Paintings show the casual violence of colonial masters

CNN  — 

In front of a white building, with a Belgian flag flying high in the yard, a black man in a striped t-shirt and shorts is being strangled with a chain.

Nearby, another black man is lying face down on the ground, his trousers pulled down to reveal deep bleeding cuts in his buttocks. Above him stands another black man, smartly dressed in a colonial police officer’s uniform, whip raised above his head, ready to strike. The guard looks furtively over at a white man, in a white uniform with the Belgian flag sewn into his lapel, and a white pith helmet on his head. He smokes a pipe and has one hand in his pocket. His other hand casually directs the violence in the yard.

This scene is from one of the paintings in a new exhibition, 53 Echoes of Zaire, which opens on 27 May at the Sulger-Buel-Lovell gallery in London. The painting, titled “Congo Belge II,” was made in the 1970s and depicts a period in the history of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (previously know as Zaire), a former Belgian colony.

The Kingdom of Kongo rose in the 1300s, and part of it became Congo Free State, the private holding of Belgian King Leopold II, in the 1880s. Speaking of that colonial history, Christian Sulger-Buel, who co-founded the gallery says: “Belgian Congo is an extraordinary exception to the colonial norm. It was dramatically exploited by one man, King Leopold (II), who treated the people and the land like his private property. He owned Congo the way you’d own your car.”

Political art

The artist, T. Kalema, was part of a group that came to be known as the “Lubumbashi Movement,” artists living and working in the southeastern city of Lubumbashi. The work of the Lubumbashi Movement served as a way to document Congo’s turbulent history.

The political nature of the art created in Lubumbashi in the 1970s is particular to the city, which is the copper mining heartland of Congo. “In Kinshasa (the capital of the DRC) the subjects of art were typically social, lighter and with a lot of humor,” says Salimata Diop, head of programs at London’s Africa Centre, and the exhibition’s curator.

By contrast, artists who were part of the Lubumbashi Movement painted scenes from the slave trade in the 16th and 17th centuries, through to the brutality by the colonial masters and right up to their contemporary struggles: miners strikes, independence, the s