It was the Congolese people, and their struggle, that shaped the art of the Congo during the colonial period. And it is the context of these people and this struggle that is missing from the exhibit at the VMFA.
In 1876, King Leopold II of Belgium founded a private holding company called the International Association for the Exploration and Civilization of the Congo; it was formed specifically for the purpose of collecting African wealth. Only a few years later, this company founded a colony in the Congo — and by 1885, a Conference of European countries established the Congo Free State under the personal rule of Leopold and his private army.
As colonial ruler of the Congo Free State, Leopold II reigned with brutality and terror.
The invention of the rubber tire and discovery of latex in the Congo fueled Leopold’s savage greed: It is estimated by many that the human cost in terms of lives lost in the quest for rubber was as high as 10 million under Belgian colonial influence.
The Congolese died from violence, disease, and starvation.
Interestingly, the privately owned collection of art currently on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), “Congo Masks: Masterpieces from Central Africa,” dates, for the most part, from the Belgian colonial period, and specifically to the savage rule of Leopold.
Under Leopold, the Congolese fought not only for their lives, but for their identities. A struggle against an oppressor who wanted to take more than just their sovereign wealth: Belgium was a colonizer who wanted to take their languages, their beliefs, and their very selves. It was these people, and this struggle, that shaped the art of the Congo during the colonial period. And it is the context of these people and this struggle that is missing from the exhibit at the VMFA.
When touring the exhibit, an occasional “Community” sign describes the influence of colonialism, but only just: mentions that knowledge of specific artists was lost, or that an entity called the Leopard Cult developed as a form of resistance to colonial power, were the only acknowledgments describing the actual Congolese experience as the context of this art.
The closing sign in the exhibit attempts to describe the “Lives of Masks,” pointing out that during colonialism masks were taken from where they were created by international collectors. While these are hints about the real background and context of these masks, it is a quote from the Belgian owner of the collection in the exhibit catalogue that speaks much louder:
“After 1885, the start of Belgium’s colonial enterprise in the Congo, the government encouraged resident Europeans to investigate traditional Congolese life, art, and ritual ceremonies. As a result, as early as the 1880s, masks were collected by Europeans (some of which are included in this book and exhibition).”
What a disingenuous way to describe the power of the colonist who was responsible for the deaths of millions of people. What is the VMFA thinking?
Perhaps there is more information in the exhibit catalogue if you read past the foreword (it is available in many of the exhibit rooms to read). Yet as soon as you open this book, you see the 11 contributing authors on the cover flaps: Nine white men and two white women. These are experts in Africa — experts in African art — but they are not African. Missing entirely from this exhibit is the voice of the Congolese themselves.
“How do you think your ancestors got these [pieces]? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it… like they took everything else?”
This exact conversation about who owns art — especially art collected during colonialism — is one that is happening more often, and rightfully so.
French museums are making progress towards returning art to their countries of origin, following French President Macron’s announcement that “African heritage cannot be the prisoner of European museums.” And the VMFA has been a part of a similar conversation: recently the board voted to return art stolen by Nazis. Even a Congolese art collector, Sindika Dokolo, insists that the responsibility of art museums to decolonize their collections is a need urgent and equivalent to that of repatriating collections looted from Jews during WWII.
And yet, as reported in the RTD, some of the Congo masks at the VMFA are likely worth 8-9 million dollars each. Visitors pay to see the exhibit that includes at least some masks that originated or were collected as early as the 1880s under Leopold’s reign. When does the continued exploitation of Congolese bodies, lives, and creativity enter this conversation?
The VMFA already knows the answer to this. Instead of acknowledging the lived experiences of artists of the Congo, persevering with their craft despite these colonial horrors, the exhibit instead reduces that story to a mere display of art. It is a dangerous precedent to set, when here in our city — and across this country and others — we struggle to reconcile brutal histories of oppression with truth, reconciliation, and justice. The Congo masks are not just masterpieces of art; they are symbols of bodily and spiritual resistance to one of the most brutal colonial invasions of Africa. It is truly disappointing that visitors to this VMFA exhibit will not learn this at the museum.
*Dr. Amy Rector is a member of the VMFA.