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Exorcising King Leopold’s ghost: Brussels takes on its colonial monuments

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BRUSSELS — The Black Lives Matter movement forced Brussels to confront Belgium’s brutal colonial past. But the city’s architecture keeps that fraught legacy squarely in the present.

With eight months until the next election, the Brussels regional government is wrestling with a series of proposals designed to put some of the city’s most controversial monuments in historical context — or eliminate them altogether.

While the ideas being floated are relatively modest, they have already elicited pushback from those who accuse the city of planning to erase history.

Brussels is run through with monuments to Leopold II, the Belgian king who ran the Congo as his personal fiefdom in the late 19th and early 20th century, and to the country’s later period as a colonial power. A walk around the city will reveal dozens of monuments to the “Belgian pioneers” in the colonies, including one in the Cinquantenaire park that is intended to celebrate “Belgium’s civilizing work in Congo.”

Colonial history is present in the city’s Art Nouveau buildings, many of which were erected during the colonial period and made use of colonial motifs and raw materials imported from Congo like rubber, ivory and tropical woods. The colonial experience had such a strong influence on this architectural style that it was also initially known as style Congo or style coup de fouet (whiplash style).

“We wouldn’t be able to remove all traces of colonialism even if we wanted to, because large parts of Brussels were built using profits from Congo,” said Ans Persoons, secretary of state of the Brussels-Capital Region in charge of urbanism, who is leading the effort. “That’s why making the public aware is more important than removing a monument here and there.”

The government’s plans include cataloging the city’s monuments, sites and topography tied to the colonial era, opening up a “decolonization interpretation center” to educate the city’s residents about its uncomfortable past and erecting a memorial to the victims of colonization.

The most controversial proposal involves removing many historic monuments from the public space and collecting them in a depot that would be open to the public as a “landmark of the decolonial transformation of the city’s monumental landscape.”

Persoons hopes both the decolonization center and the depot could be housed at Lever House — a building formerly owned by Lever Brothers, a British manufacturer that operated in Congo. But, she added, all these projects would require time and money.

First floated in a 2022 report and made official in May, the city’s efforts are already coming under fire.

“The action plan is very, maybe too, ambitious … The timeline for most of the actions is 2023-2024, and the project itself was presented in May 2023,” said Chantal Kesteloot, historian and member of Belgium’s Center for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society (CegeSoma).

“Rushing through its implementation will do nothing to defuse tension — and the electoral calendar doesn’t help, either,” she added.

A pedestal where the bust of Leopold II was standing is seen on Souverain’s Square in Auderghem, Belgium | Jean-Christophe Guillaume/Getty Images

A prevalent presence

There’s no denying the question is a hot one.

Persoons acknowledged that the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests gave Brussels a much-needed push, although the coalition government had already committed to making progress on decolonization in its 2019 governing agreement.

“The murder of George Floyd put more pressure on the government to act,” she said.

In 2020 protesters defaced and threw red paint on statues of historical figures with colonial ties, starting from King Leopold II, whose exploitative reign was famous for its brutality, including forced labor, kidnappings and the killing of rebels and civilians.

In Brussels, a petition demanding the removal of all statues depicting the former king collected over 84,000 signatures.

“It’s no longer acceptable for people of African descent to be subjected to a discourse of colonial glorification through street names, plaques, statues and monuments glorifying what I consider to be a crime against humanity,” said Anne Wetsi Mpoma, an art historian, curator and activist.

For many other Belgians, however, the city’s proposals remain “difficult, and even painful,” said Kesteloot, the historian. She noted that “some of the political reactions that followed the publication of [the 2022] report show just how sensitive and divisive the issue remains.”

Race against time

The debate has raised bitter feelings on all sides.

Regional MP Gaëtan Van Goidsenhoven said the Brussels executive’s plan was “quite vague” and incompatible with its “lack of financial means.”

Van Goidsenhoven, from the liberal Reformist Movement party, argued that the removal of some monuments from public spaces would kick off an “endless process” whereby “every time someone feels offended by a statue, you put it on trial.”

Colonial artifacts, he added, should instead be put in historical context — through plaques, posters, artwork and the perspectives of the victims of colonialization. “If we start erasing the traces of everyone who, in the course of their lives, went against our current values, there won’t be much left in our historiography.”

A bust of Leopold II covered in red paint, with “BLM” spray-painted on its base, in the park of the Africa Museum in Tervuren, near Brussels | François Walschaerts/AFP via Getty Images

Art historian and curator Wetsi Mpoma said that reducing the discussion to two alternatives — putting monuments in context or removing them entirely — was intended to “delegitimize campaigners” and highlighted that a broad societal debate was needed before taking such a step.

“As an activist, I have never been in favor of the immediate removal of colonial monuments from the public space, but rather of a public debate that would ultimately lead to their removal,” she said. “It’s not about leaving or removing the monuments, but of provoking questions about the way in which we aspire to live together.”

“People often forget that a statue isn’t an objective representation of history,” said Yasmina Zian, a historian and one of the co-authors of the 2022 report. “It’s a tribute which exists to remind us of moments and figures that make up a national narrative.”

“When people say, ‘If you remove the monuments, you’re erasing history,’ they forget that by leaving those monuments where they are, they erase other histories,” she added.

With a regional election set for June, and the political landscape likely to be scrambled, Persoons is rushing to deliver before her mandate expires. While the 2020 protests “provided some political momentum, the urgency and interest seem to be waning,” said Kesteloot, the historian.

Persoons, for her part, said the work would go on regardless: “The process can’t be stopped and will continue over the next generations.”

Laura Hülsemann contributed reporting. 

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