The Elephant in the Museum

Chéri Samba –  Réorganisation, 2002, Collection: AfricaMuseum

Late last month, on December 28 to be precise, I visited what is now branded as the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren, a suburb of Brussels. My visit, during a family vacation to Belgium, came just a few weeks after the museum had reopened, after being closed for about five years for extensive renovations. The 86 million USD renovation involved: the expansion of the building with a new Visitor Centre (a futurist glass pavilion) and a connecting underground passage; the restoration of the main building; the re-curation of the permanent exhibitions and reinterpretation of the collections; as well as several contemporary art commissions. Because of its origins in the most troubled part of Belgium’s colonial history, and the exceptional African collections it holds, the renovated museum has found itself at the epicenter of the recent debates about restitution and the decolonization of museums. On the eve of its official re-opening on December 8, the French daily Le Soir published an interview with the then President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Joseph Kabila, in which he announced that there would be formal demands for the return of art works and other objects from the AfricaMuseum, and that a new national museum was being constructed in Kinshasa, with funding and technical assistance from the Korean government. Guido Gryseels, the present Director of the AfricaMuseum, indicated that the museum would consider such requests.

crowded museum
A crowded AfricaMuseum on December 28, 2018

The AfricaMuseum’s full and proper name is the Royal Museum for Central Africa and it has been one of the most controversial museums in Western Europe, because of its direct association with the most questionable and violent part of Belgium’s colonial history, namely King Leopold II’s Congo Free State (1885-1908). During this episode, Leopold II ruled the Congo area as the absolute monarch of a personal fiefdom and he enabled and personally profited from the economic exploitation of this populous, naturally rich part of Africa, at the expense of severe human rights abuses, which included widespread forced labor and atrocities against the local population. As many as 10 million Congolese, or about half of the estimated population, perished as a direct or indirect result, and there were also many documented instances of physical abuse and torture, such as the infamous hand amputations of members of communities that did not produce their rubber tapping quota. International outrage grew and in 1908 the territory became a Belgian colony, overseen by the Belgian parliament and known as the Belgian Congo, until Independence in 1960.

Tervuren RMCA entrance.JPG
The museum’s entrance, prior to the recent renovation (Image source: Wikimedia)

The AfricaMuseum, which has been described by Gryseels as “the last colonial museum,” has its origins in 1897 as a propagandist showcase of Leopold II’s Congo Free State, which was presented as part of the colonial section of the Brussels World Exhibition that year. Further adding to the problematic foundations of the museum, this colonial display notoriously also featured a “human zoo” at the same royal domain where the original museum building, then called the Palace of the Colonies, is located. This zoo took the form of a staged “African village,” for which 257 Congolese persons were brought to Belgium, seven of whom died as a result of the ordeal.

The present, larger  museum building, which is located in the same park, dates from 1904 and was constructed to accommodate the rapid expansion of the museum collections. Today, the AfricaMuseum holds one of the world’s most prized collections of Central African art, as well as significant natural history, history and ethnography collections, most of it pertaining to what is now the DRC, Rwanda, and Burundi. The collection comprises some 180,000 artifacts, many of them rare and quite extraordinary. Save for some changes in the late 1950s, the permanent exhibitions had changed very little since the museum’s establishment and, as Gryseels has acknowledged, the old museum could itself be regarded as a museum artifact, that embodied a particular way of thinking about museums, the state, and colonialism. This way of thinking has been a foundational and controversial part of the history of the modern museum, hence the ongoing debates about decolonizing the museum. The recent renovation is a major intervention and the first one such in the museum’s history. One section, the popular “Crocodile Hall,” which is part of the natural history exhibitions, was restored to its original condition in the new museum installation, where it contributes, along with dramatically redesigned and updated sections, to the new, critical dialogues the museum seeks to provoke about its collections and its own history.Read More »

Art Museums and Social Hierarchy – Part I


This is the first of a two-part post. The second part, which takes the issues to the Caribbean and Jamaica, can be found here.

Museums are managers of consciousness. They give us an interpretation of history, of how to view the world and locate ourselves in it. They are, if you want to put it in positive terms, great educational institutions. If you want to put it in negative terms, they are propaganda machines.  –  Hans Haacke

I grew up going to museums, and to art museums in particular. I was born in Bruges, Belgium, and it is often said that this city is a museum in itself. Its well-preserved late medieval city centre is an accident of history: Bruges’ harbour silted up rapidly after the 15th century and the subsequent economic decline resulted in a lack of the sort of new building activity that later transformed the face of other Flemish cities such as Ghent, Brussels and Antwerp. Bruges was in its heyday a centre for what we now call Early Flemish painting, with artists such as Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus, and Hans Memling in residence and patronized by Bruges’ wealthy merchants. Bruges is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular tourist site, which attracts some 9 million tourists per year, which is remarkable when compared to its population of about 120,000 in the town centre (and a total of 250,000 if the greater metropolitan area is included.)

Jan van Eyck – The Madonna with Canon van der Paele (1436), Groeninge Museum, Bruges

I am aware of some 26 museums in Bruges and environs, big and small, and public and private, and several of these have significant art holdings. The best-known of these is the Groeninge museum, which is the main municipal art museum and which exhibits the work of Flemish and other artists from what is now Belgium, from the 14th to the 20st century. It features such well-known works of art as van Eyck’s The Madonna with Canon van der Paele (1436) and Portrait of Margareta van Eyck (1439) and The Death of the Virgin (c1472-1480) by Hugo van der Goes, along with modern works by artists such as James Ensor, Rene Magritte, Marcel Broodthaers, Roger Raveel and many others.

When I was growing up, my immediate family was not professionally involved in art or museums (I had a great-grand uncle, Camille Poupeye, who was a fairly well-known theatre and art critic but he was elderly and lived in Brussels and he was not part of our daily experience). Museum visits were however a fairly regular part of our family outings, as appears to have been the norm for most families in our social cohort. Bruges’ municipal museums had (and I believe still have) free admission for local residents on Sundays, which was of course an incentive to visit, and we also visited the local museums with school. We also traveled quite a bit within Europe and museum visits were invariably a major part of that. One of my earliest museum recollections outside of Bruges was a visit to the Louvre in Paris. I must have been about 10 years old at that time (which would place that visit in the tumultuous year of the 1968 student uprising and I remember seeing heavily armed police officers with riot shields and my mother explaining that it had something to do with the students at the Sorbonne).

Medici Cycle
Pieter Paul Rubens – Marie de’ Medici Cycle (1622-25), Richelieu Wing, Louvre Museum, Paris

The Egyptian mummies at the Louvre would haunt my dreams for months to come, and not in a good way, and strolling around in that very large museum was in itself a challenge for my young body. I remember vividly how much my shoulders were hurting after walking around for several hours and that I was actually crying, having just had my fill of my first Louvre experience. But my mother would have none of it and she was adamant that we were going to see Rubens’ Marie de’ Medici Cycle (1622-25) before we left because, as she put it, we were Flemish and had to see the work of Flemish artists. I hated Rubens for a long time. Subsequent museum visits were not so traumatic and we saw many of Europe’s major museums during our vacations. Our visit to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence was particularly memorable to me and I was mesmerized by the Botticellis there – an experience which contributed actively to my decision to study art history and to make a career in museums.

Sandro Botticelli – The Birth of Venus (1484–1486), Uffizi Gallery, Florence

My family was average middle class, a large family (according to Belgian norms) with five children and no money, and we were not particularly involved in the art world. We had some art works on our walls, but these were family heirlooms, that shared wall space with family photographs and a small, cheap copy of the Mona Lisa – a souvenir of one of our Paris trips. We did not buy art, nor did we go to exhibition previews and I don’t think my family knew any professional artists. The only art event I ever attended while growing up was a special viewing of an exhibition of the Anonieme Vlaamse Primitieven (Anonymous Early Flemish Painters) exhibition at the Groeninge in 1969, to which my family was somehow invited (I don’t remember why exactly but it was some special initiative).Read More »

Travel Notes While Rome is Burning – Part II


Vietnam protest
Anti Vietnam War art at the Whitney’s An Incomplete History of Protest

Part I of this blog post can be found here. Below now follows part II.

But let me return to my reflections on my New York City trip. My first full day was spent in the world of Outsider Art, a world which has always both attracted and troubled me—attracted, because it provides exposure and validation for extraordinary art that would otherwise remain invisible and marginalized; troubled, because of the lack of self-reflexivity in the usually well-meaning patronage that surrounds it, which is often overly missionary, purist, and “from the top down,” and thus re-inscribes and even fetishizes the very same marginalization it claims to challenge (and I am using the term Outsider Art as a catch-all for what has been variously called Folk, Self-Taught, Intuitive and Outsider Art or Art Brut—examining the issues arising from these concepts and terms is something for another blog post).

My day started at the Anne Hill Blanchard Uncommon Artists lectures at the American Folk Art Museum, which three presentations on self-taught art from the Caribbean: with Barbara Paca speaking on the Antiguan painter Frank Walter; Nancy Josephson on the Haitian “drapo” or Vodou flag tradition; and Jamaica’s own Jacqueline Bishop on the Jamaican painter Kemel Rankine. The three lectures were supposed to have been followed by a demonstration by Sane Mae Dunkley, an outstanding exponent of the rag-mat tradition in Jamaica, but she had passed away unexpectedly just before New Year. At the request of Jacqueline Bishop (who, I should disclose, is a friend), I presented a short tribute to Sane Mae Dunkley and placed her work in the contexts of popular fibre art and recyclage traditions in the Caribbean.

Tapestry Smaller 53 x 50 Joseph Coat of May Colors
Sane Mae Dunkley – Tapestry “Joseph Coat of Many Colours” (c2017), photo: Jacqueline Bishop

It was my first visit since the American Folk Art Museum returned to its earlier Lincoln Square facility, in a building it shares with other organizations. I had the opportunity to look around for a bit before the lectures started and I must say that the rather dreary, institutional look of the present galleries does no justice to that museum’s amazing collections and exhibitions. I sure miss the days when this museum was in its own, purpose-designed building on 53rd Street, adjoining MoMA, which was a pleasure to visit, although this location proved to be financially unsustainable (and the building, which was of architectural interest, has now been demolished to make way for MoMA’s latest expansion—a fable of the art world in its own right, but well).

Frank Walter (1926-2009), whose work was featured at the inaugural Antigua Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale, is certainly a very interesting artist, who should be better known in the Caribbean, and Barbara Paca, a NYC based art historian and landscape architect (yes, she combines both professions), must be credited for her relentless work in bringing his work and life to international attention. I would however have liked to see more critical reflection on how which Walter, who was black, positioned himself as a descendant of the plantocracy who privileged his European, German roots over his African ones, and how he is now in turn similarly positioned in the emerging narratives about his life and work. I was also concerned about the manner in which his work is now mobilized to raise awareness about mental illness, since this seems rather reductive and may skew the interpretation of his work as symptomatic of certain pathologies.

Nancy Josephson, an American artist who is herself a Vodou devotee, provided insights into the individual styles and techniques used by various drapo makers, which usefully challenged the notion that there is no innovation or originality in such art forms. Her discussion was however essentially descriptive and, again, lacked the contextualization, criticality and self-reflexivity that would have made the analysis truly useful. Jacqueline Bishop, finally, placed the work of Kemel Rankine, a St-Elizabeth-based sign painter who also produces figurative work, in the context of Jamaican visual culture and folklore.

Read More »

Travel Notes While Rome is Burning – Part I


Last month, I had the opportunity to travel to New York City for a few days. I arrived in the city on the day of the Women’s March, January 20, too late to see anything, let alone to participate in the march, but still early enough to have to get out of my taxi to walk to my hotel, since the blocks around 6th Avenue were still closed for traffic—a minor inconvenience. What the Women’s March represented, or sought to represent, as a way to challenge current political developments however set the tone for what was on my mind during my visit, so here is part one of some of my preliminary musings. (I also did two studio visits, with Simon Benjamin and Shoshanna Weinberger, who will be the subjects of forthcoming blog posts.)

One of my key interests, as a curator and art historian, is the role of art in society, and particularly the role of art in social change and times of crisis—a big question in the Caribbean context and, for all its contradictions and contentions, one of the driving forces in the development of art in the region. The question of what art can do, or must do, in times of crisis is sharply posed today. Throughout the world, worst-case scenarios are playing out, politically, socially and environmentally, and a lot of the things many of us have taken for granted are under active threat. This includes the viability of our political and governmental systems, social injustices and tensions that seem to be worsening, despite the social justice activism and changes of recent decades, and even the very sustainability of human life on this planet.

Historically, the worst of times have often produced compelling art, and have caused artists, cultural institutions, and others in the art world to reflect on the role of art in such moments. In the late 1930s, as dark clouds were gathering over Nazi Germany, Bertold Brecht wrote his poem To Those Who Follow in our Wake and asked: “What times are these, when to talk about trees is almost a crime because it implies silence about so many misdeeds?” Brecht’s poem confronted artists with their social responsibilities and the capacity of art to question things and to raise consciousness when the times call for it. I am not suggesting that other artistic choices have no legitimacy, even in times of crisis, but whether art, as a form symbolic intervention, can make a real, tangible and positive intervention into the socio-political dynamics of its time is an important and urgent question. And I added the word “positive,” because we also have to be mindful of the dangers of propaganda, which can be mobilized to promote the mindless acceptance of detrimental political ideas, as is illustrated by the tragically effective propaganda machine of Nazi Germany.

1024px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_Massacre_of_the_Innocents_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe pitfalls and contradictions have been there from the moment art started asking social and political questions: the Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel, who was active during the turbulent times of the Counter-Reformation, for instance, has conventionally been represented as a subversive critical voice who heroically risked his personal welfare to lambast the Spanish Habsburg rule of Flanders. His Massacre of the Innocents (c1565-67) places the biblical story in the context of 16th century Flanders and was overpainted extensively, presumably after the artist’s death, to soften some of its more gruesome and specific details. It is generally accepted that the painting makes reference to the Grand Duke of Alba, a Spanish diplomat and general who was sent to Flanders to quell religious and political dissent with harsh repressive actions, a rule of terror which resulted in about 18,000 executions. Yet representatives of Habsburg rule in Flanders, such as Cardinal Granvelle, were also among Bruegel’s main patrons and the question arises of whether artists who benefit from the power hierarchies of their time, in terms of patronage, can also legitimately and effectively talk back to power.

This question is not unimportant today, since the proliferation of high-profile art fairs and spectacular record auction results has reinforced the role of art as a luxury commodity, to be acquired by “high net worth” and “ultra-high net worth” individuals in a market that is controlled by powerful brokers, dealers and benefitted from by a few lucky artists. The hype and celebrity cult that presently surround the art market is an integral part of the current cultural climate and, despite its aspirational qualities, seems to be symptomatic of a world in which the socio-economic divide is widening rather than shrinking. While this suggests that the art world is fiddling while Rome is burning, art is also more politicized than ever.

Many artists are making powerful statements, implied or explicit, about our troubled world; cultural institutions are politicized as never before, in various ways and for better and for worse; and the critical reception of art, from critics and general audiences, is equally politicized, instantaneous, and increasingly contentious (as the responses to the recent unveiling of the Obama portraits perfectly illustrate). And, because of social media and other live online resources, art and the debates that surround it travel faster and more widely than ever, worlds beyond what would have been the reach of the likes of Pieter Bruegel, when access to art was almost exclusively moderated by ownership and high social status. Ironically, thus, the political side of today’s art world is mediated by the same mechanisms of circulation that produce and sustain the art celebrities and art market hype, and the manner in which those two worlds interface and collide raises new questions about whether and how art can be a catalyst for meaningful social change in the current context.

Part II of this blog post can be found here.