‘Congoville’: contemporary artists walk colonial paths at Middelheim Museum in Antwerp

Artworks of ‘Congoville’.

Today, the Middelheimmuseum and the University of Antwerp are located on the site where the Colonial University of Applied Sciences was founded in 1920. Just over a hundred years later, this is the reason for the Middelheim Museum to investigate the traces of the colonial history of the site and to make it legible. It does this by bringing together new historical research with contemporary art perspectives.

Guest curator Sandrine Colard uses ‘Congoville‘ as a collective name for physical and mental traces from the colonial past in Belgium

These traces are often hidden in plain sight, and consciously or unconsciously continue to affect today’s society. The wider Middelheim site played a central role in the colonial organization and education in Belgium and is thus also part of this invisible city. This project is about a school building, a park, imperialist myths, but also about the experiences of people of African origin in Belgium.

Fifteen international artists live in this imaginary city of Congoville, where they show the visitor around the Middelheim site. They walk like ‘black flaneurs’ through the present and the past and guide us in a quest to reimagine an open and shared public space. 

From their artistic practice, they bring different, new perspectives on a historical story of colonialism that is often still too unambiguously told. 

Together with Leuven University Press, Middelheimmuseum is publishing an extensive exhibition catalog in which, in addition to interviews with the artists, a multitude of authors, academics and experts zoom in and out on the project.

“The artists not only make visible the traces of the colonial past, interwoven with those of the Middelheim site. They also load the site with new meanings and new possibilities”, says Nabilla Ait Daoud (N-VA), Alderwoman for Culture of the City of Antwerp.

Artworks of ‘Congoville’.

Curatorial statement on ‘Congoville’

“The exhibition Congoville exploits the museum’s double anchorage into the imperial history of Belgium- implanted in a town that was the treshold and receptacle of the colonial enterprise, and steeped in a training ground for imperial spirit – in order to deconstruct the present but also imagine the future of post-colonial cities of Europe.”, says dr. Sandrine Colard.

Colard is a Belgian-Congolese curator, researcher and writer, based in New York City and Brussels. She is a doctor of African art history (Ph.D. Columbia University), and her past curatorial projects include 

  • The Expanded Subject: New Perspectives in Photographic Portraiture from Africa‘ (co-curator, Wallach Art Gallery, New York, 2016); 
  • The Way She Looks: A History of Female Gazes in African Portraiture. Photographs from The Walther Collection‘ (Ryerson Image Center, Toronto, 2019);
  • Multiple Transmissions: Art in the Afropolitan Age‘ (Wiels, Brussels, 2019). 

In 2019, she was the artistic director of the 6th edition of the Lubumbashi Biennale in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Currently an assistant professor of art history at Rutgers University (USA), Colard is also an international lecturer and the author of multiple publications. Based on research conducted in Belgium and the DRC, her current book project examines the history of photography in the colonial Congo (1885-1960) and has been supported by several fellowships.

Dismantling an imperial story

“Through the eyes of African and African-descendant contemporary artists, the highly diverse population of Antwerp and beyond is invited to embark on a journey to dismantle an imperial story still uncritically glorified in Belgium, and at the same time, to imagine the transformation of the country’s urban space into a genuinely shared space.”

“Made public in 1910, the Middelheim Park is one of the numerous cradles of the city flâneur in Europe. Created as a green extension of Antwerp’s city promenade just two years after Belgium officially became an imperial nation, the birth of the site was also synchronous with that of the newborn Belgian colonialist.”

“The enrichment made possible by extraction in the Congo, and the colonial mythologies that gave birth to monuments and the ideas that they stand for, have imprinted our cityscape. Congoville is the name of the archeology of that urban stratum, but also of its reclaiming and democratization by African and African-descendant artists. 

“Conceived as a walk through the Middelheim, the exhibition takes the black flâneur and flâneuse as a guiding principle. It makes these colonial traces the object of their gaze and offers to artists to convert a field of action where imperialism was taught into a springboard for its unlearning.”

“The colonial stigmas that continue to afflict Belgian society—the racism, violence, and discriminations that pervade it—are the afterlives of an unprocessed past.”

“Since 2020, the unprecedented resonance of the Black Lives Matter movement in the country has galvanized the long-standing work of local, decolonial activists. The toppling downs of colonial statues, but also, the extraordinary mobilization and massive protests against racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, are manifestations of a profound desire to heal the wounds of colonial history.” 

“In one of her recent writings, author Zadie Smith asked, ‘What do we want history to do to us?’ By opposition to the constant evasion of the uncomfortable questions posed by the Congo and Belgium’s ‘shared heritage”, this exhibition seeks to ask the following: When we give up historical awareness toward cities, buildings, and monuments’ imperial genesis for the sake of preserving bricks and stones, what are we surrendering morally?”

“When we give up critical resistance and allow detrimental representations to go unchallenged, which part of our cities’ inhabitants do we choose to exclude? Yet, as important, how can we transition from this anxiety-ridden and abdicating sort of post-imperial society to the embracing and welcoming kind? The exhibition seeks to explore how Congoville can cease being the colonial soil of an ever-growing resentful or fractured society, to become the flag of a commonly dreamed future.” 

Artworks of ‘Congoville’.

Practical information

‘Congoville’.
Middelheimmuseum.
29 May to 3 October 2021.

Curator: Sandrine Colard (BE / US).
Artists: Sammy Baloji (BE / DRC), Bodys Isek Kingelez (DRC), Maurice Mbikayi (DRC), Jean Katambayi (DRC), KinAct Collective (DRC / FR / NL / BE), Simone Leigh (US), Hank Willis Thomas (US), Zahia Rahmani (ALG), Ibrahim Mahama (GH), Ângela Ferreira (PT / MZ / SA), Kapwani Kiwanga (CAN), Sven Augustijnen (BE), Pascale Marthine Tayou (CAM / BE), Elisabetta Benassi ( IT), Pélagie Gbaguidi (BEN).

Free admission. The exhibition shows works of art that are displayed both outside and at three indoor locations. Due to the applicable corona countermeasures, the museum work with reservations for our indoor spaces. You must therefore make a reservation to visit the entire exhibition. This can be done via www.middelheimmuseum.be/congoville.

Read more about the COVID-19 measures in the Middelheimmuseum and general visitor information here: https://www.middelheimmuseum.be/nl/coronavirus

Source: Culture City Antwerp.
Header image: Ibrahim Mahama, Dokpeda 2012-2021, 2021 © The Artists & White Cube, London. Photo Léonard Pongo.
Collages: Screenshot of photos provided to the press by Middelheim Museum. 

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