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Central Africa and Belgium: Empire and Postcolonial Resonance

Virtual Workshop: 17-18 September 2020


Belgium had once an empire in Central Africa. The historical processes informing this imperial presence – the foundation of the Congo Free State (CFS) in 1885, its demise, the emergence of the Belgian Congo in 1908 and the subsequent absorption of ‘Ruanda-Urundi’ by Belgium under the aegis of the League of Nations in 1922 - are well-documented and have generated a voluminous collection of responses in all fields of knowledge and human activities. This workshop will reflect on this colonial past but, more crucially, appraise the many post-colonial traces and legacies of this past in Belgium, the DRC, Rwanda, and Burundi. The post-colonial period and the independence of the Congo (1960) and that of Burundi and Rwanda in 1962 did not herald a completely new era but marked, more prosaically, the beginning of decolonization. This process, which is unarguably still unfolding now, cannot be univocally defined and one of the chief aims of this workshop will be to explore how this contested notion has shaped cultural debates and responses in the geographical areas under scrutiny. It would be an understatement to say that this post-colonial period has been marked by violence. Real violence as tragically exemplified by the continuous string of civil wars, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, and genocides; but also, cultural and epistemological violence as political emancipation did not elicit the expected cultural autonomy.

This period has witnessed the rise and often the fall of extraordinary and larger-than-life political figures such as Mobutu, Patrice Lumumba, Pierre Mulélé, Prince Louis Rwagasore, Laurent and Joseph Kabila, Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, Juvénal Habyarimana and Alexis Kagame. It has also coincided with cultural experiments in the field of literature, thought, music and in the arts and the emergence, in Central Africa and in the diaspora, of formidably creative individuals and (public) intellectuals like Sony Labou Tansi, VY Mudimbe, Papa Wendo, and Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu. At the same time, Central African cultures have continued to attract the attention of scholars and have, in fact, often been mobilized to develop original empirical and theoretical research as illustrated by the works by Jan Vansina, Johannes Fabian, Colette Braeckman, Bogumil Jewsiewicki, Filip De Boeck, David Van Reybrouck, Isidore Ndaywel è Nziem, and Nancy Hunt. In the wake of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, other important statements have appeared, not only to account for this unfathomable tragedy (see the vast corpus of novels, films and testimonies on this event) but also to re-appraise distant events such as Leopold’s anti-slavery campaign, the Red Rubber Scandal, the publication of Tintin au Congo, the assassination of Lumumba in addition to the role and significance of the Museum of Tervuren in a post-colonial Belgium.

Sixty years after the independence of most sub-Saharan African former colonies, this workshop aims to explore the enduring influence of this Belgian colonial past in Belgium, its former colonial domains and beyond. We will attempt to privilege here cultural issues pertaining to the emergence of critical voices, whether intellectuals in the human sciences (e.g. history and anthropology), novelists, playwrights, musicians, artists, art critics, journalists, and art curators; and, as already indicated above, favour particular past and/or contemporary events through which the many intertwinements between Central Africa and Belgium can be examined.