Heart of Darkness: Ivory carving and Belgian colonialism
4 April – 28 June 2008
Exhibition in Gallery 4
Taking its title from Joseph Conrad’s celebrated novel, this exhibition examines the revival of ivory sculpture within the context of the brutal colonial exploitation of the Congo by Léopold II, King of Belgium.
Along with rubber, the ruthless harvesting of ‘white gold’, as the ivory was called, financed Léopold’s harsh colonial policy, which resulted in the death of millions of Congolese. The King however regarded this bloody trade as a personal business venture and the jewel in his crown.
Before the excesses of the regime became fully apparent at the beginning of the 20th century, Léopold II ensured his African resources were displayed to their best advantage by commissioning a group of renowned Belgian sculptors to carve works in ivory for display at the Colonial Exhibition of 1897 in Tervuren. The beauty of the resulting sculptures, granted pride of place in the Salon d’honneur, masked the African grief apparent in the material itself.
Heart of Darkness presents four key sculptures and examines their duality. The aesthetics of the carving demonstrate fin-de-siècle preoccupations with symbolism, eclecticism and art nouveau, while they also speak of the politics surrounding their conception and production.
These artifacts of exploitation, which include an imposing portrait of King Léopold himself, will be shown alongside related documents and contemporary newspaper reports as well as a series of photographs only recently released by the archive of the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren and shown in public here for the first time.
This exhibition has been curated by Sébastien Clerbois of the Université libre de Bruxelles.