Judith Barry’s The Work of the Forest in
Style Congo: Heritage and Heresy
CIVA in Brussels, Belgium
March 17—September 3, 2023

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.


March 25 – August 25, 2023
In the framework of the exhibition Style Congo, Heritage & Heresy, the CIVA offers guided tours to explore the traces of colonization in the public space of Ixelles and Brussels-City.  These tours are presented by François Makanga, a guide specialized in decolonial issues.

A performance of Yannos Majestikos with the participation of Starlette Mathata
June 30, 2023
On the occasion of the Independence Day of Congo and in the framework of the exhibition Style Congo, CIVA is pleased to invite you to a performance by Yannos Majestikos. In his performance Ndako ya bokoko / La Maison Ancestrale, the Congolese performer addresses the playground that the Congo has represented and still represents in the eyes of political and economic powers by symbolizing it as an object and concept in space.

GUIDED TOURS: Style Congo. Heritage & Heresy
March 30 – June 17, 2023
CIVA offers a series of unique guided tours of the exhibition Style Congo, Heritage & Heresy by the artists and curators of the project. These guided tours are an opportunity for the experts to share their personal vision of the exhibition.

Screening & Conversation
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay
June 17, 2023
In the context of its exhibition Style Congo. Heritage & Heresy, CIVA is pleased to host a screening, book presentation and conversation with Ariella Aïsha Azoulay. Her new book, LA RÉSISTANCE DES BIJOUXContre les géographies coloniales (Editions Rot-Bo-Krik, 2023), along with her two films in the Unlearning Imperial Plunder series, addresses the objects, skills and bodies of knowledge that were stolen during the massive colonial looting of Africa and are now held captive in museums and archives outside the territories from where they were taken.

A program of complete disorder
Françoise Vergès
June 7, 2023
During the event, Françoise Vergès draws from these two books to contemplate on the potentials and challenges for museums in a post-racist world. Following her intervention, artists Judith Barry, Ayoh Kre Duchatelet, Paoletta Holst, and Johnny Leya (Traumnovelle) present their contributions to the exhibition Style Congo. Heritage & Heresy.

WHOSE HERITAGE? Unsettling Archives and Collections
May 25, 2023
Event conceived in collaboration with Som•m•e Of Us. With Sepake Angiama (Iniva London), Lotte Arndt (Technische Universität Berlin), Evelyn Agyemang (Black Archives Amsterdam), Clémentine Deliss (KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin), Samia Henni (Cornell University), Hannah Ishmael (Black Cultural Archives, UK), Jonelle Twum (Black Archives Sweden).

Bruce Mateso and Mbala Lusunzi Vita
April 26, 2023
The authors and historians Bruce Mateso and Mbala Lusunzi Vita, both specialists in the history of the Bakongo Kingdom from the 19th to the 20th century, will  question the importance of a better knowledge of the general history of Africa to deconstruct stereotypes in the West and to strengthen citizenship in Africa and the DRC in particular.

Style Congo, “Art Nouveau, Art of Darkness”: Reflections on Reclaiming Belgium’s Imperial Modernism
Debora Silverman
April 25, 2023
In her keynote lecture, Debora Silverman, Los Angeles based Distinguished Professor of History and Art History at UCLA, returns to publications that provide a historical anchor for the exhibition Style Congo. Heritage & Heresy.

March 29, 2023
This event at CIVA animates a comparison between practices that aim to re-politicize historical memory through interventions on public assets. The feminist and decolonial scholar Françoise Vergès will open the evening with a focus on colonial violence of public spaces starting from her recent publication “De la violence coloniale dans l’espace public / On colonial violence in public spaces” (Shed Publishing, 2021).

Sandrine Colard
March 21, 2023
Focusing on the first two decades of Bodys Isek Kingelez’ production (1980-1997), this talk by Sandrine Colard explores how the Congolese artist’s oeuvre developed in dialogue with the idea of monument in Africa’s decolonization era.