Confronting Belgium's colonial legacy

Collection with 15 media items created by Benas Gerdziunas

Belgium 03 Jul 2017 10:35

Decades after Belgian rule in Congo ended, and a century after the atrocities in Congo Free State - where up to 10-15 million Africans were killed - people in Belgium are beginning to confront the troubled history. The unaddressed atrocities are fuelling frustration among the Congolese, who are to this day surrounded by statues, buildings and streets dedicated to one of history’s most brutal rulers. Through art, culture and advocacy, the diaspora and Belgian people are paving the way for an uneasy reconciliation of the past.

Belgium Brussels Matonge Colonial Legacy Colony Congo Leopold Ii King Racism Congo Free S... Free State Atrocities Identity

Thumb sm
Belgium and Congo-1
Brussels
By Benas Gerdziunas
11 May 2017

The statue of King Leopold II overshadows a walking tour, organised for adult and teenage audiences seeking to learn about the Congolese past, and learn more about the diaspora in the country. “There was an exhibition at the Africa Museum 5-6 years ago, and it was basically just apologetic about Belgium in Congo,” said Annekien Van Vaerenbergh, a guide working with Vizit for more than two decades.

Thumb sm
Belgium and Congo-2
Brussels
By Benas Gerdziunas
20 Apr 2017

Relics from colonial era are still everywhere, including the monumental Justice Palace. However, little is done to acknowledge the atrocities committed in Congo, which overshadowed the colonial wealth brought back to the country.

Thumb sm
Belgium and Congo-3
Brussels
By Benas Gerdziunas
20 Apr 2017

Matonge, the Congolese neighbourhood in Brussels, has a lively African market, which allegedly draws African visitors from all over central Europe. The clagger of hairdressing saloons, beating music and unique smells fill the air in daytime.

Thumb sm
Belgium and Congo-4
Brussels
By Benas Gerdziunas
20 Apr 2017

Nightime in the market, however, attracts a different smell of drug dealing altogether. This is one of the reasons the community is under pressure from Ixelles governors, who want to link the European Quarter with the up-scale Avenue Louise, by untangling the community in Matonge.

Thumb sm
Title photo for the collection
Belgium and Congo-5
Brussels
By Benas Gerdziunas
17 Apr 2017

Ylhan Delvaux sits inside his old family home, which is now subdivided and rented out; he still lives on the top floor. “The smell is the same as it was in my childhood, I always feel like my mother is looking at me.” Ylhan’s Congolese-Belgian mother, burned herself in Luxenbourg in a violent protest against racism.

Thumb sm
Belgium and Congo-7
Brussels
By Benas Gerdziunas
21 Apr 2017

Womba Konga, known by his artist name Pitcho, organised the festival Congolisation in Brussels to raise awareness for African artists, and also, reconcile the Congolese diaspora’s search for identity. “In Belgium, no one saw black people,” he said - “We can leave Leopold avenues, but can’t have a Lumumba place,” he said, “who was killed by the Belgians.”

Thumb sm
Belgium and Congo-8
Brussels
By Benas Gerdziunas
20 Apr 2017

Inside Kuumba, the Flemish-African cultural center in Matonge, traditional dances, music and languages are thought to African and European audiences. In this particular dance class, a mixed variety of students indulged in rhythmic moves and uplifting atmosphere, drawing cheers from the observing posse of Congolese men and women.

Thumb sm
Belgium and Congo-9
Brussels
By Benas Gerdziunas
20 Apr 2017

The unofficial Lumumba library at the heart of Matonge is run by a charismatic and passionate activist, Philip Buyck. Together with other campaigners and the Congolese diaspora, he continues in the push towards having an official Place Lumumba recognised a few blocks away.

Thumb sm
Belgium and Congo-10
Brussels
By Benas Gerdziunas
14 Apr 2017

Bozar in Brussels has an office dedicated to African art, called the ‘Africa Desk’. From here, numerous initiatives have been organised to promote and raise awareness for African and, as Tony Van der Eecken called it - Afropean - artists. ”There's frustration among the Congolese that they’re not accepted or seen as part of anything here. Using Bozar to honour Congolese artists is symbolic because it’s a place for recognition - it's near to the royal palace, cultural center of the king, it has a value in the mind of the people,” said Tony.

Thumb sm
Belgium and Congo-11
Brussels
By Benas Gerdziunas
14 Apr 2017

Tony Van der Eecken is heavily involved in promoting African artists, as well as bringing to the Congolese history to the forefront. Tony remembers when there was the first exhibition on Congo, by Congolese artists: “It was confronting, showing colonial times through Congolese eyes - and it was not that positive about the Belgians. It was a shock exhibition, it was good,” he said.

Thumb sm
Belgium and Congo-13
Brussels
By Benas Gerdziunas
11 May 2017

School tour in Matonge visits one of the shops, which by now are mostly run by Asian immigrants - replacing the traditionally African owners. “Every teacher realises very well what we did there in Congo,” said Annemiet Geldof who teaches religion in a school in Willebroek. Yet, she is aware how little of that history is thought in class.

Thumb sm
Belgium and Congo-14
Brussels
By Benas Gerdziunas
22 Apr 2017

Street market in Matonge had low turnout few months in a row, according to the locals. Jeroen Marckelbach, coordinator of Kuumba, said it was due to increasing running costs inflicted by the local government of Ixelles. “They’re trying to push out the Congolese community, as the mayor of Ixelles said recently - ‘I will clean up Matonge,’” explained Jeroen.

Thumb sm
Belgium and Congo-15
Brussels
By Benas Gerdziunas
18 May 2017

Bram Borloo - a tour guide, activist and a painter - leads a group of Flemish woman on a Matonge tour. “In Belgium, children in primary school learn that Leopold II was the ‘King Constructor’” he said, “which continues to construct this false image.” The tour starts among the towering spoils of the colonial era in the Royal Quarter, finishing in central Matonge. “There is no hard link with what we see here, and the [negative] colonial past,” he added, “the past is still traumatic.”

Thumb sm
Belgium and Congo-16
Brussels
By Benas Gerdziunas
19 May 2017

In a home dedicated to the Catholic church community, Stanislas Koyi - a 23 year old Congolese expat - leads a youth group prayer. In this mixed group, which features Congolese as well as white Belgians, they often talk about the colonial legacy. “I never want to split the Belgians’ opinion,” - said Stanislas, “to not make them choose between the Belgians or the Congolese.” Vanessa Monzibila, seen on the left, is Congolese herself. “Our parents still have this fear about Belgium, but we - the young ones - see ourselves like them, we see ourselves as Belgians” she said - “But the Belgians don’t necessarily see us as part of them.”

Thumb sm
Belgium and Congo-17
Brussels
By Benas Gerdziunas
19 May 2017

Maryjo Kazadi, a second generation Congolese, attends the group prayer with Stanislas and Vanessa. “I feel Belgian, I was born here,” she said. However, feeling the optimism shared by many other young, second or third generation Congolese in Belgium, she is keen to go back to her roots, bringing with her knowledge from Belgium - “There is just so much to do there,” she added.