s-1950s. There were some typical poses, such as this one - "the thinker"- that particularly appealed to European taste. The leopardteeth necklace and headress indicated that a chief is being depicted.

The museum asked one photographer to document dwellings such as those in this village.

This village member is playing a flute that the museum purchased
and still has in their collection.

This photograph documents a former French soldier/missionary who stayed on in the Congo and started a family. I love the print of the textile she is wearing!

During the 'interbellum" period there were congolese labor camps that looked like an attempt ad suburbia to me. yikes.

In the 1950s the growing Congolese middle class shopped at European owned stores that were often staffed by Congolese women - one of the few jobs they could find.

So, I still haven't found much about Congolese art in particular, but I have found
an interesting museum! I'll keep digging and see what else I can find!


  1. Perhaps the minimal amount of art/craft from the colonial period is due to the lack of resources left to the indigenous peoples after exploitation by the "mother country". I wouldn't be surprised that anything they made and managed to keep had a very limited lifespan (i.e. 10 years max...)

  2. Hey Nikki ,

    There's also Cheri Samba...........painter extraordinaire and have a look at the beautiful textiles from the area, there are lots of books on the subject.