Belgium has pledged to return art looted from its former Congolese colony in response to its cruel colonial history.
The African Museum in Belgium, once a totem of the empire, has undergone a 75 million euro (64 million pounds) transformation and “Decolonization” process – It has been said that as many as 2,000 works, including statues, musical instruments and weapons, were illegally obtained during colonial rule in large areas of Central Africa (mainly modern) Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The Black Lives Matter movement has accelerated Belgium’s reckoning of its colonial history, the statue of former King Leopold II Defaced after global protests.
Leopold II operated the Free State of Congo as his personal territory from 1885 to 1908, and then passed control to the Belgian government, which controlled the territory until independence in 1960.
This week, the Belgian government announced its long-awaited plan to restore looted works to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Everything obtained through force and violence under illegal conditions must in principle be returned,” said Thomas Dermine, the secretary of state for science policy.
“The items obtained illegally by our ancestors, our grandparents, and great-grandparents do not belong to us. They belong to the Congolese people. Full stop.”
Since the 1960s, Belgium has returned works on a temporary basis, but this is the first time that projects have been returned to Congo in a systematic manner without waiting for a request.most Africa The museum’s collection-85,000 out of 120,000-comes from the Congo.
This issue has become a pain point between Belgium and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the latter has strengthened Request to return stolen cultural relics Last few years.
In 2019, Félix Tshisekedi, President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, stated that at the inauguration of the Kinshasa National Museum, looted works must be returned in an “organized manner”.
According to Guido Gryseels, director of the African Museum, between 1,500 and 2,000 works were acquired “illegal,” which is less than 2% of the collection.
The museum has confirmed that if the definition of illegality is extended, approximately 40,000 works may be affected.
A spokesperson for the museum stated that works offered as gifts during the colonial period may also be considered illegally acquired.
Gryseels stated that the museum is “very open” to discussions and has sent copies of its inventory to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda next door.
After the First World War, Belgium acquired the territory of present-day Rwanda and Burundi from Germany.
A committee of experts from Belgium and Congo will be established this fall to share information and ensure the safe transfer of work.
“This is a conversation that takes years,” Gryseels said. “The Kinshasa National Museum cannot accommodate more than 12,000 works… [storage] It is still a problem, but I insist that this is not a condition for restitution. “
The museum hopes to keep some of the works in Belgium through a loan agreement with the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The stolen works identified by the museum include the Lucinga statue, a wood, glass and feather carving of a male ancestor, belonging to Lusinga Iwa Ng’ombe, the leader of the Tabua people. ).
In 1884, he was beheaded by the Belgian army during a punitive expedition led by soldier and explorer Lieut Émile Storms. Storms established a base for King Leopold on the west bank of Lake Tanganyika and obtained nearly 340 items, including similar artworks and surrender treaties, which were bequeathed to the museum after the death of his widow.
Storms’ bequest also included 100 weapons, although some came from parts of the Congo that he had never been to, leaving museum researchers unsure of how they were acquired.
Researchers divided the museum’s collections into three categories: loot; legally obtained works; and unknown provenance.
The museum said it will recruit Belgian and African experts to investigate the source of many items.
When Belgium made this decision, European countries were launching a booming movement to demand the return of looted treasures to the former colonies.
Germany promises to return Benin bronzes Went to Nigeria earlier this year. Soon after taking office in 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron promised to return African works in the French National Museum-but activists have since Criticism is slow in returning.