In public opinion, the realization that European societies are as impregnated by their colonial history as their former colonies is still recent and very uneven. In spite of a century of postcolonial scholarship, of decades of civil activism and cultural critique, we can retrospectively look back at 2020 as being the year when that awareness finally penetrated the larger political and social fabrics of European states under the impulse of the global Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. In Belgium, among other initiatives, that wake-up call took the form of a special parliamentary commission about the colonial past in the Congo, Belgium’s only colony between 1885–1960. The central place that colonial statues and toponyms occupied as targets of BLM demonstrations in Belgium’s major cities was the culmination of yearlong protests and “vandalism” against these monuments’ continued glorification of colonialism in twenty-first century Belgium. In the spring of 2020, these repeated acts of iconoclasm, clandestine removals, and explicit graffiti, were usually followed by the multiplication of ideologically diverse petitions, scandalized declarations of political authorities, and frantic cleaning operations and restorations. These events turned public art and colonial monuments in Belgian public space into a theater of high tensions, and made headlines in national and international press.
Under such pressure, the Brussels city government commissioned a group of fourteen experts to study the colonial topography of Europe’s capital. This working group on the decolonization of the public space in Brussels was also to list a series of recommendations for actions to be taken. Both hailed as a pioneering decolonial political initiative and caricatured as “woke” drifting, the 233-page report was made public in February 2022. One thing the report’s contributors insisted was the impossibility to begin imagining a decolonial public space without a larger political, social, educational—in short, structural—reflection and action. Yet, the enormous work performed by the parliamentary commission—also informally known as the Belgian version of the South African, post-Apartheid “Truth and Reconciliation” commission—delivered zero tangible results. No majority was reached among Belgian political parties, several of which were put off by the “daunting” prospect of reparations inherent to the proposition of officially apologizing to the Congolese people—a proposition that was not included in the report itself, but quickly became part of the discussion that followed its release. What this spectacular backpedaling makes clear was that for now, the Belgian state wants to ensure that decolonization remained “a metaphor.” What can we expect from the project of decolonizing public space and its colonial monuments when the current Belgian government has absolved itself from all colonial faults? The legal act of being dismissed of all charges translates to French as “non-lieu,” or “no place.” The future will tell us whether Belgium’s public space can still become the site for reconciliation with the country’s colonial past, or whether the report will remain as a paper, decolonial utopia.
What follows are two excerpts from the report: the first underlining the shortcomings of colonial statues’ removal without a larger, social discussion, and the second about the actual propositions made for these monuments’ fate.
2.4.4. Towards decolonial public space in relation to Belgium’s colonial past in Brussels
The Working Group was commissioned to make concrete proposals for decolonizing Brussels’s public space concerning Belgium’s colonial past in a structural and inclusive way, as part of a work of dialogue and remembrance. However, decolonizing public space is not separate from decolonizing other aspects of Belgian society in general and of Brussels in particular. From the decolonial vision that the Working Group holds, decolonizing public space is ideally part of a far broader process of social emancipation throughout Belgium. In the Brussels-Capital Region, what this means in practice is that decolonizing Brussels’s public space is not separate from other regional competences, such as housing, international relations, local governance, movable and immovable heritage, urban planning, and employment policy, as well as community powers in terms of culture, healthcare, aid, and education.
What is it worth to fill Brussels with Lumumba statues, so to speak, when Belgians of Sub-Saharan African descent are being set back in education, cannot find a job or are unable to find a job commensurate with their level of education, are discriminated against in the housing market, die in suspicious circumstances during police interventions, etc.? However, this does not mean that decolonizing public space is merely symbolic. Racism is a wide-ranging, complex phenomenon and, as such, must be addressed in all its facets.
According to the Belgian statistical office Statbel, one-third of the Belgian population is of foreign origin or has a foreign nationality, rising to three in four in Brussels. According to the 2015 World Migration Report, Brussels is the second-most diverse city in the world, after Dubai. About half of all the Congolese living in Belgium reside in Brussels.
In order to identify as a member of a Belgian “imagined community,”[footnote Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London and New York City: Verso, 1983).] all the residents of the Brussels-Capital Region must be able to recognize themselves in the open-air museum made up of national memorials, statues, and other monuments in public space. In contrast, when a dominant group imposes its vision of national history and the nation state on all citizens, it amounts to a symbolic form of violence.
A decolonial public space is not a space from which all traces of the colonial past are removed. It is one that is free from material elements that promote colonialism and unequal and racialized relations between colonizers and colonized, and is simultaneously attentive to traces in public space that refer to forgotten histories related to the colonial period and the presence of Belgians of Congolese, Rwandan, and Burundian origin.
Intentional colonial commemorative signs in public space show colonial imagery over time. This imagery must not be erased: it is important to know this history to realize that today’s racism has a history. Erasing that history makes it all the easier to deny the existence of modern-day racism and all the harder to combat it.
The question arises as to what to do with colonial traces in public space that no longer correspond to our current values, but do have artistic or historical value. A case-by-case analysis is required to negotiate the presence of that past, from the view that who determines what heritage is can change across time and space.
7.2.1. A regional decolonization policy
The Brussels-Capital Region must develop a decolonization plan on the scale of the entire Region that takes into account the distribution of colonial traces throughout the Region: some municipalities or even neighbourhoods are more marked by different types of colonial traces than others. Only the Region can maintain a complete overview, including the development of new themes and representations spread throughout the territory.
We advocate for a proper balance between coordination within the Brussels Region and local policies on decolonising public space. In this way, the local actions can also be an elaboration of a shared vision and the regional plan can also include the involvement of and input from the municipalities, who should be encouraged to become involved.
This plan will serve as a general scenario, with input from the municipalities, for coordinating the transformation of specific areas and clusters.
Based on these common goals, the municipalities can develop certain components of this plan themselves. The Region must support the 19 Brussels municipalities in their process of decolonizing public space by giving them the tools they need to make decisions in their own municipalities.
A master plan for the entire Region allows for the depiction and direction of concrete scenarios for the transformations of urban memory sites and the development of new memory sites in the territory in a spatially and thematically coordinated manner. In particular, urban clusters of traces (for example, in the Quartier Royal and the Quartier Leopold) and colonial heritage with an urban dimension (for example, the Parc du Cinquantenaire with its axes) require the formation of a vision on the scale of the urban region. A master plan also provides a framework to check and guide the necessary guaranteed presence and distribution of themes and representations to be developed. The balance between (critical) heritage valorization and urban transformation can also be made explicit through a master plan.
The master plan should also be developed in dialogue with civil society, other policy levels, institutions, urban actors, and the follow-up committee. At the same time, it is itself a vision document that mobilizes and enable further dialogue and appropriation when sub-projects are developed by, for example, a municipality or a federal museum institution. The establishment of coordinated collaborations with federal museum institutions, for example, is also best done through the Region.
18.104.22.168. Annual commemorative days
Memories should be marked not only in space but also in time through the organization of
22.214.171.124. A national monument commemorating the victims of the Belgian colonization of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi
This monument is ideally created in a symbolically charged place. Among the specific recommendations, Place du Trône is identified as a suitable location, in a replacement scenario (with material reuse) of the current equestrian statue of Leopold II.
126.96.36.199. Establishment of a documentation center
In the short term, a documentation center should be established
- to make an inventory of all the colonial and postcolonial heritage in collaboration with various experts: not only colonial memorials, but also traces that point to the history of the presence of Congolese, Burundians and Rwandans;
- to make the information on this heritage available
- to the municipalities of the Brussels-Capital Region:
- to the public and to do so through various media: an interactive app, organized walks, publication of books (for example in the series Bruxelles, Ville d’art et d’histoire / Brussel, Stad van Kunst en Geschiedenis), texts on the documentation centre’s website, etc.
- to serve as a point of reference for the Brussels municipalities and the follow-up committee;
- to establish contacts with other organizations working on the same theme from an international perspective;
- to prepare the analysis of concrete cases to support further decision-making;
- to act as an intermediary between the various actors (lawyers, officials, experts, institutions, civil society, etc.) in support of the follow-up committee;
- to provide a point of contact and support for businesses, financial institutions, the hospitality industry, private individuals, public institutions (cultural institutions, schools), religious organizations, associations, etc., that
- raises awareness with them about the issue of colonial traces,
- encourages them to (commission) research on the role they played in the colonial past and/or the history of the presence of Congolese, Rwandans and Burundians and their descendants and share that information with the public through their website, publications, exhibitions, etc.
- to advise specific private institutions to correct erroneous information about the colonial past (e.g. the information on the website of the Hôtel des Colonies in Saint- Josse-ten-Noode)
188.8.131.52. Creation of a museum on Brussels as a colonial and postcolonial city
In the (medium)long term, this documentation center should be housed in a physical museum about Brussels as a colonial city and postcolonial city in relation to its colonial past. The museum ensures that “no memory is lost” but that the city, and its visitors, can actively develop a critical memory. With permanent and temporary exhibitions, the museum offers an overview and insight into the historical coherence of the development of Brussels and its monuments with the (post)colonial history of Belgium and its (former) colony and mandate areas. The museum can also accommodate a number of (smaller) sculptures and monuments that were moved from public space. They can be critically contextualized there, along with, for example, relevant archival records, documents and testimonies.
184.108.40.206. Establishment of a central “dumping ground” for discarded busts, monuments, statues, plaques etc.
In addition to the establishment of a museum with a documentation center, the working group also recommends the construction of a central “dumping ground” for the Region, where (also large) discarded colonial statues and other commemorative monuments that were removed from the public space can be housed, as one of the possible destinations (some statues do end up in a museum, for example). This type of “dumping ground”/repository is not a mere logistical infrastructure, but a symbolic public place and one of the components that will mark the decolonial transformation of the urban landscape and its monuments.
Furthermore, under the heading of specific recommendations, the Working Group recommends that this area for (fragments of) removed colonial monuments be established in the Parc du Cinquantenaire. Three points of interest:
- Importance of aesthetics and its meaning: no arrangement of the objects as monuments, also no cemetery aesthetics.
- Importance of the meaning of the name: not a museum, cemetery, but a repository (e.g. nuclear waste repository)/dumping ground (exact name to be further considered). It is more of a “dépotoir” than a depot. After all, depot sounds like a heritage or museum depot, i.e. what is kept for later display or examination. It should be clear, however, that these are deliberately symbolic and materially abandoned former objects of veneration.
- Limited information should be given on the content and logic of the “dumping ground.”
220.127.116.11. Relocation of certain colonial sculptures in public spaces to museums in Brussels, including federal museums
Museums in Brussels can play a key role in bringing about an updated, decolonial and multi-voiced history of Belgium’s colonial past, interacting with the monumental representations of this history and the marked colonial urban heritage in the public space. This assumes an active decolonial policy that is not limited to the contextualization of the statues, busts, plaques, etc. that may eventually end up in museum collections, but also takes into account the personnel policy, especially in the area of curators, collection development, exhibition programming, cooperation with external curators from Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi/of Congolese, Rwandan and Burundian origin, etc.
It can be art (historical) museums, such as the Museum of Ixelles, the Royal Museums of Art and History, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, but also the Royal Institute of Natural Sciences, etc., provided that images are not exhibited there merely because of their aesthetic or historical qualities but are actively and critically contextualized. We are aware that many museums are struggling with spatial constraints, but the Working Group nevertheless urges meaningful collaborations to remove problematic monuments from public spaces and contextualize them in a museum setting.
18.104.22.168. New memorials, monuments and artworks in public spaces
Not only the replacement of existing and the creation of new memorials (including toponyms) on the (post)colonial history will contribute to decolonizing the Brussels public space and make it more inclusive. Art in public space can also contribute to this. The working group recommends that the creation of new monuments and works of art in public space should explicitly offer opportunities to artists and designers of Sub-Saharan African origin living in Belgium.