written by Viola Santini
Proofread by William Stupp
Photo credit: @wetsi.art.gallery FB
Belgium has never adequately faced up to its colonial past. This is common knowledge to those familiar with the country’s history. Though small in size, the nation has a sometimes unwieldy history. First and foremost, the debate surrounding post-colonialism is becoming more and more polarized.
Belgians have yet to reach a nationally agreed upon interpretation of their tragic past. The colonial legacy reached it’s dark nadir in the Congo, where some 10 million people died. As underlined in a report produced by the UN in 2019, “Belgium has to recognize the real scope of the injustices it has perpetrated during its colonial past.” It has yet to remove the racism which is “endemic in its institutions” and customs.
This year, on the 30th June, Congo celebrated 70 years of independence. The King of Belgium, for the first time since the 20th century, has apologized for the “wounds” inflicted on the Congolese people during the imperialist period. But the process of decolonization in Belgium must go well beyond royal apologies. The road to properly acknowledging the past is a long and difficult one. There are still 450 streets, statues and public spaces named after colonial “heroes”.
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Shedding light on a dark history
However, the black Belgian community has not simply stood by and watched. In Brussels, Anne Wetsi Mpoma has created an art gallery, a place where to “explore decolonization”. Art made by black people is exposed and given prominence. “I have opened my gallery one year ago, in the context of the Café Congo. Café Congo, founded by the activist and journalist Gia Abrassart, is a cultural and independent space. Gia is a Congolese Belgian, just like me,” explains Anne.
Artists of African descent have little visibility in the mainstream artistic scene, and many people don’t see a problem with this, Anne says. “For a lot of time there has been a dominant racist narration. As a consequence, it is difficult now to identify black people as creative, as people that can bring something positive to our society in general, and to the artistic world in particular.”
The aim of the Wetsi Gallery is to give more visibility to black artists and to connect them with mainstream institutions. “Representation is so important: to have characters in films and books that resemble you and have a story that is similar to yours, so that you can identify with them, is fundamental,” Anne explains. “The same is for art: it has to remember you of your cultural heritage and how you are a part of it.”
Where do the artists Anne exhibits come from? “They are from all over the world: Afro-Americans, Ivorians, Congolese naturalized Belgian or even born here. We can find some common themes and identities between them, but, most importantly, each one of them has its own peculiarities. This is what I want in my gallery.”
“For example, one of the artists that is currently exhibiting in my space, has painted a family portrait that talks about colonialism, but in an intimate and personal way. Another artist I have dealt with, insisted on painting only anonymous people or members of his own family: the power of his artistic creation resided in the fact that those people were all black and, hence, underrepresented.”
The narrative of Belgium as an “innocent” country, which has been dominant for more than a century, is now changing. How is this happening? Anne points to artists, always at the forefront of social change.
“Laura Nsengiyumva, who I have interviewed for my blog, is an artist and a researcher in the field of urbanistic,” says Anne. “She tries to understand how the colonial past has modified and influenced public and private spaces in Belgium. One of her performances consist in recreating a small statue of Leopold II, and then in melting it until it disappears. This represents the slowness of the process of decolonization. However, the problem is that at a certain point the statue cannot be dissolved anymore: Laura has to break it with her hands. This is a very strong symbolic act: a strong act is needed to ‘dissolve’ decolonization, we cannot just sit here and wait.”
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During BLM demonstrations statues representing slavers and colonialists have been vandalized and, in some cases, even destroyed. Though controversial, Anne sympathizes with such acts.
“Activists have tried for more than 20 years, with non-violent means, to do what has happened in a few months, after George Floyd’s death. Nobody had listened to them. On the other hand, BLM’s protests have put the squeeze on the government: in order to stop the unrest, the government had to actually do something. Society asked itself ‘how is it possible that those people, in order to be heard, are forced to use violence?’ and it was clear that it was because, with other methods and means, nobody would have listened to them,” explains Anne.
“The Belgian government, as a response, has created a parliamentary committee with the responsibility to discuss the colonial past of the country, the so-called ‘Congocommissie’. Thanks to the pressure made from some activist groups, this committee comprehends also members of the diaspora: I am part of the commission myself. It is hard work, but at that table I finally have the opportunity to tell my own story.”