The exhibition, Style Congo: Heritage and Heresy, explores the politics of cultural representation and appropriation through contemporary artistic and architectural interventions as well as historic documents and materials from CIVA’s Collections. The exhibition visually chronicles the representation of Congo in international expositions held between 1885 and 1958, using Art Nouveau as its anchor point. The movement—at the time also called “Style Congo”—coincided with King Leopold II’s exploitation of the Congo and reflects a widespread fascination with “exotic” materials and forms.
The works in the exhibition question and destabilize canonical histories and the colonial roots of this heritage. By examining marks of colonization in the city of Brussels and in the Congolese urban landscape, they present a de-colonial resignification of private and public spaces, seeking to rewrite the margins of history into the center.
In 1989 Judith Barry was invited to make an intervention into an exhibition about Art Nouveau architecture in Brussels focusing on the Belgian Art Nouveau architects Victor Horta and Paul Hankar, among others.
Barry’s research uncovered discrepancies between official histories of Art Nouveau and African Art and what actually occurred. By examining African objects on view in the Tervuren Museum, formerly the Royal Museum of Congo, it became obvious that the Art Nouveau forms developed by Horta, Hankar, and others had their genesis as much in the curvilinear carved forms of collected Congo artifacts as through a celebration of the Arts and Crafts movement. By 1895 there were more than 2000 objects housed in the Stanley Archives at the Royal Museum of Congo.
Additionally, a truism of US/European art history is that Picasso ‘discovered’ African Art when he had a revelation while viewing African art at the ethnographic museum at the Palais du Trocadéro in 1907.
By the 1880’s there were several popular books and feuilletons about Congo, including photos and drawings, of some of these artifacts, alongside tales of the ‘heroic’ exploits by some of the ‘explorers’… Meanwhile Leopold II’s project, The Congo Free State Propaganda War, was a worldwide media propaganda campaign waged by both King Leopold II of Belgium and the critics of the Congo Free State and its atrocities. Hence, African Art and its bloody history were well – known before the Congo Exposition of 1897.
On June 7, 2023, Judith Barry joins Françoise Vergès, Ayoh Kre Duchatelet, Paoletta Holst, and Johnny Leya (Traumnovelle) to present their contributions to the exhibition Style Congo. Heritage & Heresy.
The Work of the Forest was first exhibited in 1992 at the Foundation pour l’architecture, Brussels. It is an installation: 3 channel video-sound projection panorama with Art Nouveau screen, with variable dimensions.
About the piece: The 19th c. notion of ‘interiority’, described by Marcel Proust, is contrasted with the architectural style most associated with it, Art Nouveau. I used Proust’s ‘whirling room’ to stage conflicting histories of African art, the Belgian Congo and Art Nouveau. Three transparent screens as a continuous panorama allow for multiple points of view and access; underscoring the different relationships that the viewer can have with this material.
The panorama allows multiple views. Above: perspectival authority and classical HW cinema converge. Interior: the whirling panorama disrupts closure. Exterior: Separate screens allow competing narratives to unfold and converge.