MAS Antwerpen | 100 x Congo

Leen Beyers

Head, Curatorial Department, MAS

Museum aan de Stroom

Hanzestedenplaats 1 te 2000 Antwerpen Belgium

Museums + Heritage Awards / International Exhibition Of The Year 2021


100 x Congo. A Century of Congolese Art in Antwerp




Antwerp is a port city on the river Scheldt and has for centuries been a meeting place for peoples and cultures. The MAS|Museum aan de Stroom presents exhibitions that are related to the history and reality of the city. One hundred years ago, at the height of the colonial era, Congolese art and artefacts came into the possession of the city of Antwerp for the first time. Time to look back, but also to look ahead.

Assuming a cultural-historical Antwerp perspective and with ample attention to representation and diversity of voices, the temporary exhibition focuses on one hundred Congolese highlights. How did these Congolese cultural objects end up in an Antwerp museum? What was their significance for the Congolese peoples? And how did Belgian colonization and missionary activity impact Congolese cultures? For this exhibition the museum collaborated with Belgian and Congolese artists, filmmakers and researchers.


100 Highlights

At the heart of the exhibition is a selection of 100 classic Congolese cultural objects from the MAS African collection. Today, the African collection numbers over 15,000 objects. Over one third of these originate from the Democratic Republic of Congo (Kinshasa). These highlights are framed by a historical overview that starts in Europe, more specifically with the early contacts with Africa. It explores the representation of black people from the sixteenth century onward and traces the evolution of this representation until the end of the colonial era. At this point more insight is provided into how, from the 16th century onward, Africans in the cosmopolitan port city were portrayed by Antwerp masters such as Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678).

Ivory pendant, Kongo-peoples, Angola/Democratic republic of the Congo. MAS collection (AE.1959.0015.0019), Purchased from Father Jan Vissers in 1959 © MAS, photographer Bart Huysmans


Revisiting the Antwerp World Exhibitions

At the Berlin Conference (1884-85), European countries acknowledged the Belgian monarch Leopold II (1835-1909) as head of Congo Free State. The sovereign exploited the conquered African territory as a personal colony until 1908. For the port city of Antwerp as well, colonization became a ‘golden deal’. Antwerp politicians, the bourgeoisie and businessmen supported the colonial project and made fortunes from the plundering of Congolese resources such as ivory, rubber and palm oil. In 1885, Antwerp hosted Belgium's first World Fair, and in 1894 the port city once again became the setting for the grand event. On both occasions, the colonial exhibitions were an excellent propaganda tool to make the 'work of civilization' of Leopold II more widely known, and to attract investors to the port of Antwerp. The colonial exhibitions helped to shape the European perception of Africans.


Forgotten tragedy of 1894

Respectively 12 and 144 Congolese persons were temporarily shipped to the city of the Scheldt for the Antwerp World Fairs of 1885 and 1894. As an attraction for the European public, Congolese women, men and children were then staged in a human zoo. In order to showcase the colonial 'work of civilization', a fictitious Congolese village was set up in which daily African life was to be simulated. People paddled in canoes on constructed ponds whilst others played musical instruments.

During the short stay in 1894, at least 44 Congolese fell seriously ill. At least seven young people did not live to see the return trip to the Congo. For many years this tragic event was erased from the collective memory. The names of the Congolese who died - Sabo, Bitio, Isokoyé, Manguesse, Binda, Mangwanda and Pezo - are commemorated in the exhibition with an 'in memoriam' plaque.


1920. First Congolese cultural objects in an Antwerp Museum

From the early 20th century onward, the reign of terror of Leopold II's Congo Free State came under criticism and his colony was transferred to the Belgian state. From 1908 to 1960 the Belgian Congo was an official colony. Ever more frequently, 'Congo-boats' moored in the city of the Scheldt, carrying passengers and raw materials from the colony, as well as weapons, art objects and utensils from the Congolese peoples. These were brought back by military campaigns, Christian missions and scientific expeditions.

It was not until thirty years after the foundation of Congo Free State that an Antwerp museum came into possession of its first Congolese collection. At that time the city council bought some 1600 Congolese objects from Antwerp-based art dealer Henri Pareyn (1869-1928) for the Museum of Antiquities located in the Vleeshuis. In the same year Louis Franck (1868-1937), founder of the Colonial College of Antwerp and Minister of Colonies, made an inspection trip to the Belgian Congo. Upon his return he donated the objects he had to the Museum Vleeshuis. This donation included Congolese objects among which a number of unique Kongo statues, in addition to weapons, ivory carvings and pottery. The Pareyn purchase and the Franck donation laid the foundation of the city of Antwerp's African collection.

Colonial propaganda photo showing Congolese people at the Antwerp World’s Fair in 1894 © Heritage Library Hendrik Conscience, Antwerp


Multiple voices

The exhibition is taking place at a point in time when the debate about the colonial past and its legacies is topical. Thanks to the collaboration between Belgian and Congolese partners, multiple voices are heard and current social issues such as restitution are approached from various perspectives. These contemporary artistic interventions invite reflection and above all, dialog. Patrick Mudekereza, for example, a Congolese artist-author, engaged in conversation with Congolese artists, (art) historians, anthropologists and activists about the various values of Congolese artworks. The poems, such as the one shown here, are illuminated on-and-off on the glass panes of the cabinets in which the 100 highlights are displayed.

“I want history, I want history! Not the rites I cannot perform anymore, Nor the prices I cannot afford. I want to relive the journey from the origins, From hand to hand to the reserves I want to be a part again of that history! #Kasau (Congo).

“But history can break your heart” #Patrick Mudekereza, 2020

During the Belgian colonial period (1908-1960) and at the mission stations, the classic Kuba fabrics, the so-called "velours du Kasai" manufactured according to ancient techniques, underwent changes over time. Among other things, the complex imagery of the application and embroidery became more rigid. This evolution is outlined and actualized in the exhibition with the project "" by artist Bren Heymans. He responds to the Kuba fabrics with his own designs in collaboration with contemporary Congolese embroiderers from Ilebo in Kasai.

In view of the 1958 World Fair in Brussels, Belgian filmmaker Paul Haesaerts (1901-1974) created the art documentary Sous le masque noir. (Under the black mask). In this film he highlighted numerous Congolese artworks from the former Ethnographic Museum Antwerp and other European museums as well as from several private collections. Although Haesaert's art documentary was innovative on several levels, its content stereotyped African art and people.

In response, Matthias De Groof made the short film 'Sous le masque blanc’ (Under the white mask), the movie he believes Haesaerts could have made. In De Groof's re-edited film the same images of Haesaerts are shown but the French commentary voice is replaced by text fragments from Aimée Césaire's 'Discours sur le colonialisme' from 1950. This critical and provocative French text was translated into Lingala and voiced by slam poet Maravilha Munto.

In the film 'In many hands' by the Belgo-Congolese film collective Faire-Part, 25 people shine their light on an object of their choice from the hundred highlights. The narrators are Antwerp citizens or people who have a connection with the city of the Scheldt, as well as inhabitants and artists from Kinshasa. At times, they share their deepest feelings. Who were the artists of this Congolese legacy? What role did the works of art originally have in Congolese communities? What do they signify in the past or the present? What is their future? Whose many hands have touched them?

On the occasion of sixty years of Congolese independence and the centenary of the Congolese collection under the care of the MAS, the book ‘100xCongo. A Century of Congolese Art in Antwerp’ was published in a Dutch and French edition. In this publication, Congolese and Belgian researchers together look back for the first time on the historical ties between Antwerp and the Congo. The result is a special series of contributions on a shared and emotionally fraught history.

The exhibition was accompanied by a fascinating and instructive fringe program, including lectures on decolonization, workshops for children and (digital) learning material for schools. Guided tours were available in Dutch, French, English, Lingala and Swahili.

On the website of the MAS, guide Baudouin Mena Sebu, takes you through the museum hall in the digital exhibition

Realization: the MAS team led by former director Marieke van Bommel. Curator Els De Palmenaer (Keeper of the Africa collection of the MAS), co-curator Nadia Nsayi (MAS Curator Representation).

Els De Palmenaer


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