Style Congo. Heritage & Heresy explores the politics of cultural representation and appropriation through both contemporary artistic and architectural interventions and historic materials from CIVA’s collections. Curated by Sammy Baloji, Silvia Franceschini, Nikolaus Hirsch, and Estelle Lecaille, the exhibition chronicles the representation of Congo in international and colonial expositions held between 1885 and 1958, using Art Nouveau as its anchor point.
With works by Judith Barry, Rossella Biscotti, Peggy Buth, Ayoh Kré Duchâtelet, Jean Katambayi, Johan Lagae & Paoletta Holst, Chrystel Mukeba, Daniela Ortiz, Ruth Sacks, Traumnovelle
With selected works by Ernest Acker, Victor Bourgeois, Joseph Caluwaers, Jean-Jules Eggericx, Paul Hankar, Georges Hobé, Victor Horta, Henry Lacoste, René Pechère, Fernand Petit, René Schoentjes, Gustave Serrurier-Bovy
The Belgian movement—in its time also called Style Congo— coincided with King Leopold II’s exploitation of Congo and reflects a widespread fascination with exotic materials and forms. As total artworks, the pavilions of international and colonial expositions illustrate the synthesis of the arts to which modernism aspired, not only through architectural form and applied arts, but also by merging the stage and collection, setting a precedent for displays in ethnographic museums. Through their enthralling constructions and beguiling references—each utopian in their own way—the pavilions communicated a twofold idea: Congo as a lucrative African colony and as a creative field for Belgian artists and architects. Through a display of both authenticity and progress, they served as a platform for cultural propaganda and economic exchange.
Contemporary artistic and architectural positions in the exhibition question canonical histories and the colonial roots of this heritage, and with it the perception of buildings that became icons of Belgian culture. By examining marks of colonization in the city of Brussels and in the Congolese urban landscape, they propose a decolonial resignification of private and public spaces, seeking to rewrite the margins of history into the center.
In the middle of the exhibition is Congolisation (2023), by Brussels-based architecture studio Traumnovelle, an installation that highlights how Belgian architects appropriated and borrowed from Congolese material culture and nature through a timeline of the depictions of Congo in international expositions. In a display that recalls that of archival storage, a selection of historic materials (mostly from CIVA’s collections) is organized in a nonlinear chronology, proposing a possible alternative future.
Encircling Traumnovelle’s installation, artworks by Judith Barry, Rossella Biscotti, and Ruth Sacks create additional links to different historical pavilions. In her sculptural work The Unmade Pavilion (2022), Sacks references Victor Horta’s unrealized pavilion for the 1900 Paris Exposition; while Biscotti’s work, Congo Congo Bruxelles Brussel (2007), examines the colonial topography of the Brussels International Exposition of 1935 by juxtaposing the Congo pavilion and the pavilion of the city of Brussels. Another pavilion, designed by Paul Hankar for the Brussels International Exposition in Tervuren in 1897, is evocated in Barry’s video installation, The Work of the Forest (1992), which addresses European colonialism in Africa as an engine for wealth accumulation in Belgium.
The Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren and its exhibition displays are the subject of Peggy Buth’s work, Desire in Representation – Tervuren (2006-2008). Her photographs show the spatial museological rearrangements while the museum grapples with how to represent the cultural legacy of Belgian Congo.
The links between colonialism and Art Nouveau is explored by Chrystel Mukeba through a series of newly commissioned photographic portraits of Afro-descendant Belgians in some of Brussel’s most iconic Art Nouveau buildings, such as the Horta Museum and Hôtel Van Eetvelde. By suggesting a symbolic reappropriation of this difficult heritage, the work poses a question: To whom does this heritage belong today?
Historical inheritance is also legible in the polyphonic installation of ayoh kré Duchâtelet, Ornaments and Crimes (2023), where audio and drawings incorporating both fiction and documentary in a futuristic dystopia are spatialized in a hearing room, questioning the relationship between justice, power, and colonial history.
Environmental and raw material exploitation is explored in works by Daniela Ortiz as well as by Johan Lagae and Paoletta Holst. Ortiz’s paintings series, The Rebellion of the Roots (2021), looks into the origins of botanical gardens and greenhouses built for international expositions in the nineteenth century. Lagae and Holst’s video installation investigates the work of Edmond Leplae, the first director of the agriculture department of the Belgian Ministry of the Colonies, who traveled through various tropics to make a case for the colonizer’s house as the key instrument for a mise en valeur (exploitation) of the colony.
Finally, Jean Katambayi Mukendi designed a site-specific installation that probes the economic, urban, industrial and architectural development promised by the 1931 International Exposition in Elisabethville (Lubumbashi). Through the prism of deep disillusionment, he stages various objects of scrap animated by light bulbs, symbolizing the fairy electricity that did not give birth to the anticipated miracle.