Par Allen F. Roberts, professeur d'Arts et Cultures du monde à l'Université de Californie à Los Angeles.
Lusinga lwa Ng’ombe visited Los Angeles in 2013, despite the fact that the Congolese warlord of this name was decapitated in 1884 by assassins dispatched by the Belgian military officer Émile Storms. A majestic wooden figure of Lusinga, seized by Storms’ mercenaries and transported to Belgium where it is now understood to be among the “treasures” of the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA), is invested with ancestral spirits of the chief and his matrilineage. When the sculpture was displayed in the “Shaping Power: Luba Masterworks from the Royal Museum for Central Africa” exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2013 and 2014, Lusinga was present as well. (1)
Fig 1. Introductory panel of “Shaping Power: Luba Masterworks from the Royal Museum for Central Africa,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, photo 2014, with permission.
Fig 2. Lusinga figure, #EO.o.o.31660, Royal Museum for Central Africa, as displayed in “Shaping Power” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, photo 2014, with permission.
“Shaping Power” was based upon research among Luba people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in the late 1980s by the exhibition’s curator, Mary Nooter Roberts. Luba sculpture and related performance practices played instrumental roles in the formation and expansion of important central African polities. Indeed, the efficacies of such works of arts shaped power, even as they were shaped by power.(2) Such an active sense of artistic engagement with people’s purposes informed the composition and design of the “Shaping Power” exhibition. As will be outlined below, the juxtapositions of objects suggest ways that museum exhibitions can be curated so that ambiguities of human relationships are given full play and no one has the last word as, indeed, neither Lusinga nor Storms did, can, or will.
First, a beheading. The event occurred on December 4th, 1884, and has been articulated ever since through competing Congolese and Belgian histories attuned to particular audiences and political goals. (3) Two protagonists engaged in a deadly pas-de-deux driven by immense ambition, as each man violently strove to establish hegemony along the southwestern shores of Lake Tanganyika in what is now the DRC: Lusinga lwa Ng’ombe, deemed a “sanguinary potentate” by the British explorer Joseph Thomson after visiting the chief in 1879, because of Lusinga’s ruthless slaving for the east African trade; and Émile Storms, belligerent commander of the fourth International African Association caravan and founder of an outpost at Mpala-Lubanda near Lusinga’s redoubt. (4)(Fig. 3) The IAA’s overt mandate was to promote scientific knowledge while helping suppress slavery. Lusinga and Storms were bound for confrontation, and Lusinga lost his head.
Fig 3. L’arrivée de Storms à Mpala” by Alfred Ronner, in Les Belges dans l’Afrique Centrale (1886, Brussels: P. Maes), 517. Image in public domain.
Storms did develop IAA scientific aims, and as he scheduled, mapped, traded, and collected, he broached Belgian colonization of time, place, value, and Nature itself. (Fig. 4) He also initiated changes in social organization still perceptible in the mid-1970s at Mpala-Lubanda, where I spent most of my 45 months of dissertation research for a PhD in socio-cultural anthropology. Despite its lofty public goals, the IAA was a front for the imperialist maneuvering of Léopold II, King of the Belgians. Storms had a covert directive to strike off westward from Mpala and join Henry Morton Stanley coming up the Congo River from the Atlantic coast. Together they would inscribe a “White Line across the Dark Continent,” as a tract had it in 1883, and in so doing, they would substantiate Léopold’s audacious claim to the Congo at the much-anticipated Berlin Conference of 1885 when Africa was partitioned among European colonial powers – with U. S. collusion, to be sure (5). Had the plan been realized, Storms could have expected to share some portion of the enormous celebrity accorded to Stanley. As it was, the seasoned Stanley proved so swiftly successful that Storms’ further services were deemed unnecessary, and he was summoned back to Belgium and into disgruntled anonymity.
Fig.4 Microlestes stormsi, a small fish of Lake Tanganyika collected by and named for Émile Storms as he colonized Nature as local Africans knew it. Image from internet in public domain.
Twists and turns continued as Storms returned to Europe. He bore Lusinga’s skull in his luggage and presented it to the eminent physical anthropologist Émile Houzé, who made it the subject of a sinister treatise in proto-eugenics applicable to Africans as well as to his own Flemish countryman – Houzé being a Walloon.(6) Storms also brought home booty seized from Lusinga, including the magnificent ancestral figure mentioned above. Unpublished photos taken in 1929 as the Widow Storms prepared to donate her husband’s African collections to the Royal Museum show the sculpture standing before an over-mantle mirror that reflected phantasmagorical displays in the Storms’ drawing room, through which the aging general invented an “Africa” to suit his triumphant recollections. (7) (Fig. 5)
Fig 5. Lusinga figure as displayed on the mantelpiece of Henriette and Émile Storms’ drawing room, 1929. Photograph by G. Hotz, RMCA HP.1930.653.1, with permission.
What might have become of Lusinga’s sculpture or skull had they remained in the Congo? In the late 1800s, Lusinga and a few of his kinsmen seeking to exploit the explosive potentialities of the east African ivory-and-slave trade adapted symbols of self aggrandizement in emulation of the fabled Luba kingdom so influential throughout southern Congo and adjacent lands.(8) Despite pretenses of empire as imposed and improvised through occasional armed intervention, the late historian Jan Vansina suggested that “even the main Luba kingdom was first and foremost a construction of the mind. Regional communities belonged to it because they proclaimed that they belonged to it,” and the shared historical consciousness so implied was bolstered through material and performance arts. (9) Even as far afield as where Lusinga operated, emblems and acts could be adopted to reflect “a Luba-inspired concept of ‘civilized life.’” In becoming increasingly “Luba-ized” in this way, to borrow the aptly processual phrase of the colonial writer Edmond Verhulpen, Lusinga embellished and invented traditions “to establish continuity with a suitable historic past,” as Vansina put it. (10)
Among his strategies for self-aggrandizement, Lusinga commissioned a large wooden figure to embody his matrilineage that would serve as an active life force to which he might look to protect and promote his interests. For this, he turned to an artist familiar with the eclectic aesthetics of people living west of Lake Tanganyika around the confluence of the Niemba and Lukuga Rivers, who are now understood to be eastern Luba and/or Hemba. One can assume that Lusinga expected to keep his ancestral figure in perpetuity, to be inherited and cherished by his successors; and that such permanence would have been of great value unto itself. As the late anthropologist Annette Weiner suggested with regard to conceptually similar material culture among Maori people of New Zealand, “the primary value of inalienability… is expressed through the power these objects have to define who one is in an historical sense. The object acts as a vehicle for bringing past time into the present, so that the histories of ancestors, titles, and mythological events become an intimate part of a person’s present identity.” (11) In commissioning and then carefully preserving the sculpture, Lusinga must have hoped to create and/or elaborate upon a dynastic history for himself, and to have it be recognized by others. Again among Maori, Weiner stressed that “inalienable wealth takes on important priorities in societies where ranking occurs,” and one can assume that Lusinga aspired to establish a social hierarchy among otherwise strikingly egalitarian Tabwa people living in widely scattered, small communities southwest of Lake Tanganyika.
The Lusinga figure is far more prominent than most Tabwa sculptures of the chief’s day. Its proportions emphasize the head, portraying a man of balance, inner and outer beauty, intelligence, and influence, as further reflected in the shaven forehead and turban-shaped coiffure adorned with feathers following fashions among Luba-influenced people of the day. Reference to eternally youthful appearance of the sort is so common in African art that it is deemed to be among the “canons of fine form,” art historian Robert Farris Thompson tells us.(12)Such essential vigorousness also recalls the portrayal of Emile Storms, as we shall see.
Lusinga’s left or “female” hand lies next to his pronounced navel, in reference to his mother and matrilineage. His right, “masculine” hand holds what may be a staff of office, and if so, as the art historian Mary Nooter Roberts has written, it would have mapped geographical and social relationships to spiritual agents and senior chiefs.(13) Having had an opportunity to scrutinize the Lusinga figure in LACMA’s “Shaping Power” exhibition, I have come to believe that the object held in Lusinga’s hand is instead a stylized musket – a device of evident power in the warlord’s heady days of violent plunder. Such a deduction is informed by what may be a just-detectable charge of medicinal materials in what would be the long-gun’s muzzle. In any case, the object extends Lusinga’s hand as a material prosthesis that affirms solidity of stance through reference to ancestrally sanctioned capacities.
For Lusinga, the figure that Storms would eventually capture and bear away to Europe “was” his dynastic lineage, as a living essence with which the chief could commune while sharing freshly brewed beer and long meditative hours through the night. In this, the figure constituted a “compressed performance” of the practices and associations to which it alluded, and to Lusinga’s own interactions with his matrilineal ancestors.(14) And to redirect the late anthropologist Alfred Gell’s assertions when writing of Kongo minkisi figures, “an instructed person” among Tabwa who approached the figure of Lusinga’s matrilineal ancestors would not have seen “a mere thing, a form” to which s/he might or might not “respond aesthetically.” Instead, s/he would have perceived in the sculpture “the visible knot which ties together an invisible skein of relations, fanning out into social space and social time.” (15)
Storms clearly understood his possession of the Lusinga figure as a war trophy via a property regime very different from what the same the sculpture meant to the chief and his people from whom Storms’ men seized it. The “use value” he saw in the sculpture was directed toward his own self-presentation, rather than any of the purposes Lusinga and his followers might have intended. Storms’ African souvenirs including the Lusinga sculpture remained in his widow’s possession until 1930. As the anthropologist Boris Wastiau comments, by then they had become “family relics, metonyms of the deceased,… thereby implying new ‘rituals’ of remembrance and devotion” – to Henriette Dessaint Storms and her family and friends, that is, rather than to the people who had made or used the objects and from whom Storms had seized them.(16) The ongoing “social lives” of the things seem to have left any such possibilities far behind.
Since 1930, when Storms’ collection was given to what is now the RMCA, the Lusinga figure and similar objects have served further enunciatory functions as signs of “primitivity” underscoring the justifications and purposes of Belgian “civilization.” A bust of Émile Storms was to be seen at the Royal Museum in 2010, scowling in marmoreal pallor at Herbert Ward’s “Defiance,” depicting an angry African striding forth below the plinth bearing Storms. (Fig. 6) Through such odd encounters, one can assume that Storms and Lusinga have whispered to each other through the many years since their epic encounter in 1884, for they do have a great deal in common.
Fig.6 Bust of Émile Storms by Marnix d’Haveloose (1906) and Herbert Ward’s “Defiance” (1909) as juxtaposed at the RMCA in 2010. Photograph 2010 by Kathleen Louw, with permission.
A RMCA vitrine as presented in 2010 allows us to guess something of how Storms wished to be remembered and how curators and his public have invented him over the years since his death in 1918. A lighted case holding Storms’ mementos stood in the corridor perpendicular to the alcove then still occupied by the bust of Storms. (Fig. 7) A watercolor portrait of Storms by James Thiriar was the centerpiece. (Fig. 8) Thiriar (1889-1965) was a noted Belgian illustrator who occasionally designed costumes for the Brussels opera. Here he portrayed Storms as a bit the Zouave, a bit a pirate of Penzance: A red fez rides high on the brow, its jaunty tassle behind the ear. The subject sports an impressive beard and exuberant mustachios. An open-necked shirt is worn beneath a tight, white, double-breasted jacket that is met abruptly at the waist by a swashbuckling red sash. Storms lightly rests his right hand upon the muzzle of a lever-action, 1866-model Winchester repeating rifle (as among the arms that “won” the American West), his left hand lightly at the hip. He frowns, his sternly vigilant gaze lifted slightly to his left; and if the lieutenant seems a tad portly in repose, a slight bend of the right knee, his weight on the left leg, and a suspicion of quick motion with the left hand leave one to assume that Storms could swing up and fire his carbine in less than a heartbeat. With braggadocio, the “Emperor of Tanganyika,” as Storms was once dubbed in the Belgian press, is introduced as the equivalent of a hero of the American Wild West, and in all his cocky splendor, a worthy competitor for at least some of the attentions lavished upon Henry Morton Stanley. (17)
Fig.7 Mementos of Émile Storms including the Thiriar portrait “Le lieutenant É. Storms” (c.1930), as displayed in an RMCA vitrine in 2010. Photograph 2010 by Kathleen Louw, with permission.
Fig 8. James Thiriar, “Le lieutenant É. Storms” (c.1930), watercolor portrait, RMCA HO.o.1.641, with permission.
What are we to think of Bwana Boma’s get-up, though? Exotic attire of the sort had several purposes including, for Stanley, the selling of memoirs and subscriptions to lectures and otherwise merchandizing African adventure to avid late-nineteenth-century audiences. Because Storms did not seem interested in or capable of such self-promotion, it remains difficult to interpret his or the artist’s motivations. And yet notions of “manliness” and attendant forms of muscular, militant chivalry that were so sought in the fraught circumstances of turn-of-the-century western Europe must have been central influences upon how Storms wanted to be remembered and how Thiriar presented him to the world.
Explorers were the heroes of late-nineteenth-century Everymen and –women in Europe and North America. The clothing donned, arms borne, poses struck, perils survived, loneliness endured, lessons learned, compassion shown, and violence meted all stood for far more than the individuals themselves, no matter how singular their personal histories. How, though, does such an idealized vision as “Lieutenant Storms in 1885” by James Thiriar differ from the equally aestheticized “Lusinga” expressed by a virtuosic east-central African artist? The style and spiritual investments of the latter clearly differ from the flourishes of the former; and yet the works have more in common than not, beginning with the arrogance they convey so artfully. The principle purpose of both representations would seem to be to instigate narratives about what could be, as well as what might have been.
In contrast to these portraits of hubris is a contemporary work by the Congolese artist Aimé Mpane called “Congo: Shadow of the Shadow” that was featured in LACMA’s “Shaping Power” exhibition. (18) (Figs. 9, 10) Composed of nearly five thousand match sticks, the fragility of a man’s figure is as poignant as his stance, gazing upon a tombstone cross inscribed with the phrase “Congo…1885.” What suffering Congolese have known since the Berlin Conference of that year, when the Congo Free State was conferred upon Leopold II as his very own piece of “this magnificent African cake,” as the king famously quipped!(19) The deadly pas-de-deux of Lusinga and Storms presaged well more than a century of turmoil still ongoing in the DRC, with the unimaginable genocidal strife of the last decades among latest dire consequences. Mpane’s shadow-man is not all that is left, though; rather, he is what IS left to keep beginning ever-anew, with humility, resilience, and dignity.
Fig 9. “Shaping Power” exhibition at LACMA, 2013-2014, with Aimé Mpane’s “Congo: Shadow of the Shadow” in the background. Photo with permission.
Fig 10. Aimé Mpane’s “Congo, Shadow of the Shadow” (2005) mixed media installation, now in the collections of the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution; here as seen in “Shaping Power” at LACMA, 2014, photo with permission.
In “Shaping Power,” Mpane’s work was a deeply moving presence that gave voice to the silenced sculptures within the exhibition’s vitrines. Like Lusinga, these too still have much to say about what they once were and how and why they have become “treasures of the Royal Museum.” On the wall opposite the entrance to the Mpane installation, a small screen showed a video of Mutombo Nkulu N’Sengha, Professor of Religious Studies at California State University/Northridge, presenting an unscripted talk entitled “Thinking with Our Hearts.” The Congolese scholar, who is himself of Luba heritage, spoke to the themes of the “Shaping Power” exhibition, but also to we-are-still-here realities of what constitutes courage in present-day DRC. Luba photography and video footage from Mary Roberts’ research in the DRC provided a background to Dr. Mutombo’s talk, and accompanying Luba music enlivened the entire gallery.
How will the Lusinga figure and other important works in the collections of the Royal Museum be displayed to convey rather than mask mimeses such as that between Lusinga and Storms – or, because the RMCA has yet to reopen after several years of restoration and we cannot yet know how RMCA curators will organize new displays – how might they be? How may historical ambiguities like those that resulted on and from that epic day in 1884 be featured to mitigate colonial aphasia that, for so long now, has permitted Belgians to forget or ignore aspects of their collective pasts that may remain acutely uncomfortable? How may Congolese voices, starting with Lusinga’s and those of others who fell in colonial conquest, not only be heard, but lead to Belgo-Congolese collaboration in humane futures? How may these same Congolese voices lead to renewed vitality in war-torn DRC?
Hopeful news has it that Aimé Mpane is among contemporary Congolese artists whose works have been commissioned for the new RMCA. Surely, intentional juxtapositions between these works and those of the museum’s earlier treasures will result, but so will unintentional ones, as chance encounters of the sort inherent in all museum displays (witness the 2010 event of Storms gazing down upon Herbert Ward’s “Defiant African” seen in Figure 6). Lusinga’s figure has long been confined to vitrines, and, as Michel Bouffioux explains, his skull lies in a forgotten drawer of a Belgian science museum. Yet as Bouffioux’s evocative piece in Paris Match asserts, no last story has been told, no last word uttered or last laugh enjoyed by Lusinga, Storms, or so many other Congolese and Belgians of the colonial moment in central Africa. May the resulting conversations reverberate in the RMCA’s newly installed galleries.
(1) : On the Lusinga figure as a “treasure,” see Gustaav Verswijver et al. eds., Treasures of the Africa Museum Tervuren (1995, Tervuren, Belgium: Royal Museum for Central Africa). The “Shaping Power” exhibition was curated by Dr. Mary Nooter Roberts, LACMA’s Consulting Curator for African Arts, in collaboration with Dr. Anne-Marie Bouttiaux, now retired from the RMCA. The exhibition was on view at LACMA from July 2013 to May 2014; see http://www.lacma.org/video/shaping-power-luba-masterworks-royal-museum-central-africa. For Polly.
(2) Ideas of the “Shaping Power” exhibition are expounded upon by Mary Nooter Roberts in “The King Is a Woman: Shaping Power in Luba Royal Arts,” African Arts 2013, 46 (3), 67-81. For a broader exposition of Luba arts, see Mary Nooter Roberts and Allen F. Roberts, eds., Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History (1996, Munich: Prestel for the Museum for African Art, New York).
(3) These matters are the subject of Allen F. Roberts, A Dance of Assassins: Performing Early Colonial Hegemony in the Congo (2013, Bloomington, USA: Indiana University Press). Further explanations, particular citations, and acknowledgments are offered there.
(4) Joseph Thomson, To the Central African Lakes and Back (1968/1881, London: Frank Cass). On histories of the east African slave trade, see Edward A. Alpers, Ivory and Slaves in East-Central Africa (1975, Berkeley USA: University of California Press).
(5) Anonymous, The Congo: A White Line across the Dark Continent with Map. The Operations of the Association Internationale Africaine and of the Comité d’Étude du Haut Congo from December 1877 to October 1882, by a Participant in the Enterprise (1883, London: E. and F. N. Spon).
(6) :See “The Rise of a Colonial Macabre” in Roberts, A Dance of Assassins, 143-156. Also see Maarten Couttenier, “Fysieke antropologie in België en Congo 1883-1964,” in De Exotische mens. Andere culturen als amusement, B. Sliggers and P. Allegaert, eds. (2009, Tielt, Belgium: Lannoo), 96-113; and Lotte Arndt, “Vestiges of Oblivion –Sammy Baloji’s Works on Skulls in European Museum Collections,” www.darkmatter101.org, 2013.
(7) :See “Art Évo on the Chausée d’Ixelles” in Roberts, A Dance of Assassins, 157-173. Also see Boris Wastiau, “The Scourge of Chief Kansabala: The Ritual Life of Two Congolese Masterpieces at the Royal Museum for Central Africa (1884-2001),” in Science, Magic, and Religion: The Ritual Processes of Museum Magic, M. Bouquet and N. Porto, eds. (2005, New York: Bergahn), 95-115; and Julien Volper, “Of Sculptures and Skulls: The Émile Storms Collection,” Tribal Art 2012, XVII-1 (66), 86-95.
(8) See Thomas Q. Reefe, The Rainbow and the Kings: A History of the Luba Empire to 1891 (1981, Berkeley USA: University of California Press); and Luc de Heusch, Le roi ivre ou l’origine de l’État (1972, Paris: Gallimard).
(9) : Jan Vansina, “From Memory to History: Processes of Luba Historical Consciousness,” Foreword to Roberts and Roberts, Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History, 12-14.
(10) : Vansina, “From Memory”; Edmund Verhulpen, Baluba et Balubaïsés du Katanga (1936, Antwerp: Éds. de l’Avenir Belge).
(11) : Annette Weiner, “Inalienable Wealth,” American Ethnologist 1985, 12 (2), 210-227.
(12) : Robert Farris Thompson, African Art in Motion (1974, Berkeley USA: University of California Press).
(13) : Mary Nooter Roberts, “The Sculpted Narratives of Luba Staffs of Office,” in Staffs of Life: Rods, Staffs, Scepters, and Wands from the Coudron Collection of African Art, A. Roberts, ed. (1994, Iowa City USA: University of Iowa Museum of Art).
(14) : The phrase “compressed performance” is from Christopher Pinney, Photos of the Gods: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India (2004, London: Reaktion), 8.
(15) : Alfred Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (1998, New York: Oxford University Press),
(16) : Wastiau, “The Scourge,” 101-105.
(17) : Storms was dubbed “Emperor of Tanganyika” in an anonymous, untitled article in Mouvement géographique 2 (16), 9 August 1885, p. 65. Buffalo Bill (William F. Cody) and other showmen presented Wild West fantasies to exuberant Belgian audiences in the 1890s; see G. Convents, “Popular Pleasures for the Middle Classes,” in De Panoramische Droom/The Panoramic Dream, M. Nauwelaerts et al., eds (1993, Gand, Belgium: Snoeck), 243-247; one can presume that it was no coincidence that Storms donned such clothing and assumed such a pose as Thiriar portrayed.
(18) : Aimé Mpane introduced his “Congo: Shadow of a Shadow” in the “Shaping Power” gallery at LACMA as seen at http://www.lacma.org/video/artist-aim%C3%A9-mpane-visits-lacma.
(19) : See Sabine Cornelis, “Stanley au service de Léopold II: La foundation de l’État Indépendent du Congo, 1878-1885,” in H. M. Stanley, Explorateur au service du Roi, S. Cornelis et al., eds. (1991, Annales Sciences historiques, Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale), 42.