“Historical fault”, “History will judge you”: the return of objects to the Congo is not unanimous in Belgium

In front of the House committee which is looking into the kingdom’s colonial past, several conceptions collided on Friday… even if certain speakers with divergent opinions found unexpected common ground through the proposal for an antenna of the Africa Museum in Kinshasa. The theme has been revived this week with the unlimited loan of a kakuungu mask of the Suku ethnic group to the National Museum of Kinshasa on the occasion of the visit of King Philippe. In parliament, the Federal Institutions Committee also approved last week a bill organizing the possibility of returning objects belonging to the public domain of the federal state. In their report, the experts of the “colonial past” commission also raised the issue from the angle of reparation.

The law, which will be on the agenda for next Thursday’s plenary session, makes Belgium a pioneer, according to researcher Marie-Sophie de Clippele (Saint-Louis University). However, the text raises objections both in the Congo and in Belgium. It creates a framework for making alienable goods resulting from colonization and whose provenance is illegitimate. However, it does not entail their repatriation to the Congo, which first involves a study of provenance, the setting up of a mixed Belgo-Congolese commission to settle the transfer and organize the deposit in Belgium pending .

“In the 1980s, objects were made available to Congo, but they were still the property of the Tervuren Museum. Now a law would confer ownership without transferring the objects,” noted artist Patrick Mudekereza.

Conversely, the lawyer Yves-Bernard Debie, counsel for antique dealers and art dealers, held a long plea against any restitution which he considers a “historical fault”. “We do not remake the past by restoring cultural property. These properties resulting from colonization are not illegal. No rule allows them to be judged as such. Your work is carried out on the basis of morality and you are going to approve a system at the name of your morality but will it be the morality of the kingdom in 40 years?

On the political benches, the plea shocked Ahmed Laaouej (PS) and Guillaume Defossé (Ecolo-Groen). “This shows the violence that we suffer every day,” said Billy Kalonji, who also addressed the deputies, on the bench of the experts interviewed. “When I hear what is said about my culture, without me, it’s violent. Know that we are in the 21st century and history will judge you. You have more possibilities than your predecessors 50 years ago, 100 years. Take three weeks to go to the Congo. It’s a continent that demands respect. If you’re talking about restitution, put the Congolese in their place.”

The real desire for restitution is questionable in the Congo. Professor Kiangu Sidani of the University of KInshasa, instructed by official meetings in Belgium, in doubt in view of the conditions which are put. “The Congo will not take up arms to recover these assets,” he assured. A solution would be a form of branch of the Africa Museum in Kinshasa, according to him… a formula also recommended by Me Debie.

The question of a return of these goods to their land of origin is already old. In 1969, the Congolese Matala Tshiakatumba published a poem entitled “Tervuren, give me back my masks”. Objects are not the only ones affected by Congolese requests. Belgium also has human remains, in particular skulls, in Tervueren but also in private pharmacies where they are traded. The Africa Museum launched the “Home” project to reconnect these remains with their families and organize their repatriation. One of the officials, Maarten Couttenier, warned MPs against conditions that would be dictated by Belgium. “The Congolese should not be seen as big children who need Belgians to be educated,” he explained.

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