Authentically African: Arts and the Transnational Politics of Congolese Culture is an important and timely book given French President Emmanuel Macron's declaration in November 2017 that he was committed to “temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa” (Dagen 2017). Restitution has a history in Africa and one that both politicians and museums would be wise to study. Already in 1973, Mobutu Sese Seko launched a demand before the UN in New York for return of cultural heritage to the Republic of Zaïre (now Democratic Republic of the Congo). In the end, the Zairian leader won the transfer of 1,042 ethnographic and art objects from the Belgian Royal Museum of Central Africa (Tervuren) (p. 123).
In Authentically African, Sarah Van Beurden argues that Belgium began to search for a more humane rationale for colonialism after World War II and began to frame stewardship over the collections at Tervuren as evidence for a paternalistic responsibility for safeguarding an “endangered authenticity” in the Congo itself (p. 24). The Mobutu regime (1965–97) reinvented “tradition” as “national heritage” and adapted “colonial notions of cultural authenticity in the national cultural ideology of authenticité” in order to mold modern political subjects (p. 21). It was now the Zairian state that would assume the mantle of guardianship over culture in the body politic (p. 101). Among the more famous provisions of “authenticité” were laws demanding the adoption of indigenous names for both people and places.
In chapter 1, Van Beurden introduces the vast research and exhibition complex at Tervuren, which opened in 1910 as the “Museum of the Belgian Congo” with the explicit mandate to promote the colony (p. 26). The institution was “the most visible presence of the empire in Belgium and one of the major avenues through which Belgian citizens got to know their colony” (p. 24). Although the collection includes minerals, agricultural products, natural history dioramas, and colonial history displays, Van Beurden concentrates on the ethnographic collections, which by the 1950s were increasing reframed as “art.” She documents the pivotal mediation of the art market in cultivating a concern for “authenticity,” as defined by the production of rural populations in (imagined) isolation from European influences.
Chapter 2 “investigates how the changing ideas about African art impacted ideas about cultural policies in the colony” (p. 61). In 1935, the Belgian Parliament voted to establish a Commission for the Protection of Native Arts and Crafts, and signed legislation in 1939 setting out the terms for the selection and protection of heritage sites. Most importantly, the Commission legitimated the activities of an energetic philanthropic group, Friends of Native Art, based in the colonial capital with filial branches operating in a number of provinces. This group supported a great many initiatives, including the founding of museums and workshops.
The history reported here is available nowhere else and is essential reading. I hope that it will spark a rethinking of twentieth century art history in the Congo. Although few like to admit it, most Congolese sculptures exhibited in museum collections were made during the twentieth century. What was the impact of the Friends' publications, workshops, and museum formation on the survival and/or disappearance of indigenous artistic practices?
Van Beurden emphasizes the commitment of the Commission and Friends to “tradition” and “authenticity” but I have found that the positions of major players could be complex (Strother 2016: 242–50,312–13 n. 1–11). For example, Jean Vanden Bossche, director of the Museum of Native Life in Léopoldville (Kinshasa), believed in a “racial soul” but argued that Congolese needed artists who were able to articulate the “Euro-peanized African culture in formation”—it was “absurd” to “freeze” someone in the past (Vanden Bossche 1955: 37,39). It is perhaps not surprising that the most conservative member of the Commission seems to have been the Tervuren representative, Frans Olbrechts.
Chapter 3, “The Art of (Re)possession,” is a must-read for all interested in issues of restitution in Africa. Van Beurden reveals that some Congolese began to question the ownership of the collections at Tervuren in i960 (pp. 100–102). Lucien Cahen, director of Tervuren, prepared a defense arguing that the collections had a universal value and that they had been legally acquired. He also wondered why Tervuren should be singled out and questioned the ability of the new state to preserve the objects in question (p. 103). (All of these arguments have been repeated in op-eds responding to Macron's proclamation in 2017.) In 1967–69 the issue of restitution ignited when the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis organized with Tervuren an exhibition titled Art of the Congo, which traveled to a number of respected American museums. Mobutu was outraged that Tervuren should set itself up as the guardian for Congolese cultural heritage (p. 105). He demanded the return of 200 works of art in the exhibition. Belgium agreed to negotiate so long as the term “restitution” was avoided. Cahen set forth terms, e.g. Zaïre had to agree to build a museum and collaborate with Tervuren in training curators and administrators. The chapter outlines the feints and parries of the negotiation process. In the end, both countries got what they wanted. The Zairian museum staff may have been disappointed in the quality of objects returned, but Mobutu won a political victory at home and abroad by forcing “restitution” from an arrogant colonial institution. Tervuren, on the other hand, congratulated itself on a cheap “gift” as they managed to send back 869 unremarkable scientific artifacts and 114 second-tier works of art (p. 123).
In chapters 4 and 5, Van Beurden tackles the history of museums in the Congo: their organization, collecting practices, and institutional politics (p. 128). The Mobutu regime and Tervuren collaborated to found the Institute for National Museums (IMNZ), which organized 117 collecting expeditions, 1970–90, amassing over 35,000 ethnographic and art objects for the nation (pp. 143, 261–63). Van Beurden hypothesizes that Tervuren was committed to develop IMNZ collections in part because it reduced the likelihood of renewed claims for restitution (p. 152). So serious were expeditions to the Kuba that the king began regularly to petition for restitution … from IMNZ (pp. 199–206). Van Beurden uncovers the contributions of Zairian staff members with the goal of helping to build a literature on the “role of African scientists in the creation of knowledge” (p. 128).
Chapter 6, “Belgian Patrimony, Zairian Treasure, and American Heritage,” is particularly original and a text that I plan to assign in both undergraduate and graduate courses. Van Beurden situates the production of knowledge about African art in cold war politics by examining “the regime's efficient use of the American audience for African art” (p. 209). Beginning with Art of the Congo, the exhibition that originally attracted Mobutu's ire, Van Beurden analyzes the rhetoric, display, and political impact of a series of exhibitions in the United States. In 1976, IMNZ launched a hugely successful riposte to the Walker exhibition by showing itself in Art of Zaire to be a source of new research and collections. By collaborating with the African-American Institute, the regime also began to cultivate a familial relationship with the United States through the presentation of Zairian art as American heritage due to the forced migration of so many people during the era of slavery. The embrace of African art as American heritage culminated in The Four Moments of the Sun, curated by Robert Farris Thompson and Joseph Cornet from IMNZ, at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. Van Beurden downplays the originality of display of this exhibition, which introduced video for the first time to a conservative “high art” establishment as well as a dynamic use of oversized contextual photos to maximize experiential impact. However, she underscores the impact of this exhibition “connecting an African past to an American present” and argues that the United States became “the focus of the [Mobutu] regime's exhibitionary politics” (p. 243).
Mobutu today is grudgingly admired by many Congolese for forging a national identity that has survived the violence of the 2000s. Van Beurden writes that the goal of authenticté was to create a sense of national unity based on shared cultural values (pp. 109–12): The state served as the “legitimizing body for cultural authenticity, in an attempt to divert attention away from ethnic identity politics” (p. 112). But here lies a paradox: How could the museum serve as part of the toolkit for the nation-state when its collections were organized by ethnic group? Van Beurden and many others describe the inability of IMNZ to build or claim a “real museum building” in Kinshasa as a “failure” (p. 168), but might not the lack of will to open the collections to the public result from the contradiction at the heart of the project?
I worked for a number of months in the IMNZ, 1987–89. During that time, the bulk of the collection was housed behind the gates of a presidential compound, and I never saw a single Zairian visiting (who was not an employee). When I gingerly asked why that might be, a Zairian staff member prophesied sotto voce that Mobutu would never allow the museum to open because it would “inflame” Luba pride. (Luba figured prominently among the secessionists of i960.) There are approximately 200 language groups in Zaire/Congo. Marc Felix estimates that perhaps 100 Congolese peoples make or once made sculpture (1987). Certainly, there are large and important populations such as the Lunda who were historically uninterested in sculpture. If the display of “art” is going to be almost entirely restricted to sculpture, how justify a national museum praising the achievements of a fraction of the population? Van Beurden suggests expanding the collections to fields like popular painting, which might hold broader appeal with the public, but future scholars and museum professionals will have to ponder the staff member's intuition that ethnic identities in themselves present a quandary for museum formation.
Authentically African is one of the first in-depth studies of the institutionalization of Mobutu's program of authenticité. One of the strengths of Van Beurden's text is that she triangulates between Congo, Belgium, and the United States to make a transnational analysis of cultural policy while never losing her focus on the DRC. The text is well theorized and will contribute to discussions in many fields from art history to political science.