To mark 50 years of independence in the Congo, Noorderlicht Photogallery is showing two exhibitions about that country. The first, Congo belge en images, is the result of an expedition of discovery that Magnum photographer Carl De Keyzer and architectural historian Johan Lagae made through the photography collection of the Royal Museum for Central Africa. They selected unconventional material from the period of the Congo Free State (1885-1908), the private plantation of Belgian king Leopold II, photographs which confirm and unsettle clichés about the colonial past.
Since Leopold II founded his private domain along the course of the Congo River in 1885, the region has been inextricably linked with Belgium. Even by colonial standards, it proved to be a heinous regime. The region's natural resources were plundered, and the African population were decimated by the inhumane practices in the rubber and ivory trade.
In the meantime, back in Europe the fiction of the mission civilisatrice was carefully being constructed: the civilising mission of the Belgians in Africa. A large number of photographers – chiefly amateurs and adventurers – were enlisted to provide the visual evidence that Belgium was bringing progress to this ‘barbarian’ world. This ‘visual annexation’ aided the Belgians in their appropriation of a land and a people, not only physically but also morally.
Congo belge en images
It goes without saying that the photographic material produced was subject to selection based on political considerations; it was an instrument that supported the colonial agenda. But, De Keyzer and Lagae asked themselves, what could be seen in the images to which collective memory had never had access? From over 40,000 negatives they selected 80 generally never previously seen images. Alongside the colonial propaganda – schools, hospitals, railway bridges – is the rigorous repression by the courts, police and army. Over against the romanticism of untamed nature stand the horrors of forced labour, inequality and contempt. But the selection also shows images that reveal a more complex reality, in which colonialists are not necessarily portrayed as heroes and the colonised are not always reduced to victims.
In their selection process the curators opted for the unique perspective of the colonial photographer as auteur. The photographs derive their surplus value not only from their content as documents, but especially from their visual strength, their well-weighed composition and the subtle play of light. Congo belge en images in this way provides a new look at the colonial past, and is an homage to a generation of photographers who have remained anonymous.
The exhibition will be opened by Carl De Keyzer and Johan Lagae on Friday, 9 July, at 5:00 p.m. at the Noorderlicht Photogallery.
The second exhibition, ‘Congo (belge)’ follows on the programme, from 14 August through 3 October. ‘Congo (belge)’, by Carl De Keyzer, is devoted to the modern Democratic Republic of the Congo.