The exhibition “Style Congo. Heritage & Heresy,” curated by Sammy Baloji, Silvia Franceschini, Nikolaus Hirsch, and Estelle Lecaille, runs at CIVA in Brussels, Belgium, until September 3, 2023. It explores the politics of cultural representation and appropriation through contemporary artistic and architectural interventions and historical documents from the CIVA collections. The exhibition traces the representation of the Congo in international and colonial exhibitions organized between 1885 and 1958, using Art Nouveau as an anchor.
The Belgian movement, also known as the Congo Style, coincided with the exploitation of the Congo by King Leopold II and reflects a widespread fascination with exotic materials and forms. The pavilions of the international and colonial exhibitions exemplify the synthesis of the arts to which modernism aspired, setting a precedent for displays in ethnographic museums. They served as a platform for cultural propaganda and economic exchange.
The exhibition examines the marks of colonization in the city of Brussels and in the Congolese urban landscape, proposing a decolonial resignification of private and public spaces, seeking to rewrite the margins of history at the center. The exhibition’s contemporary artistic and architectural positions challenge the canonical histories and colonial roots of this heritage, and with them the perception of buildings that have become icons of Belgian culture.
Congolisation (2023), by Brussels-based architecture studio Traumnovelle, is an installation that highlights how Belgian architects have appropriated and borrowed Congolese material culture and nature through a timeline of representations of the Congo in international exhibitions. Artworks by Judith Barry, Rossella Biscotti, and Ruth Sacks create additional links to various historical pavilions. Biscotti’s work, Congo Congo Bruxelles Brussel (2007), examines the colonial topography of the 1935 Brussels International Exposition by juxtaposing the Congo pavilion with the City of Brussels pavilion. Another pavilion, designed by Paul Hankar for the Brussels International Exhibition in Tervuren in 1897, is evoked in Barry’s video installation, The Work of the Forest (1992), which addresses European colonialism in Africa as a driver of wealth accumulation in Belgium.
The links between colonialism and Art Nouveau are thus explored in this exhibition, which questions Belgium’s colonial and cultural history, while proposing a decolonial resignification of urban and exhibition spaces.