The Non-Sorrow of the Belgians: Africa Museum, Tervuren

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After visiting the revamped Africa museum in Tervuren, Brussels, which commemorates our colonial heritage in a supposedly introspective and decolonizing fashion, I was asked by one of the “friendly museum guides” on the scenic ride of tram 44 what I really thought about it, I told him that I did not like it all. He told me to report my criticism on the museum website, but here I slam it on my own blog.

Without having the time to go into details, I think that this internationally applauded “decolonizing” museum  is now at once one of Belgium’s lamest and most offensive museums. It does not bother me too much that the exhibits are hodgepodge and very cheaply designed, the stolen objects and taxidermic animals from our brutal heritage creating a cozy fleamarket atmosphere that our Belgium is known for. What bothers me is the lack of care and communication about our forms of brutal exploitation in the colony, the vagueness of descriptions on most of the labels and mission statements, so that it is really not clear what kind of slavery economy and cultural soft power Leopold II had put into place. I noticed a crude denial and many attempts to “remain neutral” amongst a nearly-formal and proud display of mines and minerals, exotically exuberant fauna and flora, offensively colonial statues of serving and nakedly clad primitives, a long engraved list of Belgians who died in the colony without a much longer Congolese counter-list. A few of those ugly-racist sculptures have been “taken away” from the museum and assembled in one separate room for our critical gaze, but many other of those sculptures , as stated on the signs, “could not be removed” from museum halls. Indeed the main slogan of the museum “Everything Passes, Except the Past” here means that the museum itself is stuck in its colonial “human zoo” mentality. It was built by Leopold II and opened in 1910 as a way to showcase his wealth and dark-enlightenment worldview on how to rule Africans, who were also literally put on display in Belgium in 1897. As in other sites of historical commemoration and apology, it should mean that we sense the pain and humiliation as atmosphere of destruction, and ongoing post-colonial strife on how to negotiate cultural relations, but perhaps not the kind of  cowardice and  silliness that is now the main tenet of this revamped museum.

Or perhaps the silliness of the Belgians, in itself a crude stereotype that unites the Flemish and Walloons, comes in handy for this museum, and it was well covered by Trevor Noah in the Daily Show:

And of course my full applause goes to the VRT series “Kinderen Van de Kolonie” (in French and Dutch) which is also airing this Fall and does apologize to the Congolese. This TV documentary series evokes the full horror of colonial violence  by opening up harsh views and Congolese responses, and its complexity is full of feeling.

 

 

Salvation, Antwerpen.

 

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I exit my apartment in Aalmoezenierstraat and cross the road to the Salvation Army, where I buy myself a used red duffelcoat for 7,50 euro. It is a nostalgic choice as I have already owned and garbaged many a red coat. My mother Annette Van Dijck gave me hers on one of my last visits before her death. I put it on and walked around with an air of contentment, but it was too solidly red and suburban-bourgeois to become my coat.

It took my mother many years to die and she somehow kept up her strength to the last minute, even though she was stranded in bed for many months, she would push her self around using doorhandles, walls and cabinets. She refused to get any kind of walking aids or medical personnel inside her apartment, and wanted to suffer and die alone. My grandmother Helene Siebelinck-Van Dijck had equally lost all social contact towards the end of her life, complaining for many years that it had been enough. She grew up in an upper-middle class family who owned a lucrative brewery in the village of Wouw, just across the Dutch border, her husband was a well-off doctor who died himself of tuberculosis but did not leave behind a large trust fund. There were eleven children in the Van Dijck family and, as one of the only girls, Annette was ordered to take up odd jobs and start feeding the family. Annette would be forever angry for having to fulfill this plebeian role, and as we will see later, Katrien will decide slip out of this kind of matrilineage altogether.

Annette was more integrated in the small Flemish village than was her mother Helene and she kept a certain joi de vivre when she was dying, kept driving her Berlino to the Delhaize down the road and cooking fancy meals, taking fairly large doses of morphine as she got closer to death, binge-reading her thick novels and watching plenty of TV. In this way she was a kind of role-model for how to depart.

A few years before Annette gave me her red coat, when my sister Mieke was still alive, we had a family gathering and we browsed through my mother’s collection of coats. Mieke handed me one of Annette’s heavy blacks with ostentatious fur collar—I paraded in the apartment and then walked outside into the woods. It was frosty and drizzling and the sun was setting even though it had never shown that day.  We buttoned  our coats and put on  woolen hats, scarves and gloves, walked slowly, slipped on the ice, coughed and giggled, my confused American husband following our trails into the stinky Flemish fields.

And now I feel that coat again in the Salvation Army. I talk to Yvonne, an old Dutch lady with silver curly long hair and stark blue eyes who runs its second-hand clothing shop. She opens it every Wednesday afternoon and I sneak into her shop to chat with her and to buy the various pieces of my sabbatical wardrobe. Yvonne talks to me non-stop and also makes sure that I don’t make any rash choices, guiding me through her erratic collections to a hidden mirror in the backroom and ordering me to zip up coats and move my arms around. She not is devoid of deep feeling as she now tends to her teeny dog, a Japanese ‘Chin’ who is sleeping in a very small cardboard basket. She named her dog Chinny so that she actually could remember the dog’s breed. Chinny has been her companion of ten years but is terminally ill as a large gland has slipped out of “female cavity,” she had been stitched up but kept pulling out the stitches and making a mess at the floor of the Salvation. I was looking away when I thought I heard Yvonne say that she was actually ready to put Chinny under, that Chinny had no energy left, that it was time too much for her and she had do so. I had heard it all before. But when I looked up Yvonne said that she would take her to the vet the next day and she would probably be totally fine.

When I visited three days later to check up on Chinny, the minuscule dog had indeed made a full recovery. After taking some medication her gland had slipped back right into her female cavity. She had been moved inside a proper dog basket and she was already starting to tease and pester Yvonne for food.