Ruth Sacks, University of Johannesburg

What kind of art is left behind by totalitarian regimes? A new free-to-read book called Congo Style: From Belgian Art Nouveau to African Independence explores the visual culture, architecture and heritage sites of the country today known as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It does so by exploring two now-notorious regimes: King Leopold II of Belgium’s Congo Colony (1908-1960) and Mobutu Sese Seko’s totalitarian Zaire, established when he seized power in a military coup in 1965 after five years of political upheaval. We asked artist and visual culture scholar Ruth Sacks five questions about her book.

What did you set out to achieve?

Years ago, while I was in Belgium on an art residency, I became interested in the early modernist art nouveau movement (1890-1914). In architecture and art, this period is part of 20th century modernism, known for a minimal, clean aesthetic that’s influenced by new technologies and the advent of machines. Art nouveau is distinctive because it’s highly decorative, while still using the new building materials of iron and glass.

What interested me was the colonial nature of art nouveau. Art nouveau came with a very strong sense of defining newly formed (or unified) nation states in western Europe. It was the style used at world fairs. These were grand exhibitions showing off western countries’ scientific and cultural achievements, including the acquisition of colonies.

A colonial pavilion in the art nouveau style at the 1897 Brussels world fair in Belgium helped establish one of the names for Belgian art nouveau: “Style Congo”.

The style is distinctive for its curling, plant-like shapes and is a major tourist feature today. The years in which it was implanted in Brussels (about 1890-1905) directly coincided with the brutal Congo regime of Belgium’s King Leopold II.

Travelling to the DRC, I located actual art nouveau buildings from the early colonial period. But it was the state sites of the early Mobutu Sese Seko regime (1965 to 1975) that captured my attention. Like art nouveau, they are steeped in a sense of nationalism and aimed at impressing. For example, the Limete Tower (in use from 1974) on Boulevard Lumumba is a massive monument intended to be a museum celebrating national culture. A tower made up of a huge raw cement tube is topped by an organic floret shaped crown, with a curving walkway leading off from its rounded lower sections.

My experience of the capital city, Kinshasa, made me rethink what cities were and could be. Buildings like Limete Tower that were designed for very different infrastructures (far more ordered, European and US systems) have weathered in fascinating ways that are often related to extremely violent historic events.

I didn’t want to present a conventional study that only analyses the design of the architecture and its functionality. The book attempts to read sites like this within the particularities of their city, its streets, plants and histories.

What did you conclude about the Leopold period?

In Leopold II’s time, the king himself was cast as the villain of the “red rubber regime” in the Congo. The Belgian colonial regime under Leopold II committed atrocities connected to the rubber industry. (The 1897 Congo Pavilion was a pavilion within the Brussels World’s Fair dedicated to displaying how the Congo provided a lucrative and exotic resource to Belgium.)

Movements like the Congo Reform Association (mainly US and British) protested against horrific conditions, including torture and mutilation, that left at least a million Congolese people dead. A great deal of the focus was on Leopold II himself and his greed, which distracted attention away from the greater system of capitalist colonial expansion that was fully endorsed by Euro-American powers.

Famously, Leopold II never set foot in the Congo and neither did the art nouveau designers who fashioned buildings and exhibition pavilions relating to the Congo. I believe this distance from the realities of life in the Congo itself allowed for the fantastical forms that were created in Belgium.

What did you conclude about the Mobutu period?

Mobutu Sese Seko was widely maligned by the Euro-American press. What’s often ignored, to this day, is that he was put in place by Belgium and the US. He was painted as the villain of the African story, fulfilling the ultimate caricature of the African kleptocrat, yet he wouldn’t have come to power without the nature of the colonialism that came before him.

Belgian colonialism followed a logic of extractivism (removing natural resources to export them) that forced the Congolese economy to supply raw materials to the west (especially Belgium), which continues today.

Mobutu is considered corrupt in the Congo today and his military dictatorship was indeed brutal and controlled the Congolese people with fear. However, his commandeering of a cultural blooming in Kinshasa in the late 1960s and early 1970s was important. Instead of dismissing what he built as only the work of a dictator, my book draws out some of the complexity of this time and what it meant to celebrate African craft, art forms and traditional culture.

The process of appropriating Euro-American artistic ideas and architectural styles in order to celebrate Africanness, as an anti-colonial statement, still holds weight today. Many of Mobutu’s towering monuments are considered objects of pride in the city.

How does this live on today?

There is something to be gained from looking at what is left in the wake of tragically violent regimes and how their structures are treated within both their societies and their immediate surroundings. How material culture is made is as important as what is made. Reckoning with monuments and memorials, and considering how these are maintained in the city, can shed often unexpected insights into the ways histories are told.

My hope is that the book remains relevant as a sign there is value in picking apart material remains of regimes that aimed for total control, but never fully achieved it. The associations that build up around public spaces and exhibitions are not necessarily only to do with the circumstances of their making, but how these stories have been filtered over time. They can alienate people but they can also engender pride.

The extractivist attitudes I describe throughout the book, which see the Congo as a resource with bountiful raw natural materials, are still very much present in our day-to-day life. The cobalt in our smartphones, computers and electric cars is mined by labourers working in near slave conditions to feed our need for the latest technology. While Congo Style stays with historical examples in Kinshasa, the built material that follows colonial ecocide is the main topic.

Ruth Sacks, Senior Lecturer in Visual Art, University of Johannesburg

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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