Anonymous Objects as Exhibition Organisms

Author: Ruth Sacks


Anonymity is a state assigned to most traditional African art objects in museums and galleries. As noted by Susan Vogel, while their individual makers were recognized in their communities of origin, often as reknowned artists, names are seldom ascribed to specific works of art within the African art canon ( Known Artists 40). In this article, I highlight the vastly uneven colonial  conditions that led to objects from the Congo shedding the names of their makers as they became mainstays of 20th century exhibition space. On doing so, I treat the anonymous Congolese object as a vibrant entity of modernist display. Following the notion that the terms of accumulation and subsequent exposition of the objects of Congolese peoples in Euro-America rendered their authors unkown, I pursue the idea that this imposed anonymity puts pressure on their sociability. In the silencing of their original makers, they are forced to speak for themselves. My proposal is to look at the work particular objects do within the experiential network of relations that is the moment of exhibition. 1

Through reappraising trajectories of the flood of objects that left the Congo in the early 20th century to join Euro-American collections, I recast them as lively exhibition organisms. 2 Within spaces developed specifically to house them, these exhibits manifest a resilient agency. I will begin with the desirable Congolese object losing its author to colonial representations of traditional Africa. As it moves out of this stasis to act as a vital source of fascination for modernist form, over the course of the 20th century, it also agitates for the rights of exhibition spaces in Africa, with the new nation of Zaïre demanding the return of objects removed during the colonial period. In order to provide a broad context of the collective conditions of the objects’ production, I will close with a discussion regarding the display of such objects in the postcolony. A detailed review of ethnographic exhibits at the 1976 Foire Internationale de Kinshasa (FIKIN) reveals their complex modes of functionality.

My research looks at the material qualities of iconic Congolese objects that secured renown for the peoples from whom they germinated. Now-famed tribal origins of “Kuba,” “Luba,” “Pende,” etc, are often the only name these exhibits bear. I hope the provocation of my overall focus — addressing object agencies within established exhibition structures — may be useful to parallel studies concerning the display of material cultures of other disenfranchised peoples.

I view these exhibition objects as more than passive receptacles for the projected fantasies of imperialist, modernist and nationalistic ideologies. The Congolese object agitates the terms of its containment, eluding the grand narratives of different ideologies and possession claims across huge distances and time periods. As exhibit, it moves in and out of taut systems of representation, gaining momentum and garnering impressive biographies and effective sensibilities. It embodies a resilient self-knowledge, outside of the static Euro-American framing of African cultures. According to this logic, museum objects were stand-ins for the communities from which they originated. At the same time as anonymous African objects gathered rich layers of meaning, 20 th century modernist display mechanisms crystallized around them. Bearing this in mind — as well as the fact that more exhibits touted as “traditional” were made with the Euro-American collection in mind than the institutions that house them are necessarily willing to admit — I prefer to view them as emplaced objects; intrinsic organs within the body of modernist constructions.

The central risk of this exhibition-orientated approach is that it could potentially be used to justify maintaining dubiously acquired colonial collections. Alongside assumptions of cultural  guardianship, which presume the possession of suitable apparatus to keep objects safe for posterity trumps inheritance rights in their places of origin, institutions have a further claim on those collection items that form an important part of their institutional biographies. Conversely, a deep reckoning with the structural relationship of Congolese objects in historic museum space credits them with the status of full objecthood in their own right. Not merely the victims of colonial plunder, these are capable and agile exhibits, confident across many different kinds of display forums. In an art world unable to credit their makers’ sophisticated artistic consciousness, their anonymity allowed them to stand alongside modernist works.

My proposal attempts to shift conversations away from pandering to primitivist mythology. That is, if an imaginary world of pre-colonial tribal purity is seen as the only rightful place for collected items, they will forever remain free-floating symbols of homelessness. With their distant, romantic past irretrievably lost (not least because it never existed), their worldliness is denied. Ultimately, the implication of revered objects as place-maker for people can, perhaps, allow some dignity to rub off back to their anonymous makers.

To cite this article

Sacks, Ruth. “Anonymous Objects as Exhibition Organisms.” Fusion Journal, no. 9, 2016.

Agency within Colonial Collecting:

The Congolese object made its first appearance in early modernist exhibition space as late 19th century ethnographic specimen. 3  According to the logics of this system, it came to symbolize its disenfranchised makers on macro and micro levels.

Burning acquisitiveness for colonial possessions led to huge demand for exposing the material culture of subject peoples in the metropole. As colonial fever took hold, special Africa halls and whole museums sprang up across Euro-America. Fierce competition between national institutions and private collectors to obtain the best authentic pieces spurred on collecting activities in Central and Sub-Saharan Africa, in the early years of the 20 th century. 4  With the Congolese subject rendered negligible through the process of colonization, identification of their authors was a lesser concern.

Aesthetic appeal was a driving force in collecting, with visually striking pieces being sought after (Keim and Schildkrout 11). Recognition of the aesthetically pleasing qualities of certain objects over others cannot only be attributed to the taste of now well-known Euro-American collectors. 5 Various African middlemen – dealers, craftsmen and community leaders – supplying the objects had a major role in shaping museum collections. Moreover, they were often canny tradesmen, imminently capable in manipulating the market (Keim and Schildkrout 4 – 6). While this was a limited agency within the harsh terms of colonial occupation, African actors made conscious decisions concerning what to give, sell or make, based on their perceptions of foreign interests (ibid). Further, many trade dealers were responsible for the erasure of artists’ names in the handing over process, despite certain individual creators being famous, across extensive regions (Granly 35). Clear choices were made concerning which objects to part with, which were signed and which were to be created especially for the collector. The latter were considered to be fakes by those taking possession of them, because of a firm belief that the authentic African object had to display wear and tear from participation in ritual tribal use. Thus, if a sculpture is fabricated to look as if it had aged or been used, or if an artist had copied the style of another tribe, it was assumed that the intention was to deceive. In reality, the artist (and middleman) may well have seen his/her role as supplying the product demanded, according to his/her understanding of the taste of the collector (Kasfir 95). 6

The knowing object was a subversive mechanism through which Euro-American desires could be manipulated. Already a combination of different influences in their original context, the objects of Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly those from the Congo, featured heavily as representative of so-called black, or tribal, Africa. As such, they were not cast as pieces made by creative individuals, but as representatives of entire, generalized, cultures. A single utensil could conjure up entire worlds, fulfilling a dual symbolic function by embodying both a type of object, used in a characteristic manner (knife, mask, pot, figurine, etc), and a style that was definitive of a category of people. Accordingly, even when objects do not take on a human form, they are anthropomorphic; standing in for missing human bodies. Within the realm of colonial ideology rendered experiential, the object was used to enforce the false notion of tribal divisions as impossibly rigid organic entities. 7

The Congolese objects that came to be collectors’ items embody a point of complex encounter and exchange. At the time of being swept up in imperial desires, they were produced for a colonial system of exchange. Rather than the fictive anonymous artist of colonial mythology, who went unnamed in communal tribal tradition, various different agents -makers, middlemen, dealers, collectors and museum buyers- were involved in the objects’ production. Colonial desire for visible evidence of separate tribal styles, within the museum, was pandered to in the production and brokering of these exhibits. They bear the collective terms of their making.

Even at early stages of exhibition technology — where the object is overridingly subject to having things done to it — exhibits have a degree of influence on the terms of their containment. Because imperial exhibitions had to sell the idea of colony-as-progress, they were often an opportunity for artists to demonstrate feats of innovative creativity. In Belgium, the 1897 Congo Pavilion at Tervuren showcased the new proto-modernist design phenomenon of the Art Nouveau total artwork. Here, curvilinear stands and exhibition furniture by attributed Belgian Art Nouveau designers, were seen to pick up on motifs from the anonymous objects of Congolese ethnic groups. Halls by Paul Hankar incorporated motifs from Kasai textiles in their surrounding display stands and included a generalized interpretation of an African headpiece to crown the exhibition furniture. 8  Anonymous fragments, flattened into an exotic “Africanness,” are discernable within overpowering installations of named Belgian creators.

Such was the importance of performing ownership of the Congolese object, the colonial exhibition became a permanent Musée de Congo Belge, in the early 1900s. Dazzling imperial extravaganza solidified into permanent museum, ossifying the myth of a less-developed colonial subject. As the “provenance and producers” of the museum exhibits were lost, so too were their accompanying histories of the destruction of Congolese communities (Silverman 23). However, over the course of the 20th century, collection objects at what is now the Royal Africa Museum at Tervuren (RMCA) would be seen to be the catalysts for changes in aid of more modern public experience of them. 9  As aesthetically appealing pieces, they gather momentum in the fictions of colonial display, avoiding its strictures to begin to acquire prestige as prize showpieces and modern objects of desire.

Modernist objectification moves into nation-building

When the supposedly primitive object, in ethnographic guise, sparked daring new experiments in modernist art in the early years of the 20th century, it was already emplaced. Exhibits named as tribal wore their layers of interpretation sufficiently well to make contact with the mechanism with which it would shift the terms of its display; the objectifying eye of modern art. In the now-apocryphal encounter between Picasso and the exotic objects of Paris’ Trocadéro, they represented that museum, in its entirety.10 Picasso’s epiphany, heightened from spending time with what he deemed to be powerful superstitious objects, was a reaction to already loaded museum pieces (Flam and Deutch 4). While the objects in question were not the relics of savage rites of the artist’s imagination, they presented a convergence of the long history of Africa, entangled with colonial activity. As such, they bore witness to a different kind of violence than that of primitivist fantasy.

As muse for modernist genius, formal qualities of ethnographic objects, particularly free-standing humanoid sculptures and masks, proceeded to reverberate across waves of painterly and  sculptural reference. From Cubism and Fauvism, to German Expressionism, it was the imagined savage expression found in the plastic qualities of tribal artworks that paved the way for African artifacts to be elevated to the status of art. By the mid 20th century, the optimal viewing conditions for modernist works (primarily paintings) was deemed to be the pared down forms of the minimal gallery space, or “white cube” (O’Doherty 76).11 With primitivist artworks already laced with elements of African objects, they soon followed suit. By the mid 20th century, the oddities and ethnographic finds of earlier eras had been recast as features within modern art arenas (Vogel, Art/Artifact 12). The modernist exhibition situation shed their subject status to become elevated objects; thereby consolidating an aesthetic canon. While avant-garde recognition of African objects allowed them all the conditions worthy of the title “masterpiece,” this honor was seldom conferred back to the people from which they originated.

Within art galleries, objectification of the African exhibit came to the fore in its appellation. Labels cited vague geographic regions, tribal origin or the name of the object’s owner/collection, in lieu of an individual maker. This act of modernist cleansing separates the object, not only from its original culture, but also the physical bodies of those that made them (Gikande 33). In the shift from artifact to artwork, the imagined tribal bodies of colonial fiction fall away to further anthropomorphize the object-as-artwork, imbuing them with the limited degree of autonomy endowed on objects with art-world credentials.

According to the logic of art exhibitions, a kind of vitalism has always been conferred onto the object that has managed to maintain a presence. Value is bestowed on the thing that has managed to remain where others have not, in a Darwinian survival of the fittest object (Onians 5). Without buying into the mythology of modernist artwork being the pinnacle of culture, these exhibits embody sufficient qualities to mobilize between different display forums. In setting off a process of shuffling and questioning the labels that bound them, they displayed an ability to deflect definitive analysis. Moreover, garnering the accolade of “complete masterpiece” is no easy feat (Rubin 323). Within a capitalist art logic, whereby valuable objects are “…those that resist our desire to possess them …” elusive meanings and unknown origins make them highly appealing (Appadurai x). Their makers’ namelessness adds to their mystique.

With the famous names of artistic genius threatening to overpower the story of 20th century Congolese exhibits, I prefer to focus on the genius object that exudes and gathers the source of its economic and cultural value. As it moves into the realm of western private collection and modernist public display, the object absorbs the prestige of high-end environments and ranking of previous owners. Such pedigrees work both ways, with status symbol objects heightening the value of their new homes, emphasizing their modernity. The fetishizing cult of the highly-fashionable African object gives rise to their occupying a special functionality within modernist display that binds the latter to it.

Within shifting circumstances, the uneasy permanent-contemporaneity of traditional African objects can be seen as a destabilizing force in the 20th century concept of museum categorization. 12 Once positioned in the seat of high culture, they were able to set off even further disruptions via the ambitious political imaginations of black consciousness movements. Where their original makers had no voice, universally recognized value of highly prized exhibition objects was a source of pride for those seeking to find one. Pan Africanism and Négritude, in different ways, claimed the anonymous objects, which had ignited modernist form, as their own. In complicated relationships between the exoticising primitivisms of modernism and urgent politics of universal Africanisms, the African exhibit proved a useful diplomatic tool. In the age of African independence, newly liberated nation-states took stock of the museum aura of objects deemed traditional by colonizing forces. Culture was at the forefront of forging modern Africanized nations, bringing the  appropriation of invented traditions with it.

The late 1960s saw the new president of Zaïre, Mobutu Sese Seko, not only attempting to instigate a proud Congolese museum culture, but also calling for the return of “colonial plunder” (3). With a select few hero objects wending their way back to the postcolony, their place in the prestige machines of African heritage myths was sealed.13  In line with Pan Africanist concerns, the Institute of the National Museums of Zaïre (IMNZ) trumpets African self-sufficiency via the tropes of modern museum conventions (with Tervuren’s exhibitions being the most salient influence). Objects representing lost traditions were co-opted for the purposes of nation-building. As display organisms, they bring with them the pared down aesthetics of modernist viewing conditions.

In being objectified into representing Zaïre, the exhibits are in danger of being flattened into a purely symbolic function. While they are awarded a certain agency, in that their presence in Zaïre generated a sophisticated modern museum to develop around them, their role as indigenous citizen roots them in a kind of fundamentalism. This point of view sees art and architecture exclusively belonging to its place of origin (Joselit 2). As such, inherent complexities from the true nature of their place of origin, as well as the terms of the object being made and acquired, are overly simplified. Echoes of inherited essentialisms of forms of Négritude may thus be seen to emerge in a Zaïre still enthralled by its own youthful confidence.

Previously labelled as uncanny things, subject to primitive superstition, the Congolese object became territorial markers of power. This power being unstable, admired items keep moving. In the deprivations of the years of violent political unrest that ensued, countless objects, both well-travelled and locally sourced, went missing from the IMNZ. These were seldom random thefts, but pointed assaults on those pieces most sought after by in international forums (Kwandi). 14   I leave the story of these highly desirable pieces just before their paths become impossible to trace, in the murky entrapment of illegal activities. As lost objects, they carry with them all of the new and old fictions of their making.

Foire Internationale de Kinshasa(Zaïre, 1975)

Under the guise of Mobutu regime largesse, public displays proclaimed the enhanced status of traditional Congolese objects. International survey exhibitions, like Art from Zaïre: 100 Masterworks from the National Collection (1975), traveled abroad, putting their objects to work as eloquent intermediaries for the restitution of further pieces. In Zaïre, objects claimed as pre-colonial heritage were presented as a source of pride for a nation plunged into l’authenticité. This was a government enforced policy that took systematic recourse in African tradition, as a reaction to the cultural devastation of colonialism. It extended across various levels of daily life, including the attire and naming of Zaïrian people. Consciously Africanized objects and environments of this era were used as both mechanism and symbol of Zaïrian agency. At the same time as taking on the name Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, the president donned a leopard skin head-dress and carried a walking stick associated with traditional leaders. While the author of the carved cane is not widely known, the object itself works as a generalized motif of African power, visible in most imaging of Mobutu at this time.

Within this burgeoning world of utopian ideals, museology in the capital, Kinshasa, may be seen to take on the compartmentalizing tendencies of their Euro-American counterparts. While pockets of museum space existed, they were not always easy to for the public to access. Despite being celebrated, the Congolese museum object — at its most authentic when ensconced by contemporaneous gallery space – recedes from view. Public display was limited to two small display rooms (at Mont Ngaliema and l’Académie des Beaux Arts) and temporary outings at spaces across the city. At a time when global trade in African art was booming, an occasion for the citoyens and citoyennes of Kinshasa to experience these objects first hand can be located in the Foire Internationale de Kinshasa (FIKIN). 15  In 1976, the IMNZ organized a temporary exhibition as part of the international fair that celebrated Congolese cultural production.

Precarious documentation of the exhibition, in the form of loose, black and white photographs, provide glimpses of this singular version of modern museum. A small, sparse white container, shimmering beneath intense mid-year sun, is a simply built box, with a running slot between the top of exterior walls and the corrugated iron roof. The interior holds a limited number of  free-standing exhibits within alcoves of temporary display structures with an alternating color scheme. Photographs of objects and people in tribal paraphernalia accent the walls at various points. Vitrines and snugly joined display stands give the impression of potential detachability and reconfiguration. Famously sought after sculptures may thus be seen to warrant sophisticated modern fittings, in themselves seemingly mobile. The empty walls behind are not neutral backdrops, but are symbolic of international gallery space. There is a lack of any discernible explanatory labels, denying the original artists their common appellation of “unknown.” Without contextualizing information, the only context is the display itself. 16

Over and above the modernist design principles alluded to, the show has a certain corporate quality. Slim wooden walls, with elegantly squared feet, as well as the inclusion of pot plants (on the floor in front of each plinth), would not have been out of place in fashionable offices shooting up in the surrounding city. 17 Aspects of chic modern interiors from the outside world are drawn into a typically hermeneutic display system. The apportioning of space into staged squares, receding and protruding, further brings in a design with some personality, as do sizeable wooden vitrines with visible wood grain surfaces. The blocks of display wall are so well-proportioned in relation to the isolated photographs on the walls that they seem to have been fitted specially for them (rather than the other way around). Able to commandeer top-of-the-range décor, museum objects now present a usable heritage. Custom and ritual use is now rendered urbane and informative in glossy photographic prints. Figures whose exact original meanings are not entirely clear, exude a confidence allowing them to not only be of the new African nation, but also of the city. As influential objects, versions of their patterning, motifs and figuration were to be disseminated in the teeming urban aesthetics of Kinshasa.

Despite its warmer accents, minimal forms, clean lines and a great deal of negative space around each exhibit attest to the distinct lineage of modernist white cube. Bleaching out distractions allows for pure aesthetic immersion. Absence of the cultural specificities of its original makers and their societal values becomes part of a distilling process that leads back to contemplation of the object in isolation. Emptying of space allows for speculation in a way that more didactic, ethnographic description does not. Yet the exhibits on display are still being called on to do ethnographic work. This is, perhaps, most obvious in the use of photographs, adding a literal and figurative point of view to the physical objects. Large prints, flush on the walls, portray illustrations of ritual purpose, portraits of people in tribal regalia, as well as close-ups of sculptural objects. 18  Images of masks and footstools, for example, have been printed to the size that the objects could conceivably occupy, in reality. The effect is so convincing that, within the hazy installation shot, freestanding sculptures could easily be mistaken for photographs of themselves. In this example, exhibition furniture and display objects merge into a companiable accord.

Star status tribes of Pende and Luba origins are recognizable, as are two tall drums from the Kasai region (Van Beurden 243). These large exhibits are placed against blocks of white and elevated on two-tiered painted plinths. Given the privileging of similar sculptures by the same peoples in exhibitions across the world, the staging seems appropriate. Elevated into statue-status that has to be looked up at, the elegantly-proportioned drums and stylized humanoid statues seem more like trophies than the instruments of ritual circulations. As such, they are objects whose space in the world is assured, commanding respect from the viewer.

Relegated to stasis when mounted in modernist space, movement is provided by onlookers, whose shadows activate sculptural contours, shifting across the pediments and pot plants, to throw light across the bottoms of exhibits. Carrying only connotations of use, it is surface textures that teem with information concerning the human activity that went into these objects’ creation. The  movements made by anonymous makers are visible in fleshy surfaces that reveal themselves in sharp relief. Such mark-making could potentially serve as signatures of the unnamed bodies that made them. Visibly flecked, carved and treated areas of wood are made to work harder under bright exhibition lighting. The particularly absorptive quality of wood under hard light adds to the overall effect. Against sheer planes of display stand, rounded, organic forms enliven the paper-flat surfaces that frame them. Highly textured exhibits, whose exposure heightens gleaming contrasts, evoke a sense of touch. As sensuous objects, they have a particular relationship to the body in that they set off a bodily response in the viewer. It is easy to imagine what they must feel like.

Backed up against the wall from their vantage point, the Pende mother-and-child stare at a point above the viewer’s head. The person-ability of three dimensional sculptures is enhanced by figures facing the visitor. They have a back and front (and therefore a right and wrong side), rather than existing as whole objects to be appreciated as sheer plastic mass. According to this logic, the Kasai drums also have an exhibition face. As robust flanking objects, of similar size and proportions to the humanoid sculpture, the drum -already in possession of some personality- becomes person-like. Part of the work the mother and child statue and the drums are to be human-ish and personable together, relating to each other across blocks of space.

While these objects demand to communicate with each other, they were expected to speak to a glorified pre-colonial heritage. Sarah Van Beurden identifies the sculpture in the photograph as a rooftop statue from the eastern Pende region (187). 19 The ethnographic role assigned to these figurines was to mark and protect the houses of chiefs (Biebuyck 227). Various stylistic features attest to the sculpture’s Kasai-Sankuru origins, like its characteristic patterning of incised black and white triangles found on the base (Cornet 134). While ethnographic readings place the statue as a guardian figure, they do not immediately communicate as such to the audience at FIKIN. De-contextualized and without didactic labelling, the object speaks of tradition broadly. Its generalized ethnographic currency ensures that emotive, as much as sensory, qualities have an underlying thrill of ritual aura. If this object, or the type of object it descended from, was intended to house a guardian spirit for a chieftain’s home, then its combined elements of choice of material and shape formations are read as ones with heightened sensory perception in mind. The unnamed figurine does not represent the Pende people, but one of the styles of a romanticized pre-colonial past. Unfettered by a tribal name, the sculpture’s tribal-ness is diffused across the exhibition environment. The conjoined mother-child object lends its particular stylistic features to a lexicon of Zaïrian “tradition.” Jaunty exhibition space fills in the lacunae of identity, forming the greater body of which they are an organ. With the actual bodies of original makers vaporized -and all-important artistic intentionality with it- the work of these exhibits within the space is to represent their own objecthood, which I see as a particular bodiliness.

As opposed to a self-aware art object in the same position, the Zaïrian traditional object makes no claims to an aesthetic language other than what it, in itself, understands. If absorption with its own “internal drama” is a defining characteristic of the modernist art object, whose power to seduce lies in its indifference to the beholder (Mitchell 43), the mystique of sculptures within the FIKIN space is heightened by the whiff of valued ancient custom they carry.

Both ethnography and aesthetics fail the Congolese object in this instance. They are authentic objects, without being ethnographically authentic. According to the Euro-American modernist tradition, they are also aesthetic objects. But the latter system is insufficient to cope with their politics. Gallery spaces exclude the original societal value of exhibition items, replacing their original economic and political networks with art world rituals of use. By the time they are reclaimed as Zaïrian citizens, these objects contain an amalgamation of political and economic values. In FIKIN ’76, the full package of Euro-American tradition is employed. Yet, as seen in the manner in which objects like the Pende statue and Kasai drum relate to the space, they cannot be read only in terms of pure form.

Zaïre pressurizes its reclaimed objects to do both aesthetic and ethnographic work. They are seen to deflect (if not outrightly refuse) the ethnographic strictures of colonial legacies, through resilient displays of their more obtuse qualities. While they have aesthetics, these cannot be contained by exhibition conventions that cannot name their makers. Rather than retreating from the forensics of modernism, they overflow into the artworks around them. In this exhibition, and across the broad span of 20th century display space, what the primitivist performances of ethnographics and formalist games of aesthetics are unable to draw out are the conditions of the objects’ production.

Ultimately, what these objects will always speak about is their provenance; the system of exchange between Euro-America and Africa that brought them into being. Their resilience, or elusive mystique, stems from the inability of exhibition situations to reveal the true conditions of their making. From colonialism and modernism to independence rhetoric, the terms of the collective production of the object shifts in value. In representing the socio-economic conditions in which it was produced -while still absorbing desires placed on it along the way- the anonymous object subverts the greater systems exhibitions envelope them with. Lack of an individual author ensured that their meaning was made up according to gathered forces of exchange. The resulting object has a great deal to say about these relationships (ranging from ironic, critical and knowing commentaries), according to the particularities of its inception. What the anonymous Congolese object communicates is an African understanding of itself, in relation to its perception of what exhibition space wants.


Interior of IMNZ room at FIKIN ’76, Kinshasa. Photo Archives IMNC. Courtesy of IMNC, with thanks to Sarah Van Beurden.

Interior of IMNZ room at FIKIN ’76, Kinshasa.
Photo Archives IMNC. Courtesy of IMNC, with thanks to Sarah Van Beurden.


Box FIKIN Juillet 1976, Photo Archives IMNC. Courtesy of IMNC, with thanks to Sarah Van Beurden.

Box FIKIN Juillet 1976, Photo Archives IMNC. Courtesy of IMNC, with thanks to Sarah Van Beurden.


FIKIN ’76, Kinshasa. Photo Archives IMNC. Courtesy of IMNC, with thanks to Sarah Van Beurden

FIKIN ’76, Kinshasa. Photo Archives IMNC. Courtesy of IMNC, with thanks to Sarah Van Beurden



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About the Author

Ruth Sacks is a visual artist and writer based in Johannesburg, South Africa. She is currently a doctoral fellow at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER), University of the Witwatersrand. Her PhD project is entitled Congo Style: How the Congo influenced Modernism, from Belgian Art Nouveau to authenticité in Zaïre.

  1.   My approach follows on from the general material turn in art discourse, as summarized by James Elkins (2008), with a critical awareness of recent movements in contemporary art, such as Object-Orientated Ontology and Speculative Aesthetics.
  2.   The vast area now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo was first colonised by the Belgian monarch, King Leopold II. From 1885 to 1908, the Congo Free State was run as his private colony, before being handed over to the Belgian government. It existed as the Belgian Congo, until 1960, when Congolese resistance forced Belgium to grant independence. After a period of political upheaval, 1971 saw new leader Mobutu Sese Seko renaming the country Zaïre.
  3. Objects from the Congo had been moving into European display spaces (often the curiosity cabinets of the aristocracy) since early contact with Portuguese explorers in the late 15th century.
  4.  From approx. 1900- 1915, an estimated 100,000 objects were relocated to collections in Euro-America (Keim and Schildkrout 23).
  5.   Collectors in the Congo include Leo Frobenius (Berlin Museum, Germany), Emile Torday (London’s British Museum), Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza ( Musée de Trocadero, Paris, France) and Frederick Starr (American Museum of Natural History, New York).
  6. Eagerness to adapt and be influenced by contact with other people is evident in a web of mutual borrowings that stretched across interrelationships across the African continent over centuries (Vansina 159).
  7.   Moreover, colonial enforcement of tribal affiliation in the Congo Free State (and the later Belgian Congo), was one of the methods employed to control and tax the colonial subject (Couttenier 10).
  8. For a detailed analysis of Hankar’s installation, see Ruth Sacks’ Looking for the Congo in “Congo Style” (2015). In Art Nouveau, Art of Darkness (2012), Deborah Silverman purports that the entire oevre of Belgian designer Henry Van De Velde was influenced by Congolese motifs, especially those found in body art.
  9. These are well documented in Sarah Van Beurden’s Authentically African (2015) and Maarten Couttenier’s Congo Tentoongesteld (2005). The RMCA is currently undergoing renovations.
  10.  Picasso’s experience in 1906 is usually cited as the first recognition of the important influence of African art on modernist form. The issue is a contested one, with André Derain, Maurice Vlaminck and Henri Matisse able to make similar claims. For studies that locate non-western influence dating further back than this point, see Raymond Corbey and Wilfried Van Damme’s Journal of Art Historiography No. 12 (2015).
  11.  The term “white cube,” coined by Brian O’Doherty, originally referred contemporary art galleries in the 1960s. I use it as a general way of talking about 20th century modernist displays.
  12.   As opposed to the Euro-American artifact, separated from the present by huge swathes of time.
  13. By 1982, a total of 750 Congolese objects from the MRAC were returned to Zaïre (Wastiau 3).
  14. Many key pieces from the IMNZ FIKIN exhibitions (including the one discussed below) went missing during the de-installation process (ibid).
  15. FIKIN, located in Limete, was instigated by the Mobutu regime in 1969.
  16.   Museum guides most likely provided verbal commentary, a practice still in place at the IMNC.
  17.  Occupying a fair amount of installation space, the pot plants provide a somewhat bizarre comparison to the display objects. The exhibits, also made of natural materials and temporarily rooted (in the exhibition), are also transportable and house-able.
  18. These were most likely used as stand-ins for actual objects, due to security concerns (Van Beurden 186).
  19.  She further locates the author of one of these statues at the IMNZ as Kaseya Tambwe Makumbi, who made it specially for the museum (ibid).
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