A Strong Fetish in Tervuren – Review of the Object Research by M. Couttenier

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September 7, 2018 | dvg   Original in German (Link)           R E V I E W

The Way of the Object EO.0.0.0.7943 from Boma to Belgian Exile

For those who want to know the whole story, they have BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review, vol.133-2 (2018) pp. 79-90) in their June No. uploaded (LINK).

Good to read, vivid, not too long

 

We must strive to return anonymous objects to their history in order to humanize the museum space by giving them stories and faces (83), writes Maarten Couttenier.
In the case of the depot number EO.0.0.0.7943 the conditions are favorable: The object was already prominent in 1878 on the Congo. The acquirer Delcommune wrote in 1925 in his memoir Vingt Années Africaines plain text. The various relocations and exhibitions of the object in Europe and the USA could be determined from memoranda. Maarten Couttenier eventually traveled to Boma in the DRC in 2016, where he was immediately confronted with dignitaries’ return requests as soon as he showd them the photo.
The fetish was captured by this representative of a European commercial enterprise in the critical years immediately before the colonial overpowering of Central Africa. Goma at the mouth of the Congo, previously a profitable trading center for its nine ‘kings’ and their European partners in the various factories, was plagued by drought and famine in 1878. The trade almost came to a standstill. The ‘kings’ increased the fees considerably to receive revenue. Delcommune was in charge of such a factory and had a good dozen mercenaries, which he equipped with Schneider and Winchester rifles. There were locally purchased slaves and sailors hired on the Liberian coast of the Kru. A colony did not exist yet, but the wind was blowing from that direction. Delcommune chose Wild West style by surprising fire raids on the villages of the ‘Kings’ and was successful. The object EO.0.0.7943 was a great fetish, to which superhuman powers were attributed and which brought its owner a fortune. Since the large and heavy figure was thrown into the bush by their bearers in the hasty flight, the fetish could not be defused before the loss, so it was complete and functional. Delcommune then used it to protect his warehouses from local thieves, with the difference that he had to pay no fee. (85) The former owner unsuccessfully negotiated the return after the ‘peace agreement’.
By the way, the essay by Couttenier illustrates conditions on the African side that McGaffey (Link) and Kejsa Engholm Friedman (Link) have succinctly characterized. In 2016, one of the dignitaries in Boma assumed that the figure could be ritually reactivated and return to service in Boma (81). But there was also talk to put him after a ‘restitution’ in a local museum. Reactivation or musealization in Congo – what an alternative!
But what should the figure achieve here in Europe being shown around? The figure, dressed all over with ropes and nails, is indeed impressive and frightening. But the other fetishes in museum depots can just as well represent this Congolese aesthetics of horror (Link). In a dispute over Congolese objects among Belgian actors in 1910, the evil word was used ‘dirty Congolese things‘ (87). It suits a fetish whose powers were ‘hired’ and who was animated by insidiously captured souls and spirits. Who believes that the moral justification for his action interested his owner more than the payment? An instrument of power is always ambivalent.
The fetish had a proper name and was unique in his homeland, where probably later a replica produced the same shudder. For example, one recognized the gutter on the forehead, allegedly caused by countless hands seeking help.
And the educational value? Is the embodiment of the universal human trait, to use always the strongest weapon, worth the installation in Europe? Would those milieus not feel embarrassed who prefer to make the ‘dark side’ of African society disappear in the public view,arguing that ‘populists’ would abuse them for ‘racist’ propaganda? Or could the object be protected by an ideological wall to enforce a ban for unauthorized persons – for example in social media?
If the fetish is not in good hands abroad, it belongs in the Congo, even if its survival prognosis is unfavorable there. The figure would not have survived in the Congo until today without authorities and missionaries would have had to intervene. The fetish inevitably drew envy and hatred. As early as 1879, the dispute over possession of the fetish led to a bloody feud between previously allied ‘kings’ in Boma.
Regularly recurring destruction of ‘fetishes’ (iconoclasm) is Congolese everyday life, repeated at intervals of ten to twenty years. And every day new ones come into being. If he really should survive in the decades to come, the fetish out of service might eventually bear witness from the beginning of Congo’s darkest epoch. Only then would he be eligible for the rank of “World Heritage”! Perhaps Germany can still lend develop aid workers for the “processing” of barbaric contemporary history then. All this is very improbable.
Maarten Couttenier speaks of three restitution claims at three different times. He seems to blur the fundamental differences of the three restitution claims:
– The personal recovery according to fist rule, because the fetish was thrown away by fugitives, was considered a hostage of the winner and initially retained its African use
– the official reclaim by the head of state Mobutu but all inclusive in a package
– and finally the claim of returning a palaver and based on media and hearsay.
The case has complicated in more than a century. Although it came into possession of a Belgian purely by chance and before the colonial regime, the object turned into a ‘trophy’ through its further history – the transfer to the Belgian state and the run of various institutions for its possession.
‘Trophy’ means that the haul is exiled and stripped of all references and meanings, especially losing its social rank, eand is exposed to a poorly informed audience.
With every new exhibition of their power figure, the Congolese were again humiliated, while the robbery was again alive. I would really like to know why the Belgian museum experts have given that fetish such an outstanding exhibition career in Europe and the USA, and this without its special and significant history. Isn‘t that typical of a ‘colonial museum’?
Couttenier cites C.Fromont, and H.Vanhee (89): “Let‘s defend museums that are open to change!” I hope that Tervuren will be like this when it reopens its doors to the public at the end of 2018 after five long years.
Postscipt
The 28 september Couttenier confirms in a personal comment confirms that the debate on restitution in Belgium is a hot topic now. However, most attention is devoted to Storms and Lusinga. An interesting blog on this subject is: www.lusingatabwa.com

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