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#45 Congo Connecting

Carl De Keyzer in his exhibition Congo. photo Joep Eijkens

Speaking: the curators and Carl De Keyzer

“I think it's a beautiful, open exhibition where you're not forced what to think”, a visitor to the Congo Connecting exhibition complimented us. “That's exactly what we want,” replied Petra Cardinal, director of the Pennings Foundation and one of the curators. The other curators of the exhibition are Stef Van Bellingen, Theo Derksen and Astrid Huis. Congo Connecting shows a selection from the series 'Congo' by Magnum photographer Carl De Keyzer, the personal story of 'Tante José' and the contributions to the Open Call.

Selection from the series Congo by Magnum photographer Carl De Keyzer. photo Carl De Keyzer

“In 2010, the photos of Congo by Carl De Keyzer were shown for the first time in Fotomuseum Antwerp. That was 50 years after Congo's independence. De Keyzer visualized the effects of the arrival and departure of a colonizer. This started the discussion in Belgium about the colonial past. Not in the Netherlands. That is why I wanted to show those photos again, hoping to get that discussion going in the Netherlands as well.

We do this by showing different perspectives, that of Carl De Keyzer, but also that of 'Aunt José’, a project by Astrid Huis, about missionary work in the twentieth century. And we show today’s visions on Congo through an Open Call.” (see blog #43)

“We want the exhibition to raise questions,” says Petra. “What do we think about our colonial past now? Are we more aware of the consequences of this on today's society?”

Christiane Gronenberg (ZOUT) interviews Petra Cardinaal

“How do we learn to deal with racism, discrimination, imbalanced power relations and a misplaced sense of superiority?” adds Stef Van Bellingen (curator of the WARP Art Platform, Sint-Niklaas).

Petra: “However, we want to be open about it, not to be pedantic. After all, every person is a child of his time. And the place where one is born is decisive.”

Stef: “You always start from your own point of view and your own context. Take, for example, the word 'skin color'. That has a different meaning for someone with light skin than for someone with dark skin.”

Stef Van Bellingen

During his lecture about Congo at Pennings Foundation, Carl De Keyzer (Kortrijk 1958) said: “This series (and also the book) actually tells more about Belgium than about Congo. It's about the arrogance of a small country that thinks it can rule a big country. “

photo Carl De Keyzer

“For my travels I took a travel guide from 1958 as a starting point, which presented Congo as a utopian paradise, with villas and hotels, built under the guise of civilizing and paid for by plundering the country. Most of them were built in areas where there are also mines.”

He again visited the tourist attractions, looking for traces of the colonial past. This resulted in photos of the creative reuse of buildings, but above all in many photos that show deterioration and decay.

View in the exhibition Congo of Carl De Keyzer. photo Carl De Keyzer

Young Congolese prefer to show a different view. They want to show the beauty of the country and the resilience of the people, who try to make something of their lives despite poverty and violence. “That's why we made an appeal via an Open Call and added these works to the exhibition,” explains Stef Van Bellingen, “and that's why I asked Judith Elseviers (a lawyer with Congolese roots, who makes projects in Belgium about decolonial thinking) to respond to De Keyzer's photos.” (see blog #44)

Announcement of Congo Connecting in the shop window. Due to Covid-19 the exhibition was extended until April 16, 2022. photo Carl De Keyzer

Wonder (by Astrid Huis, photographer)

“Tante José (1918–2001) was my great-aunt who went to Congo in the 1950s for the mission, from the Glorieux monastery in the same street where the Pennings Foundation is located. This fact – in combination with the exhibition 'Congo' by Carl De Keyzer – formed the starting point for my research.”

Astrid Huis in her exhibition 'Tante José'

“When people think of the mission, people easily think of things like civilizing, the feeling of superiority of the white person, the church as a legitimacy to colonize, placing mission posts in places where economic gain (raw materials) could be achieved. Not surprising.

For me the mission was synonymous with winning souls for the faith. However, Aunt José wanted to help people in Africa, bring health care. That was her calling. The only way to do that as a woman in the 1950s (at a time when the woman's role was in the household as wife and mother) was to join a monastery. Through the Sisters of Mercy of Glorieux in Eindhoven and Ronse (B) she was able to make her dreams come true.”

Visitors immerse themselves in the story of Aunt José

“To me, Aunt José now stands for standing up for yourself, emancipation, decisiveness, living in the moment. All qualities that I did not immediately expect in a nun. By immersing oneself in someone else, all kinds of surprising facts come to the surface. Assumptions often turn out to be incorrect or partly incorrect.”

Astrid is working on a book about Aunt José.

The curators of Congo Connecting: Petra Cardinaal, Stef Van Bellingen, Astrid Huis and Theo Derksen make a selection from the Congo series of Carl De Keyzer.

What photos can bring about (by Theo Derksen, photographer, January 10, 2022)

“By co-curating the exhibition Congo Connecting, I realized that I do have a fair amount of knowledge about the Belgian colonial past, but that I know a lot less about the Dutch.

My first acquaintance with the Congo photos by Carl De Keyzer and the photo selection from the historical photo archive of Tervuren (B), compiled by Johan Lagae and Carl, dates from more than 10 years ago. Those photos opened my eyes to the colonial system.

The book Congo by David Van Reybrouck was added to this, followed by a series of articles about the past and the current situation of Congo that appear almost weekly in the Flemish newspaper De Standaard.”

“The book Revolusi, which deals with Indonesia, the former Dutch East Indies, also by David Van Reybrouck, once again confronted me with the fact that I knew very little about the Dutch colonial past. During my school years that was never on the 'agenda', it was at most a footnote. Oh yes, we discussed Multatuli's Max Havelaar if it was on the reading list. I thought that the book Revolusi, which describes the coherence of things in a historical context, would ensure that there would be more openness, research and publications about that past. But there was hardly any commotion after the publication. Seems like a missed opportunity. Our southern neighbors deal with their colonial past very differently.”

(Only weeks before the opening of the exhibition 'Revolusi' in Rijksmuseum Amsterdam in February 2022 did Dutch newspapers pay attention to the role of the Netherlands in Indonesia. IvB)

For this exhibition we have set up a study table with the books 'Congo (Belge)' and 'Congo Belge en images' by Carl De Keyzer. The books 'Congo' and 'Revolusi' by David Van Reybrouck are also available for study, as well as (early) literature on racism and discrimination in the USA. And also about raw materials (Cobalt) that are now being extracted without Congo becoming prosperous.

“For me Congo Connecting is not so much about Congo, it is more about colonial systems and how they work. Of course we have to judge everything in the context of the time, but with the knowledge of today we can draw conclusions and consequences. What mechanisms are behind this way of organizing a society? Where is the power?”

"Unfortunately I have to conclude that colonial thinking and acting still manifests itself, albeit in a slightly different guise. It used to be about raw materials, money and power, and that is no different today. Multinationals took over the role of the European colonizers and they no longer get rubber from Congo, but cobalt and other valuable ores. The fact that the local population is the victim of this and hardly benefits from their own natural resources, seems to be of no value. The pursuit of profit still predominates with disastrous ecological, economic and migratory consequences.”

“The statement 'judge everything in the context of time' does not absolve us from looking critically at the past and the present. Let Congo Connecting be a metaphor and open the discourse.”

Robert Theunissen interviews Carl De Keyzer for Photo31. photo Astrid Verhoef


The following activities took place in the context of the exhibition Congo Connecting:

Two-day masterclass by Carl De Keyzer.

Two lectures by Carl De Keyzer about his Congo project.

Photo31 interviewed Carl De Keyzer in his exhibition at Pennings Foundation. The webinar was broadcast on January 12, 2022.

Eindhovens Dagblad December 23, 2022 (interview by Rob Schoonen)

In the media

An interview with Carl De Keyzer (by Rob Schoonen) was published in the Eindhovens Dagblad on December 23, 2021.

Frank van den Muysenberg interviewed Astrid Huis about the Tante José project (Eindhovens Dagblad 7 February 2022).

Joep Eijkens (Brabant Cultural) also interviewed Astrid Huis.

And Carina van der Walt (Brabant Cultureel) from South Africa reflected on Carl De Keyzer's photos.

Christiane Gronenberg interviewed Petra Cardinal about Congo Connecting for ZOUT (see link to video above).

About the books on Congo by Carl De Keyzer see:

Also read about decolonial thinking in Risk Hazekamp's project (blog #31)

photo from the archive of Carl De Keyzer

Carl De Keyzer's first exhibition abroad was in 1982 at Galerie Pennings. This (group exhibition) one was curated by Rob Schoonen and Bas Roodnat.

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