“It's no mystery
We're making history
It's no mystery
We're winning, victory”
Linton Kwesi Johnson (1984)
Adil Charrot, Lamine Bangoura, Mehdi Bouda, Dieumerci Kanda. Mawda Shawri, Semira Adamu. These were some of the names that were mourned, their name endlessly repeated out loud to demand justice by more than 15.000 people mobilized for the dignity of black lives in the heart of Europe, in June 2020. The indignation brought about by the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by the U.S. police, resonated up in Brussels. The street sign of the ‘Lloyd George Avenue’ on the edge of the Sonian Forest referring to the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was renamed ‘F-Loyd George’. Anger and indignation converged against the increasingly visible lethal police violence during the COVID-19 lockdown and against the still vibrant structural racism, negrophobia and islamophobia in the police corps and in society at large. Street mobilization not only facilitated a deep process of further politicization of existing grass roots anti-racist efforts, but also brought about what Norman Ajari called a wave of “decolonial iconoclasm”. From the settler colonial states of the U.S., Canada, South Africa over New Zeeland and, Australia to the hearth of Empire in Europe, protests broke the polis in two. The demands for black lives were spontaneously complemented with a collective acceleration and intensification of creative monumental interventions, rendering visible a deep societal antagonism, goingbeyond the classical left-right opposition. The heroes revered by some, indeed seem to represent clear cut genocide for others. Even if since almost a decade activists are demanding the dismantlement and banishment of key monumentsrepresenting the late monarch and owner and ruler of the Congo Free State to the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA), there is no consensus yet about the fate of these colonial relics nor about that of the inescapably extractivist and colonial museum in Tervuren. The public debate seems to sputter and does definitely not live up to the breadth of the unfolding multifaceted global movement of decolonial iconoclam, captured in the spirit of ‘PeoPL’ the ice installation of Laura Nsengiyumva, metling down a real size ice replica of Leopold’s equestrian statue at Trone Square in Brussels.
The main counter argument most often repeated against monumental interventions, is the presumed historical erasure it would enable. Another regular critique insinuates that the ongoing monumental contestation would be merely symbolic, a lightning rod for the real race, class and gender issues at stake. It is difficult to imagine refuting a political demand by the mere counter-argument that language is a purely symbolic structure. Monuments, like images, moreover do not only work on the over-codified elements of a crumbling symbolic order, but also and even more on the imaginary level. In this sense the message of the recent wave of monumental contestation accompanying the black lives matter mobilizations against police violence, marks the last turn of a fundamental paradigmatic shift. As repeatedly argued since Aimé Césaire, it is impossible to understand racism without it entangled histories of enslavement and colonialism. When we understand the recent wave of decolonial iconoclasm beyond its “mere symbolism”, it is impossible not to see how this iconoclastic wave is intimately entangled with the re-emergence of the demand of restitutions, but also closely entangled to a renewed demand for reparations.
In this contribution, we want to show how toppling monuments of slave traders and colonial rulers does not entail the erasure of history, quite on the contrary. We argue that the ongoing movements of revolt and decolonial iconoclasm facilitate new forms of remembering, through a clear and collective demand for what Francoise Vergès calls “memorial justice”. Frantz Fanon already considered colonization as the fundamental negation of time, as it not only imposed its rule on the present and the future of the oppressed, but also distorted, disfigured and destroyed the past of the colonized. Albert Memmi later noticed how the colonized is pushed out of the game and is no longer considered a subject of history as in the movement of expulsion s/he is objectified as a body out of place and develops an inferiority complex towards their own supposedly pre-modern tradition. The colonized are always a people without history, outside of time, or whose time is radically out of joint and therefore has to be gently lead into History.
Hence, the contestation of colonial statues does not entail the erasure of history. On the contrary, it brings about the emergence of a deeply historical space where colonial histories vehemently re-emerge and can be fundamentally discussed and reconsidered. So it facilitates a dialogue and brings to light actively silenced histories. By engaging in discussions of memorial justice, we are not erasing history, we are making history.
The statue in honor of Leopold II in Ekeren, a northern district of the municipality of Antwerp, was probably the first statue erected in honor of Leopold II, but also the first colonial statue to be toppled in Belgium’s history. The statue in front of the church on the central market place sculpted by Joseph Ducaju, shows a young and proud king in military uniform, standing upright, with a helmet in the left hand, and a document in the right hand. It was erected in memory of a brief visit of Leopold II to Ekeren, passing by when visiting the army camp of Brasschaat in 1869. Inaugurated in 1873, while the king was still alive, it is most probably the very first statue erected in honor of the king in Belgium.
As since 2007 the statue of Leopold II was doused several times in red paint, the district administration refused to remove the statue as it would amount to erasing the past, but decided in 2018 to place an information board instead next to the statue that historically contextualized the monument. Formulated in consultation with the RMCA, it underlines the statue was erected twelve years before Leopold II acquired personal control over the Congo Free State. It also mentions that the rubber and ivory exploitation went in pair with violence that resulted in an uncountable drop in the number of Congolese people. The explanatory plate ends with emphasizing the commemoration of the victims of colonization by the inhabitants of Ekeren. Later in 2019 the statue was officially protected as established architectural heritage.
Nevertheless, in the night of May 16th 2020, almost a week before the assassination of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police and the ensuing worldwide movement for black lives, the pedestal was tagged with a swastika and the words “Heil” and “Congo is ours”, the statue of the king was decorated with SS signs, another swastika on its right upper arm and a toothbrush style moustache in black paint. The line “Cut of these little hands. Grab the Diamonds. The Congo is ours’ gained public attention and popularity during the summer of 2018 when it was sung while two black women were violently beleaguered, assaulted and humiliated during a concert of Kendrick Lamar at the Pukkelpop festival. Hardly had the Nazi tags been removed, or the coarse-grained sandstone statue was doused again in red paint and three days later set on fire, after which the municipality decided to dismantle the statue and place it in the depot of the Middelheim Open Air Sculpture Museum, a sculpture park in Antwerp
The first toppled Leopold II statue joined the Baron Dhanis monument, another dismantled bronze colonial monument resting in Middlheimpark. Commanded by the ‘Cercle Africain d'Anvers’, it was originally erected in front of the St. Michael Church in 1913 in Antwerp. Sculpted by Frans Joris, the monument shows the lieutenant and commander of the Force Publique in the Congo Free State responsible to fight the Belgo-Arab war, with a triumphant raised rifle above a bowing Arab putting down his flag to surrender. The military victor holds a protective hand over an enslaved Congolese women with a child, symbolizing the campaigns of the Belgium colonial army against the Arab slave trade in name of humanity and civilization, all the while silencing the actual military rivalries with local Zanzibari Arab merchants and sultans over the ivory and slave market.
The symbolism of the Dhanis monument reminds us that of the monument for the Belgian pioneers in the Brussels Cinquantenaire, sculpted by Thomas Vinçotte and inaugurated in 1921 in honor of the “civilizing efforts” of Leopold II in Congo. The left side of the monument shows a group of Arabs throwing an enslaved black man on the ground, but subjected by a Belgian soldier. The inscription reads: “Belgian military heroism destroying an Arab slave owner". As many Muslims who had to pass by the monument since the construction of the Great Mosque felt offended, the word “Arab” was officially chiseled in the 1980s. The inscription was restored and taken away several times, throughout the last decennia, but was last restored by two young popular alt-right politicians during the latest protests in June 2020.
There is no doubt Arab occupation facilitated Belgium colonialism, Arab imperialism, like any other imperialism, has to be firmly condemned. The colonial propaganda rendering relative colonial racism by comparing it with Arabic slave trade however, finds manifold contemporary iterations as a modern expression of widespread Islamophobia. Having partly been addressed internally during different public debates before June 2020, these divisions were for the most part bypassed as people united in the streets to dismantle colonial power and its deadly war machine, simultaneously demanding justice for Adil Charrot and Lamine Bangoura, Mehdi Bouda and Dieumerci Kanda. Mawda Shawri and Semira Adamu.
The confluence of militant energy over deeply engrained colonial divisions, guaranteed that the toppling of the royal statue in Ekeren, would be repeated in different cities over the country. After a nightly intervention in Auderghem Brussels, the local Leopold bust was hammered down. Although the city council of Ghent was better prepared, the bust in South Park was also overhauled and later taken from its pedestal by the council on the 60th anniversary of Congo independence and is likely to be stored in The Museum of Industry, Work and Textiles. The city council of Leuven followed suite and took off a statue high on a tower of the town hall, very few knew it actually existed. Hasselt, Sint-Truiden, Oostende, Tervuren, Halle, Monse, not a lot of cities in Belgium were spared by the wave of decolonial iconoclasm.
Most of the iconoclastic energy was directed at Leopold II, but it would be an error to oversee different other statues that were creatively addressed. Case in point was the embellishment of the bust of late King Baudouin with red paint, the color of the blood spilled by the victims of colonization of Congo, during a nightly escapade of a group of activists in the park of the Saint-Michel cathedral in the center of Brussels. In the speech of the last colonial sovereign according independence and international sovereignty to Congo on June 30th 1960, he reduced the proclaimed independence to the culmination of the courageous and perseverant work of King Leopold II and framed it as the crowning of his great work of civilization, emphasizing all along the benefits of colonization for an independent country now on the road to development, to finally propose a constructive, complementary and fruitful future cooperating. The royal speech of independence only mentioning the merits and goods of colonization was countered by the now historical speech of Patrice Emery Lumumba, speaking truth to power. Seven months later, the first leader of the newly independent country was assassinated. After the journalist Ludo De Witte held the Belgian government responsible for the assassination of Lumumba, a parliamentary commission, who had to determine the exact circumstances of the physical neutralization, showed the implication and moral responsibility of certain members of the Belgian government and other Belgian figures in the circumstances which led to the killing of Lumumba. King Baudouin seemed to have been aware of the plans of Katangese separatists to get rid of Patrice Emery Lumumba but did nothing to stop it. Incriminating evidence was disclosed that showed he had endorsed the plan to kill Lumumba by plausible deniability.
In the wake of the parliamentary commission, activists started to direct their attention to the present but for most until then almost invisible relics of Belgium’s colonial past in public space. In 2008 anthropologist Bambi Ceuppens observed that most of the actions around colonial monuments were carried out by white activists and thus only very few Belgian-Congolese were involved. This, however fundamentally changed the last decade with the abiding power of artist, activists and collectives, such as Decolonize Belgium, Memoire Colonial, Change, La Nouvelle Voix Anti-Colonial, Collectief No Name, A.C.E.D., Bamko-Cran and many others. A first victory of this mobilization was the installation of square in honor of Patrice Lumumba. For the 58th anniversary of Congolese independence, it was inaugurated at the entrance of Matongé, the Congolese neighborhood of Brussels. The inauguration took place in the presence of members of the family of the former independent Belgian Congo Prime Minister. The Congolese diaspora and their allies have struggled to obtain this symbolic gesture of the city council. Patrice Lumumba is generally recognized as one of the most important leaders for the struggle for liberation of Congo and of the wider pan-African movement, until he was murdered on January 17, 1961 in the province of Katanga, with the complicity of the CIA, British MI6 and the Belgian government.
Following a request from Lumumba’s family almost 60 years after his assassination and after the assassination has finally been qualified as a war crime by the Brussels court of appeal, Belgian federal prosecutors are investigating whether they can bring charges against two persons suspected of taking part in the killing of Congo’s first leader, as a tooth belonging to Lumumba was found by the family of one of the suspects. In a letter to King Philippe on the 60the anniversary of independence, Juliana Amato Lumumba, the daughter of Patrice Lumumba asked the king to return his "relics" in the name of the family to “the land of his ancestors".
With the re-emerging monumental contestation in the wake of the movement for black lives, Ixelles Mayor announced it would move the bust of General Émile Storms from Meeûs Square to the RMCA, before the 60th birthday of independence. The announcement came as a small victory,
Storms commanded the 4th expedition of African International Association, a private company chaired by King Leopold II, exploring the east coast of Africa. Like Stanley, he was a central figure in the colonial enterprise charged with expanding the territory of what would become the Congo Free State, at the end of the 19th century. The establishment of military outposts on the land of the Tabwa in the Lake Tanganyika region, was not met without resistance and resulted in severe war crimes and crimes against humanity committed - but never condemned - by the Belgium colonial army, in the name of civilization. Lusinga Iwa N'Gombe, head of the Watombwa people and one of the leaders of this resistance had his head cut off during a punitive expedition lead by Storms. But resistance persevered, and the fort Storms had built in Mpala was set on fire, after which he received the orders to quit his mission and pack his bags back to Belgium. The skull of Lusinga and two other leaders, Mpampa, the prince of Itawa and Malibu, the king of Marungu, were numbered, labeled and brought to Storms private house as personal war trophies. After Storms' death, the three skulls were brought to the RMCA, to finally end in a cardboard box at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, together with about almost 700 human remains, mainly skulls and bone fragments, but also a couple of skeletons from Africa, Asia, America and Oceania.
In the 19th century, a skull was not only considered a war trophy, but also biological evidence of racial superiority in the field of craniometrics and physical anthropology. When the skulls were brought to Belgium, they were first exhibited to an audience of the Société d'Anthropologie de Bruxelles, during which Professor Emile Houzé gave a anthropometric presentation, as he found in his classification of native skulls proof of the presupposed inferiority of certain well-defined human races, and could for instance distill the cruel, greedy and vindictive character of Lusinga on the basis of his objective measurements.
Toma Muteba Luntumbue was one of first to shed light on the marble bust and the dubious legacy of the publicly commemorated general and leading officers of Belgium’s colonial enterprise. For a 2002 documentary questioning the role of the RMCA, he covered Storms' bust with a blood-red cloth, interrogating its public glorification. Two years earlier, as guest-curator for contemporary arts for the ‘Exit Congo Museum’ exhibition at the RMCA, together with Boris Wastiau he had already questioned the provenance of objects and human remains related to the violent histories of among others, General Storms. The recovery of the skull is a consequence of the confluence of worldwide dispersed attention, rendering sensible again a human remain lost in a museum store room. In Allers et retours (2009), Sammy Baloji rendered visible again the skull of chief Lusinga by turning anthropometric photography against itself. This excavation, was continued by Michel Bouffioux who retraced the route of the three skulls.
As reported by Bouffiaux, Thierry Lusinga NGombe also requested in a letter to the king in October 2018, the return to Congo of the remains of his alleged ancestor so it could find a decent burial and rest in peace, but his demand has not been followed up by government officials. Nonetheless, scientists from the University of Lubumbashi are preparing a request for collective restitution, actively involving representatives of the Tabwa community so Chief Lusinga can finally return to the region where he lived and be buried with the respect due to his rank, close to other customary chiefs.
After the national demonstrations for black lives in Brussels, the word “Pardon” was tagged in white paint on the chest of Leoplold II, blinded with red paint still sitting on his horse on Troon Square. The word ‘Reparation’ was also added with red on the back of the pedestal of the defaced bust of late King Baudouin in front of the Saint-Michel cathedral. Later, on the 60th anniversary of Congolese independence, King Philippe, the nephew of the last colonial sovereign of Congo, expressed his “deepest regrets” for the brutality and cruelty of a painful colonial past in a letter to the Congolese president Félix Tshisekedi. A formal apology for colonial crimes against humanity that would allow for the acknowledgment and compensation for past mishandling and exploitations that still reverberates in the present, is left unsaid. The monarch however added that he would “continue to fight against all forms of racism” and further “encourage the reflection begun in our Parliament to come to terms with the past, once and for all”. The Belgian Chamber of Representatives later confirmed the proposition to set up a Belgian ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ to research the Belgian colonial past in Congo Free State (1885-1908) and Congo (1908-1960), Rwanda and Burundi (1919-1962), its historical and contemporary impact and consequences. It will furthermore have to advise on how academic research on (post)colonialism can be stimulated, with special attention to the disclosure and preservation of colonial archives. It was also commissioned to look to what extent symbolic actions such as the removal or contextualization of colonial statues, the official offering of public recognition and apologies or building memorials for the victims of colonization can have a conciliatory effect. The expert group was also appointed to say if the restitution of stolen heritage can impact existing racism and look into the legal and financial consequences of involving victims of colonization in the investigation. The action plan will eventually serve as a proposition to the Government of the region, concerning possible changes in urban toponymy, the contextualization of colonial symbols in public space, but also the restitution of human remains. It was also mandated to advice on the desirability of a memorial for decolonization.
As Olivia Rutazibwa, who refused the invitation to be part of the national expert group, warns us in her declination letter, the Special Commission of the Belgian Parliament risks to become a mere “cosmetic operation at the service of the status quo” maintaining rather than decolonizing what she calls the “White World logic”.
Nevertheless, it is by now hopefully clear that the wave of decolonial iconoclasm accompanying the revolts for black lives and against police violence demarcates a fundamental paradigm shift, rendering it impossible to talk about racism without its entangled histories of enslavement and colonialism, making room for the re-emergence of the demand of restitution and reparations to resonate loudly. The toppling of monuments and statues of colonial rulers, slave traders, military general and lieutenants does not entail the erasure of history. On the contrary, the ongoing movements of revolt and decolonial iconoclasm facilitate new forms of remembering through a clear demand for memorial justice. It rearticulates history from below, by rendering intelligible and visible again, silenced pasts, facilitating the re-emergence of almost erased but resistant ways of knowing and being in the world. By engaging in memorial justice, we are not erasing history, we are making history and winning victory.