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

A podcast of lecture given by Allen F. Roberts of UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/ Dance

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 ways.


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).

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Duration: 01:16:00

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