The year is 1956. Congo is Belgium’s colony. Patrice Lumumba (who will become the first prime minister of the independent Congo in 1960) is visiting Belgium. Lumumba stands on Throne Square. A Congolese soldier lays flowers at the equestrian statue of Belgium’s second king, Leopold II, as a sign of gratitude for ‘civilizing’ the Congo.
The year is 2008. Artist Théophile de Giraud climbs Leopold’s horse. He pours red paint, like blood, over the king’s bronze head as a sign of disgust with this glorification. Today, a lot of people want the statue removed.
The contrast is fascinating. During an internship at the AfricaMuseum and in my master’s thesis in History, I investigated this exact subject: the changing ways in which people treat colonial heritage in Belgian public spaces.
Leopold II (1835-1909) presented his colonization of the Congo Free State (1885-1918) as an unselfish work of ‘civilization’ that was said to help the Congolese ‘progress’ and ‘prosper’. In later decades however, many people called attention to the millions of Congolese who died during Leopold’s slavery-like economic exploitation. In fact, Lumumba (1925-1961) too, in his world-famous speech on the day of Congo’s independence in 1960, fiercely stressed the colonial period’s atrocities and injustices.
Today, Leopold still stands on Throne Square. From the corner of his right eye, he ironically looks out upon Brussels’ Congolese district.
So, before you decide on taking a selfie with Leo, you should maybe consider coming up with a creative indictment instead and put that online!