What does it mean to “decolonize cities”? The phrase has become common among architects, artists and activists in recent years, functioning more like a slogan, a blunt exhortation than an action plan. As the Black Lives Matter movement rises, criticism of the imperial and colonial legacies of Western powers has grown, unraveling the question of how European countries and the United States amassed the wealth to fund their greatest architectural wonders . art and urban form, and reveals the violence that underpins it. Protesters took this criticism to the streets, toppling, beheading or defacing dozens of statues honoring colonial and pro-slavery figures; cities took it upon themselves to knock down other cities. Many institutions with controversial names have chosen new names: General Lee Boulevard in Brooklyn was renamed after John Warren, a twenty-two-year-old black officer killed in Vietnam; Junipero Serra High School in San Diego Serra High School is now Canyon Hills High.
But what happens next? How cities will grapple with the more difficult question of what to do with landmarks that are more immovable than statues — like museums, train stations and private homes — or whose connections to racism or slavery, while important, are harder to pinpoint Determining traces? Perhaps, before we have a clearer idea of what a decolonized city would look like, we first need to better understand how and by what architectural means it was colonized.
One of the most compelling explorations I’ve seen of where decolonization efforts might turn next was on display this summer at an architecture museum in Brussels HG, an international center for cities and architecture. “Style Congo: Heritage and Heresy,” curated by Sammy Baloji, Silvia Franceschini, Nikolaus Hirsch, and Estelle Lecaille, is able to say something meaningful about the mammoth task of decolonization by focusing on the architectural by-products of a single imperial movement: Belgium in King Leopold II led the violent and lucrative occupation and eventual colonization of the Congo.
The style of “Style Congo” is Art Nouveau. Art Nouveau was once primarily understood as a creative but transitional movement that allowed the last embers of Victorian Revivalism to burn themselves out, clearing the way for the streamlined abstraction of Modernism. Art Nouveau was pioneered in Belgium by Victor It finds particularly important expression in the architecture of Horta and Paul Hanka, and in the art of Henry van de Velde and Philippe Wolfers, among others. . Crucially, Art Nouveau was also emerging in Belgium, around the same time that Leopold became ruler of the new Congo Free State in 1885, which he ran as his own private domain, removing its rubber and ivory reserves until Congo became an official regime. Established as a Belgian colony in 1908. What is now the Democratic Republic of Congo gained independence in 1960 and was known as Zaire from 1971 to 1997.
Historians have long described Art Nouveau and its flowing, sinuous decoration as “whipping style”: whiplash style. But it wasn’t until recent years, as scholars delved deeper into the links between Art Nouveau and imperialism, that the two phrases were directly linked to Belgium’s massive human toll in Africa. Writer Adam Adam Hochschild, whose 1998 book “King Leopold’s Ghost” first introduced the history of Belgian imperialism in Africa to a broad audience, estimated the “Holocaust death toll” at 1,000 Ten thousand; others have used slightly lower, though still shocking, figures, and the death toll among Congolese between 1885 and 1908 may have been between 5 million and 8 million.
As UCLA art historian Debora Silverman puts it in an incisive lecture, Belgian Art Nouveau HG, “made from raw materials from the Congo and inspired by Congolese motifs.” Even more strikingly, she believes that Art Nouveau, the violence perpetrated in the Congo in Leopold’s name, quickly made a comeback and emerged as abstract or semi- The concrete way in which abstract forms found their way into Belgian culture – allowing for violence that was smaller in scale and geographically squeezed. The state, whose nineteenth-century ambitions were largely thwarted at home, indulged in “the illusion of domination” through its art and architecture. Silverman saw not only natural and animal forms “embodied” in the curves of Art Nouveau; She also saw whips used by Belgian troops to kill Congolese laborers.
The first thing visitors to Style Congo see is Monument, a 2005 work by German artist Peggy Buth, which takes the form of an asymmetrical and empty black plinth. Although this work of art predates the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, it succeeds here in pointing the way forward: its placement in the museum lobby suggests that the “Congolese style” took hold of the post-occupation The world of “Black Lives Matter,” its statues toppled and vacated pedestals, serves as a given—an uncertain starting point.
Within the exhibition hall, attention is focused on the ways in which Art Nouveau and Congolese expressions overlapped and reinforced each other in a series of international fairs and other colonial exhibitions between 1885 and 1958. (These fairs essentially announced that the Congo was open for business, as long as investors could strike the right deals with Leopold and his successors.) The centerpiece was a large-scale installation by the Brussels collective Traumnovelle, whose founder, the architect Léone Drapeaud, Manuel León Fanjul and Johnny Leya describe it as “militant.” On wire walls that resemble archival screens, Traumnovelle hangs dozens of architectural drawings, photographs, brochures, newspaper clippings and other materials that reflect The influence of Congo from the founding of the Congo Free State to Belgian architecture. 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.
along the perimeter HG In the gallery and adjoining spaces, as if patiently examining the centre’s archival materials, are the works of six other architects, academics and contemporary artists, some newly commissioned by the curators. One is a series of portraits of Congolese Belgians taken by photographer Chrystel Mukeba inside an Art Nouveau landmark, including an 18th-century portrait by Victor Horta An elaborately decorated house designed in the 1990s for Edmond van Eetvelde, who administered the Congo Free State for Leopold.Mukhba told a reporter from a Belgian magazine parliament Half of the owners she approached never got back to her or turned her down: “Fashion shoots or anything like that, no problem,” she says. “But once you start trying to pose people of African descent,” she added, “then things get more complicated.”
This is not surprising. In many ways, Belgium has been slow to deal with its Congolese heritage. Last year, a committee of the Belgian parliament set up in 2020 reached an impasse over the basic question of whether the country should formally apologize for its colonial past, let alone larger issues such as reparations. But by the late 1890s, the dam had begun to fail, or at least break. King Leopold’s Ghost, published in 1998, became a global bestseller, followed the following year by Ludo de Wit’s The Assassination of Lumumba, which explored the Belgian government, the CIA and the alliance of Belgian mining companies In the role of the Minière du Haut-Katanga, Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of independent Congo, was deposed and assassinated by his political rivals. According to De Wit, Lumumba’s body was cut into pieces and dissolved in a barrel of sulfuric acid provided by the United Mining Company, which also provided the copper and copper for the statue of Leopold that still stands next to the Royal Palace in Brussels. tin. .
In 2005, the Royal Museum of Central Africa (formerly the Royal Museum of the Belgian Congo) in Tervuren held an exhibition entitled “Memories of the Congo: The Colonial Period”. Hochschild considered the play “vague”; it seemed to him that Belgium was still struggling to awaken from a century-long national amnesia, which he called “the great forgetfulness.” Silverman similarly criticized the exhibition as “tepid and reluctant revisionism.” She believes that the deep connection between Art Nouveau and the Congo Free State became apparent in a survey of decorative arts conducted in the same year at institutions as diverse as the Royal Museum of Art and History in Brussels. The exhibition includes an 1897 work of art by Philippe Wolfers called “Civilization and Barbarism.” Made from Congolese ivory provided to the artist by Leopold, it depicts two figures fighting: a swan (representing Belgium and the “civilization” of the title) against a dragon representing “savagery”. Seeing the work, Silverman told me, revealed the Congo Free State’s “ideology that drove the project” and showed how embedded it was in some of the most important works of Belgian art of its time. The same ideology also gave rise to the story Belgians sometimes tell themselves about the country’s exploitation of the Congo: that the occupation was motivated in large part by a desire to free Africans from slavery or to protect them.