Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 13, 2018
Sarah Van Beurden Authentically African: Arts and the Transnational Politics of Congolese Culture Athens, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2015. 392 pp.; 12 color ills.; 64 b/w ills. Paperback $34.95 (9780821421918)

We art historians have gained some familiarity with the independence-era history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) from Raoul Peck’s acclaimed film Lumumba (2000) and from several published studies on the life and death of Patrice Lumumba, its first prime minister. A key publication is A Congo Chronicle: Patrice Lumumba in Urban Art, a catalogue for the exhibition of the same title presented at the Museum for African Art in New York, April 23–August 15, 1999. Evaluations of Lumumba inevitably incorporate the vicious, CIA-inspired conspiracy that led to Lumumba’s murder, pointing to his executioner having been, in effect, Joseph Mobutu, then a military officer who subsequently ruled the DRC (known for a time as Zaire) for decades as its dictator-president. Authentically African: Arts and the Transnational Politics of Congolese Culture is a fascinating, well-researched, and insightful account of the appropriation of art and culture for the production of a legible Congolese national identity post-Lumumba (Mobutu was deposed in the mid-1990s), although the book’s time line leads from before the end of Belgian colonial rule through the brief Lumumba era and past the Mobutu era almost to the present.

Authentically African starts its account with Mobutu’s grip on power consolidated, against the backdrop of colonial history, independence, and Mobutu’s then-recent second coming. This was the period during which the state ideology of authenticity (authenticité) was first discussed and, perhaps surprisingly, well received, at least initially, by large sectors of the population. Encouraging the kind of challenge inevitably encountered by all postcolonial societies with nostalgia for an imagined past, authenticité desired the jettisoning of the European cultural ways and frameworks that the colonial state and, to an extent, the Catholic mission reproduced as part of their civilizing missions. Sarah Van Beurden’s text does not dwell on the fascinating mid-twentieth-century history of the DRC; instead, in the book’s first two chapters, she steps back to give significance to, and explore the precursor relationships between, Congolese traditional art as a kind of terrain of knowledge and Belgian colonial practice. This leaves most of the rest of the book for a deep and thorough investigation of the ways in which traditional art was instrumentalized in service of the new ideologies of the state—both colonial and postcolonial.

Van Beurden’s narrative starts with this instrumentalization’s earliest form, as established by the famous, perhaps also infamous, colonial museum in Tervuren, Belgium. The Royal Museum for Central Africa constituted itself as guardian of Congolese art and culture well before the moment of independence, and Van Beurden moves thence to the initial arrangements entered into between Tervuren and the African nation, then recently renamed Zaire, toward the founding of its own national museum. At its birth it incorporated, in part, a couple of preexisting, regional, semi-independent colonial-era museums such as the Museum of Indigenous Life. In the new museum, called the Institut des Musées Nationaux du Zaire (IMNZ), the state hoped to see the collections at Tervuren repatriated and installed after a naïvely anticipated restitution. In chapter 3, Van Beurden explores the politics and rhetoric of restitution, whereby objects housed in Tervuren were, from afar, reconstituted as crucial to a Congolese national identity, especially in the context of the state’s desire to decolonize culture itself. Traditional art came, in other words, to be understood as heritage in ways it would not have been understood a few decades earlier.

It is fascinating that, ultimately, the postcolonial state’s production of knowledge about Congolese art within the IMNZ nevertheless hardly departed from the forms set early by European scholars, many working from Tervuren. The fourth chapter of Authentically African tells how, failing to persuade the Belgians to return the collections that had been amassed in Tervuren for close to a century, Zaire itself then set about collecting traditional art through the IMNZ. We learn of the IMNZ’s founding and follow its history almost to the present. Although the IMNZ’s earliest managing officials were Belgian, the ideology of authenticité gave rise to the employment and training of Zairian staff, with the aim that this staff would, ultimately, take charge. The chapter tells of heroic collecting agendas and the field difficulties its executors encountered, revealing how challenging it was for Congolese staff members faced with often racialized power dynamics prone to making Congolese contributions invisible. It also describes how struggles among the Belgians themselves, sometimes against the derogatory positions toward Africans taken from the former colonial capital, Brussels, further muddied the IMNZ’s waters. Nevertheless, Van Beurden also reveals alliances and loyalties we might less easily anticipate—Belgians not supported by Belgium or in rebellion of sorts against the kinds of prejudiced or biased thinking about African capabilities emerging from places like Brussels, or Antwerp, or Paris.

Readers also discover, in relation to the corrupting effects of obsessive collecting tours, that conflicts of interest arose and were kept neatly hidden; some scholars were in fact dealers (135), and some dealers passed themselves off as scholars back home in Belgium. Bribery, the stealing of artworks, substitutions, and other such machinations were not unknown either, and in some surprising instances involved perhaps unlikely characters—an illegal export of art objects implicating, for instance, a Roman Catholic priest. Furthermore, especially in the context of an increasingly absolutist Mobutism paying lip service to heritage and its conservation, IMNZ’s conversion of the idea of cultural guardianship into “the very embodiment of power” (163) seems merely to divulge the museum’s silent degeneration, initially due to the authenticité-linked “Zairization” of state institutions, followed at the IMNZ by neglect by the very same state. All of this underlines Van Beurden’s earlier comment that, “a corrupt political system and a powerful second economy drowned out good-faith efforts to protect the country’s cultural heritage” (143).

The following chapter (5) then plots the ultimate demise of the IMNZ, its founding “civilizing” ambitions notwithstanding. The museum’s situation was not helped by its failure to generate much public interest. Various possibilities are suggested for its dramatic and in part self-inflicted failure, ranging from the building’s remote siting to alienating displays that insisted, as Van Beurden would put it, on elevating its artifacts to the category of art. Within the art domain, moreover, curators were rather shortsighted, or perhaps suffered a blind spot, in not incorporating the popular genre of narrative painting (which made the violent history of Congo’s past a key element of its constructions of national identity) in their exhibitions.

Chapter 6 asserts that state involvement with the arts shifted from concern with local audiences to a focus on international ones and their perception of Zaire, and plots how it was that the center of gravity of scholarship and exhibitions concerning Congolese art pivoted from the Zaire-Belgian axis to a Zaire–United States axis. The chapter does so especially by exploring a number of international exhibitions of Congolese art through the early 1980s, one or two birthed by the state itself, including wide-ranging ones that breached the complex boundary markings of historical and traditional, and modern and contemporary art. It also explores the revival of interest in the slavery-era dispersal to the Americas of peoples of the Congo River basin and in particular a recognition of more than the familiar United States–West Africa connection. In short, this continental shift revives the fact of Congo as part of America’s heritage. The chapter is certainly a good basis for understanding the continued expansion of English-language Congolese art history in the United States since the days of Robert Farris Thompson’s Four Moments of the Sun (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art), published in 1981. Note for instance John Thornton’s or Wyatt MacGaffey’s work in the last couple of decades and Allen Roberts’s or Cécile Fromont’s more recently. The expansion is also evident in the staging of major exhibitions such as Kongo across the Waters and Kongo: Power and Majesty.

Although the narrative constructed in chapter 6 rings true, the internal workings of the diaspora-leaning shifts described are nowhere as intricately or deeply plumbed as were the political and social contexts of the early chapters. Van Beurden indicates that in this more recent period the state’s interest in showcasing the diversity of Congolese peoples (as expressed in their art) was instead subsumed by a partial neutralizing of difference in the name of a singular idea of the nation (Zaire). Absent from this chapter are insights of the kind she offered earlier into the political worlds inhabited by scholars and museum curators—by now American, of course. The focus is placed instead on the dynamics of international rhetoric played out in the context of both the Cold War and Mobutu’s insecure grip on power, despite his bravado.

The concluding chapter starts as a kind of reiteration of the ideas driving the book and an assertion of what it achieves by its end. I especially liked the suggestion here that decolonization can be understood at least in small part as “a long-term struggle over categories” (254). The chapter then turns quickly to a more personal reminiscence of the author’s early days exploring the subject of the book. Its concluding image, a kind of coda relating to the present, describes how the IMNZ, now the IMNC, as Zaire reverted to Congo, opened a new gallery, where yet newer category making appears to be on display; the gallery also now incorporates in its grounds colonial-era sculpture (in service of the colonial project) that the postcolonial state would once have excised from its notion of what history could be. Popular art, which had always incorporated the inauthentic past, and academic knowledge, which in the name of authenticité had expunged it, appear finally to meet.

With its significant discussions about the history of Congolese curatorial and display stratagems, Authentically African will be of interest to art historians, curators, and art museologists. However, the book is not your typical art-historical account, since rarely is it interested in the objects themselves as forms of historical representation, mimesis, or suchlike. Nevertheless, it makes a wonderful, richly detailed read and will be especially useful in relation to other Congo-focused art-historical texts for making even more meaningful the emergence of Congolese art and culture as a global interest.

Ikem Stanley Ifejika Okoye
Professor, Department of Art History, University of Delaware