Imagined Congos: Displays of Early Colonial Hegemony
A podcast of lecture given by Allen F. Roberts of UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/ Dance
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This lecture addresses the social lives of things and the power of
display as it recounts the story of a very particular event in early
colonial hegemonic history of the Congo. As Lieutenant Emile Storms
established a fortified outpost of the International African Association
on the southwestern shores of Lake Tanganyika in the early 1883, his
motivations and methods for displaying hegemonic purpose came into
conflict with those of local people. A chief named Lusinga participated
in cultural practices of his Tabwa people, but he also sought to
consolidate his political powers by displays both symbolic and violent.
Lusinga and the lieutenant engaged in a bellicose pas-de-deux, and as
their mimetic confrontations proceeded it was not clear who would
prevail. Storms' men were the better armed, and in early December,
1884, they executed Lusinga and brought his head and most valuable
possessions to Storms, who then took them with him as he returned to
Belgium the following year.
What might have become of Lusinga's skull had it remained in the Congo
and been made the subject of funerary ritual and subsequent veneration?
And how might the large ancestral figure he had commissioned to
facilitate his quest for authority have been deployed by subsequent
chiefs of Lusinga’s matrilineage? In removing these sacred objects to
Europe, Storms repurposed them to become central to his own displays of a
phantasmagoric "Congo" within his own home. The "lives" of these
remarkable objects continued, as they have been featured in Belgian
discourses and exhibitions from colonial times to the present day within
the context of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, even as the museum
itself has undergone re-imagining. Lusinga's ancestral figure is now on
view in the exhibition "Shaping Power: Luba Masterworks from the Royal
Museum for Central Africa" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art,
where it participates in the inauguration of LACMA's new African Gallery
and extends the life history of the work to new audiences and in new
Allen F. Roberts is Professor of World Arts and Cultures, Professor
(through affiliation) of French and Francophone Studies, Chair of the
African Studies MA program, and a co-editor of the peer-reviewed journal
African Arts. His presentation will be based upon long anthropological research in the Congo and reflects issues broached in his monograph A Dance of Assassins: Performing Early Colonial Hegemony in the Congo (2013, Indiana University Press).
Published: Thursday, June 26, 2014