What does it mean—what would it mean—to “decolonize the city”? As that phrase has become common among architects, artists, and activists in recent years, it has operated more like a slogan, a blunt exhortation, than a plan of action. A growing critique of the imperial and colonial legacies of Western powers, accelerating with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, has cracked open the question of how European nations and the United States built the wealth that funded some of their greatest wonders of architecture, art, and urban form, and revealed the violence that supported it. Protesters took this critique into the streets by toppling, decapitating, or defacing dozens of statues honoring colonial and pro-slavery figures; cities, proactively, took down others. Scores of institutions with contested names chose new ones: Brooklyn’s General Lee Avenue was renamed for the Black Army officer John Warren, killed in Vietnam at twenty-two; Junipero Serra High School, in San Diego, is now Canyon Hills High.
But what comes next? How will cities grapple with the more difficult question of what to do with fraught landmarks that are more immovable than those statues—museums, train stations, and private houses, say—or whose connections to racism or slavery, while significant, are tougher to precisely trace? Perhaps, before we can get a clearer sense of what decolonizing the city will look like, we need to better understand how, and by what architectural means, it was colonized in the first place.
One of the most compelling explorations I’ve seen of where decolonization efforts might turn next was on view this summer at an architecture museum in Brussels called CIVA, for Centre International pour la Ville et l’Architecture. “Style Congo: Heritage & Heresy,” curated by Sammy Baloji, Silvia Franceschini, Nikolaus Hirsch, and Estelle Lecaille, was able to say something meaningful about the sprawling task of decolonization by focussing on the architectural by-products of a single imperial campaign: Belgium’s violent and lucrative occupation and eventual colonization of Congo, under King Leopold II.
The style in “Style Congo” is Art Nouveau. Once understood primarily as an inventive but transitional movement that allowed the last embers of Victorian revivalism to burn themselves out, clearing the way for the streamlined abstraction of modernism, Art Nouveau found particularly vital expression in Belgium, in architecture by Victor Horta, Paul Hankar, and Henry van de Velde, and in art works by Philippe Wolfers and others. Crucially, Art Nouveau also emerged in Belgium around the same time that Leopold, in 1885, became the ruler of the new Congo Free State, which he operated as his personal fiefdom, pulling out its stores of rubber and ivory, until Congo became an official Belgian colony in 1908. What is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo gained independence in 1960, and was known as Zaire from 1971 to 1997.
Historians have long described Art Nouveau, with its fluid, snaking ornament, as “le style coup de fouet”: the whiplash style. But it’s only in recent years that scholars, looking more deeply into the connections between Art Nouveau and imperialism, have directly linked either phrase to the vast human toll Belgium exacted in Africa. The writer Adam Hochschild, whose 1998 book “King Leopold’s Ghost” first exposed a wide reading public to the history of Belgian imperialism in Africa, estimates that “toll of Holocaust dimensions” at ten million lives; others use somewhat lower, if still staggering, figures, which can range from five million to eight million Congolese deaths between 1885 and 1908.
Belgian Art Nouveau, as the U.C.L.A. art historian Debora Silverman put it in an incisive lecture at CIVA, was “created from raw materials from the Congo and inspired by Congo motifs.” Even more striking, she has suggested that Art Nouveau was the specific means by which the violence carried out in Leopold’s name in Congo snapped back and found its way, in abstracted or semi-abstracted form, into Belgian culture—allowing that small and geographically squeezed nation, its nineteenth-century ambitions largely thwarted at home, to indulge, through its art and architecture, in “a fantasy of domination.” Silverman sees not just natural and animal forms “embodied” in Art Nouveau’s curves; she also sees the leather whips that Belgian forces used to bloody Congolese laborers.
The first thing visitors to “Style Congo” encountered was “Monument,” a 2005 work by the German artist Peggy Buth which takes the form of an asymmetrical and empty black plinth. Though the art work predates the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, it succeeded here in pointing the way forward: Its placement in the museum’s lobby suggested that “Style Congo” took the post-B.L.M. world, with its toppled statues and vacated pedestals, as a given—an uncertain starting point.
Inside the exhibition galleries, the focus was on the way that Art Nouveau and representations of Congo overlapped and fed one another in a range of international expos and other colonial exhibitions between 1885 and 1958. (The expos essentially announced that Congo was open for business, so long as investors could strike the right deal with Leopold and his successors.) The centerpiece was a large installation by the Brussels collective Traumnovelle, a group described by its founders, the architects Léone Drapeaud, Manuel León Fanjul, and Johnny Leya, as a “militant faction.” On wire-metal walls that resemble screens used for archival shelving, Traumnovelle had hung scores of architectural drawings, photographs, brochures, newspaper clippings, and other materials reflecting the influence of Congo on Belgian architecture, from the founding of the Congo Free State through the Brussels World’s Fair of 1958.
Along the perimeter of the CIVA galleries and in adjoining spaces, as if looking over the archival materials in the center in patient judgment, were works by another half-dozen architects, scholars, and contemporary artists, some newly commissioned by the curators. One was a series of portraits by the photographer Chrystel Mukeba of Congolese Belgians posing inside Art Nouveau landmarks, including the elaborately ornamented house that Victor Horta designed in the eighteen-nineties for Edmond van Eetvelde, who administered the Congo Free State for Leopold. Mukeba told a reporter for the Belgian magazine The Parliament that half of the building owners she approached never got back to her or turned her down: “A fashion shoot or something like that, there’s no issue,” she said. “But as soon as you start to want to have people of African descent pose,” she added, “then it becomes a lot more complicated.”
This is hardly a surprise. By many accounts, Belgium has been slow to grapple with its Congolese legacy. Last year, a commission established in 2020 by the Belgian parliament deadlocked on the basic question of whether the country should issue a formal apology for its colonial past, to say nothing of larger issues like reparations. But the dam had begun to break, or at least crack, by the late nineteen-nineties. “King Leopold’s Ghost,” which became a worldwide best-seller, appeared in 1998, followed the next year by Ludo De Witte’s “The Assassination of Lumumba,” which examined the Belgian government’s role, together with the C.I.A. and the Belgian mining company Union Minière du Haut-Katanga, in the removal and assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the independent Congo’s first Prime Minister, by his political rivals. After Lumumba’s body was chopped into pieces, it was dissolved in a barrel of sulfuric acid supplied, according to De Witte, by Union Minière, which also provided the copper and tin for a statue of Leopold that still stands next to the royal palace in Brussels.
In 2005, the Royal Museum for Central Africa, in Tervuren, formerly the Royal Museum of the Belgian Congo, mounted an exhibition called “La Mémoire du Congo: Le Temps Colonial.” Hochschild found the show “evasive”; Belgium still appeared to him to be struggling to wake from the century-long national amnesia that he has dubbed “the great forgetting.” Silverman similarly criticized the exhibition for a “tepid and reluctant revisionism.” She credits a decorative-arts survey the same year at a different institution, the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels, with making the depths of the connection between Art Nouveau and the Congo Free State apparent. The show included an art work from 1897 by Philippe Wolfers called “Civilization and Barbarism.” Made of Congolese ivory provided to the artist by Leopold, it features two figures in battle: a swan (to represent Belgium and the “civilization” of the title) against a dragon, standing in for “barbarism.” Silverman told me that seeing this work unmasked “the ideology propelling the project” of the Congo Free State and suggested just how deeply it was embedded within the most significant Belgian art works of the period. This same ideology helped give rise to the story Belgians sometimes told themselves about the nation’s exploitation of Congo: that the occupation was driven in significant part by a desire to free or protect Africans from slavery.