Copyright: J. Van de Voorde © MRAC, Tervuren

The AfricaMuseum of Belgium: Toward a Radical Decolonial Approach to the Museum


This article attends to the question of decolonizing the museum by taking the AfricaMuseum[1] of Belgium as a case study to look into issues where the museum and art become a means of reparable justice in the post-colonial era. The article provides a critical appraisal of the ‘decolonial’ approach adopted by the administration of the AfricaMuseum, with a focus upon its five-year project of renovation (2013-2018). More specifically, the article problematizes the idea of inclusivity and diversity as two principal elements of decolonization upon which the administration of the AfricaMuseum insists. Drawing on the work of scholars such as AnaLouise Keating (2012), Karen Barad (2014), and Denise Ferreira da Silva (2016),[2] the argument put forward takes it that a radical project of decolonizing the museum depends on a complex understanding of the relationship between the colonizer and colonized.[3]

The ghost of the colonial past 

In tune with the Belgian State’s hesitant acknowledgment of its violent colonial past, King Phillip of Belgium recently forwarded a letter to President Félix Tshisekedi of the Democratique Republic of Congo upon the 60th anniversiry of Congo’s independence.[4] In it, the king expressed his “deepest regret” for Belgium’s brutal colonial legacy in Congo. The letter, however, has been read as a partial acknowledgment of Belgium’s colonial atrocities orchestered by King Phillip’s great grandfather, King Leopold II.[5] This is precisely because King Phillip’s letter fails to mention in specific terms the horrendous doings of Leopold II, whose colonial machinary has led to the death of 10 million Congolese people and a massive exploitation of both the Congolese people and land.[6]

King Phillip’s partial apology does not only echo the Belgian State’s ambivalent position on facing the country’s colonial past, but it also resonates quite well with the administration of the AfricaMuseum’s decolonial approach.[7] Despite the five-year renovation program, in which a budget of more than 73 million dollars was invested, the end result was unsatisfactory in the view of several critics.[8] Commenting on the post-renovation state of the AfricaMuseum, researcher Vicky Van Bockhaven puts it rather succinctly: “There is little consistancy in the scenography, with the tone of the narrative at times self-reflexive and critical, and at others, it digresses from the abuses of the colonial past”.[9]

The multilayered structure of the colonial museum calls for constant collaboration between artists, activists, and scholars to foster diagnostic practices and complex transformative strategies to push for a radical change. Indeed, the complexity of undoing the colonial legacy confirms the skeptical position of postcolonial scholars who argue that, “whilst colonialism has indeed been abolished”,[10] we must be aware of its “afterlives”.[11] As such, unlearning such supremacist and colonialist imaginaries would arguably require an intense and consistent decolonial work, which cannot be achieved by simply juxtaposing colonial statues with artworks produced by Belgian artists of the African diaspora. It follows that a complex decolonial approach—one that is informed by an awareness of the multidimensionality and persistency of the colonial legacy—is quite needed.

Decolonizing the museum is an act of counter-historical-amnesia par excellence. As curator Sumaya Kassim argues, acts of suppressing and overshadowing fragments of the past in the context of the colonial museum are achieved through politics of curation and cataloguing.[12] Against historical amnesia, decolonizing the AfricaMuseum, then, is about “bringing what is behind to the surface”—to use the terminology of feminist theorist Sara Ahmed.[13] Works of art produced by Belgian artists of African descent and  exhibited at the AfricaMuseum should be seen as a crucial “step towards a disruptive reanimation”[14] of the traumatic memories of Congolese people with Belgian colonialism. In this way, since Congolese people are the subject of the endurung injustice of the Belgian colonialism, they should be part of the decision-making processes of accountability. It follows that a project of decolonizing the AfricaMuseum cannot result in a genuine change without being articulated from the standpoint of the racialized/colonized ‘other’—Congolese people.

This leaves Congolese people confronted with the question of how they can contribute to the decolonization of the AfricaMuseum both from within and outside this institution. The administration of the AfricaMuseum commissions projects created by African artists and activists of the diaspora as a decolonial strategy. Yet inclusivity and diversity might not necessarily result in a radical transformation of the colonial structure of the AfricaMuseum. On the contrary, the very idea of inclusivity and/or decoloniality can be manipulated and used against the interests of those who demand it. It follows that ‘institutional decoloniality’ and all the processes and practices that it involves should be dealt with cautiously.

Decoloniality beyond the fetish of inclusivity/diversity

With the current intense public discussions about the decolonization of the museum as an institution in the Euro-American hemisphere, the idea of inclusivity and diversity as well as decoloniality have come to enjoy enormous currency. Similar to other museums in Europe and the US, the administration of the AfricaMuseum capitalizes on the idea of inclusion as a key aspect of its decolonial approach. To that end, the management has included, for the first time, the wooden sculpture Nouveau Souffle[15] created by the Congolese-Belgian artist Aimé Mpane, to provide a balanced narrative of the Congolese/African history and culture.[16] Additionally, the administration recruited several scholars from the Belgium’s African diaspora community as committee advisers.[17]

Copyright: J. Van de Voorde © MRAC, Tervuren
Aimé Mpane, Nouveau Souffle (2016). Copyright: J. Van de Voorde © MRAC, Tervuren

Yet, while these decisions and processes are arguably recommendable, they should not obscure the complexity of decolonizing the museum. As Kassim reminds us with reference to her participation in a decolonial program at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) in the UK:

When projects and institutions proclaim a commitment to ‘diversity’, ‘inclusion’ or ‘decoloniality’, we need to attend to these claims with a critical eye. Decoloniality is a complex set of ideas – it requires complex processes, space, money, and time, otherwise it runs the risk of becoming another buzzword, like ‘diversity’.[18]

Avoiding the risk described in Kassim’s statement does not only entail an awareness of the complex and deep-seated colonial structure of the AfricaMuseum, but it also draws our attention to the fact that the inclusion of the Belgium’s African diaspora community can be instrumentalized to maintain the colonial imprint of this museum.

Insofar as inclusivity and diversity in the institution are concerned, Sara Ahmed’s reflections on this debate are quite instructive. Addressing the ‘whiteness’ of academic institutions in the UK, Ahmed maintains that the inclusion of marginalized bodies and voices in hegemonic structures might obfuscate the nature of these environments. As she explains: “It is the very use of black bodies [and muted voices] as signs of diversity that confirms such [oppressive structures], premised on a conversion of having to being: as if by having [members of oppressed communities], the organization can be diverse”.[19] That is, having or including artworks of Belgian artists of African descent in the AfricaMuseum’s permanent exhibitions—regardless of the quota or radicality of these works—does not mean that this museum has become inclusive. Needless to mention the difficulties that artists belonging to post-colonial communities encounter while working from within colonial museums.

These difficulties involve, for instance, signing non-disclosure agreements and lacking full authority among other limitations related to law which determines the application of certain decisions and policies advanced by the administration of the museum.[20] For example, the commissioning of contemporary artworks created by Belgian artists of African descent to be part of the AfricaMuseum’s permanent exhibition was an alternative to the removal of controversial statues which are protected by the Belgian law.[21] Indeed, the director of the AfricaMuseum, Guido Gryseels, states that the process of restituting artefacts belonging to Congo is essentially a political decision that transcends the administration of the AfricaMuseum.[22]

Gryseels states that the administration is willing to discuss the restitution of objects and artworks, yet he is afraid that the Congolese State lacks the expertise and infrastructure to handle these artefacts.[23] In response, Aimé Mpane states: “I do not like this idea that we are not ready to manage our collection”.[24] Gryseels’ paternalistic statement does not diverge in principal from the liberal humanist rhetoric advanced by the Western bourgeoise elite that has been legitimizing the apparatus of systemic exploitation of colonialism in Africa and elsewhere. This is the kind of discourse that Aimé Césaire brilliantly unpacks in his classic “Discourse on Colonialism” (1955). For Césaire, this discourse played a pivotal role in providing a moralistic justification of Western colonialism in Africa. Such a “pseudo humanist” discourse claims responsibility for the non-Western world based on the idea that colonized people should always be dependent in that they cannot think by themselves or manage their affairs.[25]

At the heart of the radical decolonial approach to the museum advanced in this article is a nuanced understanding of the relationship between the colonizer and colonized. This is not to think of decoloniality in binaristic terms, but to emphasize that this aim cannot be achieved without the willingness of the colonizer to unlearn his supremicist and paternalistic attitude toward the racialized and colonized ‘other’. This entails an articulation of a complex conception of ‘otherness’ and being in the world. In this context, the work of some postcolonial and feminist scholars such as Keating, Barad, and da Silva can be quite instructive.

Decolonizing the museum in “the horizon of humanity”

It seems next to impossible to decolonize the museum without changing the ways in which the colonized ‘other’ has been looked at since the advant of slavery and colonialism. Decolonizing the structure of the AfricaMuseum in this case presupposes a serious acknowledgement of Belgium’s violent colonial enterprise in Congo, away from infentalizing attitudes that insist on the incapability of post-colonial people. Although facing the colonial past is unavoidable, it remains a key starting point to pave the way for reparability based on the concerns and yearnings of those who have been subject to the multiple forms of violence associated with slavery and colonialism. As Paul Gilroy aptly suggests in his After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? (2004), “[F]rank exposure to the grims of and brutal details of [the] colonial past should be made useful” so as to transform the “paralyzing guilt [of colonialism] into a more productive shame”.[26] This is one of the main lessons that Belgium and other former Western colonial powers ought to bear in mind if they seriously intend to decolonize the museum as a crucial step towards correcting the wrongs of the past.

Listening with raw openness

Furthermore, a radical decolonial project—grounded upon the premise that transforming the museum should begin by imagining the ‘other’ in convivial terms—might be instigated through a politics of “listening with raw openess”. It should be mentioned that listening in this context is irreducible to the mere physical or acoustic aspect, but rather is a moral attitude. “Listening with raw openess” is a form of exposure that embraces open-mindedness, humility, and willingness to change one’s attitudes and worldviews.[27] Hence, “We need to engage in risky conversations—potentially transformational dialogues where listeners don’t jump to conclusions but just open our minds and listen, with the intention to learn from and, potentially, be changed by what we hear (while acknowledging that these changes might be painful)”.[28] This moral attitude—embodied through “listening with serious intent”—would allow the oppressed to express their concerns as well as provide an opportunity to negotiate possible ways through which justice can be achieved.  Without such a serious intent to listen to the concerns of marginalized communities and muted voices, any claim to decolonize the museum would inevitably remain partial.

Proceeding through a new-materialist approach to the question of identity and difference, Barad maintains that responsibility is about allowing ability to the ‘other’ to respond—that is, “response-ability”. In Barad’s terms, “Responsibility is not a calculation to be performed. It is a relation always already integral to the world’s ongoing intra-active becoming […]. It is an […] enabling of responsiveness”.[29] Response-ability, as such, is not solely about “being responsible/response-able”,[30] but it is also about being in favor of dialogue with a serious intent of listening with raw openness. This fundamental moral lesson should inform former colonial powers’ project of decolonizing the museum, for it pushes for a conception of the relationship between the colonizer and colonized beyond antagonism and separability.

Insofar as “listening” and dialogue are concerned, this moral attitude should be attentive to the heterogeneity of all marginalized bodies and voices across the categories of gender, sexuality, class, age, and (dis)ability. This is not only because post-colonial people and communities are far from being reduced to a homogeneous whole, but also because—as several postcolonial scholars have demonstrated[31]—the violence of slavery and colonialism has been experienced by men and women in various degrees. As Rosemarie Buikema reminds us, “Working through the legacy of oppression, including all the possible positions this involves, requires a complex and differentiated concept of victim and perpetrator”.[32] It follows that inclusivity/diversity/decoloniality would remain fragmentery without such a complex and intersectional understanding of oppression.

The process of “exposure to the grims of and brutal details of the colonial past”—upon which Gilroy insists—together with Keating’s notion of “listening with raw openness” are part of a transformative project that seeks to articulate a complex understanding of difference and living together. While da Silva’s conception of the ‘being in the world’ and cultural difference might seem utopian, the significance of her  contribution emanates from the fact that it pushes us to think of alternatives to the current world order whereby the “afterlives” of slavery and colonialism persist to inform the ways in which “otherness” is conceived.

Towards a planetary convivial culture

The ethico-political project advanced by da Silva and many others gestures toward a ‘plenatary convivial culture’ wherein difference in all its manifestations becomes a point of strength rather than a divisive element. Drawing on the work of the German logician and natural philosopher, G. W. F. Leibniz, da Silva terms this type of ‘plenatary togetherness’ grounded upon inseparability “The World as a Plenum”.  The latter, da Silva explains, refers to “an infinite composition in which each existant’s singularity is contingent upon its becoming one possible expression of all the other existants […] with which it is entangled […]”.[33]This way of treating ‘otherness’ is quite key to a radical decolonial approach to the museum, for it offers an alternative to the supremicist and paternalistic attitudes in which the ‘postcolonial other’ is often conceived.

Decolonization cannot be reduced to the politics of curating, archiving, and collecting. Rather, it is about unraveling the deep-seated imaginaries that nurture “[t]he fierce colonial desire to divide and classify, to create hierarchies and produce differences, [which] leaves behind wounds and scars” upon the psyche and body of the colonized.[34] These colonial modalities of knowledge production “created a fault line that lives on”, and hence continues to haunt post-colonial people in different aspects of life. It bears repeating that a radical project of decolonizing the colonial museum in general and the AfricaMuseum in particular is dependent on an ethico-political decision  that embraces a “serious intent to listen” and “response-ability”. Only then can ‘decolonial processes and practices’[35] bring about genuine change in the structure of the colonial museum and beyond.


El Mehdi Ait Oukhzame is a graduate student currently enrolled in the RMA Gender Studies at Utrecht University, and he holds an MA in Media and Cultural Studies from Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. El Mehdi’s research interests revolve around the intersection of gender, race, postcoloniality, and spatiality.


Buikema, Rosemarie. “#RhodesMustFall and the Curation of European Imperial Legacies”, in Sandra Ponzanesi & Adriano José Habed (eds.) Postcolonial Intellectuals in Europe – Academics, Artists, Activists and their Publics, 193-210. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Buikema, Rosemarie. “The Revolt of the Object: Animated Drawings and the Colonial Archive. William Kentridge’s Black Box Theatre”, Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, (2016): 251-269.

Buikema, Rosemarie. “Monumental Dresses: Coming to Terms with Racial Repression”, in Brigitte Hipfl & Kristin Loftsdóttir (eds) T_e_a_c_h_i_n_g_ _“R_a_c_e_” _w_i_t_h_ _a_ _G_e_n_d_e_r_e_d_ _E_d_g_e_, 43-59. Utrecht, Budapest: ATGENDER & Central European University Press, 2012.

Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987): 65-81. doi:10.2307/464747.

Mbembe, Achille. Critique of Black Reason. Translated by Laurent Dubois. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2017.

Gilroy, Paul. After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? London: Routledge, 2004.

Ahmed, Sara. “A Phenomenology of Whiteness.” Feminist Theory 8, no. 2 (August 2007): 149–68. doi:10.1177/1464700107078139.

Césaire, Aimé. “Discourse on Colonialism”. Translated by Joan Pinkham. Monthly Review Press, (1972).

Fanon, Frantz. “Algeria Unveiled”. In A Dying Colonialism, 35-67. Translated by Haakon Chevalier. New York: Grove Press, 1965.

Wekker, Gloria. White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2016.

Bernhard, Meg. “Belgium Confronts Ugly Colonial Past, but African Museum Changes Don’t Please Everyone”. Los Angeles Times. (2019).

Barad, Karen. “Diffracting Diffraction: Cutting Together-Apart.” Parallax 20, no. 3 (2014): 168-187.

Kassim, Sumaya. “The Museum Will not be Decolonised.” Media Diversified 15 (2017).

Hochschild, Adam. “The Fight to Decolonize the Museum”. The Atlantic, (2020).

Van Bockhaven, Vicky. “Decolonising the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium’s Second Museum Age.” Antiquity 93, no. 370 (2019): 1082–87.

Ariese, Csilla E. “Decolonizing the Amsterdam Museum: A Work-in-Progress to Becoming a More Inclusive City Museum.” Amsterdam Museum Report 2 (2019).

[1] Located in the Colonial Palace in Tervuren (Brussels), the origin of the museum goes as early as the inauguration of the International Exposition of 1897 in Brussels. Historically, AfricaMuseum was a potent part of King Leopold II’s colonial propaganda.  For more information on the origin and colonial mission of AfricaMuseum, see here,

[2] For more on the notion of inseparability, see Denise Ferreira da Silva. “On Difference without Separability.” Incerteza Viva: 32nd Bienal de São Paulo, eds. Jochen Volz and Júlia Rebouças (São Paulo: Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, 2016) (2016): 57-65.

[3] Such an understanding views this relationship away from dichotomous and hierarchical modes of thinking, but rather foregrounds interrelatedness, inseparability, and—most crucially—“listening with raw openness”. The notion of “listening with raw openness” refers to the attitude of “listening carefully, thoughtfully, and humbly” to the concerns of individual and collective victims with willingness to be changed by what is being said.

[4] Because I could not access the text of King Phillip’s letter, I am basing my comments on the letter on international media outlets that covered the public discussions that followed the release of the letter. See for example Monika Pronczuk and Megan Specia. “Belgium’s King Sends Letter of Regret over Colonial Past in Congo”. The New York Times.

[5] See here for a review of King Phillip’s letter.

[6] It should be mentioned that the publication of the two history books, King Leopold’s Ghost (1998) by Adam Hoshchild and The Assassination of Lumumba (1999) by Ludo De Witte, is said to bring Belguim’s colonial legacy in Central Africa to the forefront (Bernhard, 2019). These two publications, which unearth the atrocities of King Leopold II in Central Africa and the State of Belgium’s misleading narrative about the assasination of the Congolese Prime Minister, Patrice Lumamba, reanimated public discussion about Belgium’s colonial past (ibid.). Confronted with constant criticism about its colonial heritage, the Belguim State was prompted to launch a series of reformist steps ranging from renaming street and changing the content of school history textbooks to admiting the kidnapping of thousands of mixed-race Congolese childern known as métis (ibid.). As such, the recent removal of the statues of King Leopold II from public spaces and governoment buildings (Pronczuk, and Zaveri, 2020) is nothing more than a symbolic gesture that should be followed by practical acts of accountability so as to undo the king’s and the Belgian State’s bloody legacy in Congo.

[7] See here for the section on renovation on the official website of the AfricaMuseum.

[8] See Bockhaven 2018; and Bernhard, 2019.

[9] Van Bockhaven, 2018, 1.

[10] Buikema, 2018, 195.

[11] See Hartman, 1997.

[12] In her “The Museum Will not be Decolonised” (2017), Kassim maintains that “Museums are not neutral in their preservation of history. In fact, arguably, they are sites of forgetfullness and fantasy” (Kassim, 2017).

[13] See Ahmed, 2007.

[14] This phrase is borrowed from Rosemarie Buikema’s essay, “The Revolt of the Object: Animated Drawings and the Colonial Archive: William Kentridge Black Box Theater”. In this essay, Buikema provides an analysis of Kentridge’s Black Box Theater exhibited at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Buikema argues that Kentridge’s piece of art, which ‘recycles’ the colonial archive of Germany in particular and Europe in general, unearths the traumatic memories of the Holocaust as one of the darkest parts of the contemporary history of Europe (Buikema, 2016, 253). Black Box Theater, as such, aims at providing a balanced European historical narrative through the idea of “multidirectional memory”. The latter refers to a critical decolonial approach to the museum, whereby different layers and aspects of colonialism and other oppressive systems are exposed so as to provide a balanced memory of the experiences of both perpetrators and victims. For an interesting examination of this approach in the context of the museum, see Rosemarie Buikema. “The Revolt of the Object”. Interventions, 18:2, 251-269, (2016) DOI: 10.1080/1369801X.2015.1106968.

[15] For a review of this and other contemporary African art works exhibited at the AfricaMuseum, see Christine Bluard. “Contemporary Art in the AfricaMuseum”. AfricaMuseum.

[16] See Johansson, 2020.

[17] See Hochschild, 2020.

[18] See Kassim, 2017.

[19] See Ahmed, 2007, 164.

[20] See Kassim, 2017.

[21] See Marshall, 2018.

[22] See here for the discussion between Guido Gryseels and the Congolese-Belgian Kalvin Soiresse, Le face à face – La restitution des œuvres d’art aux anciennes colonies, [accessed 07/07/2020].

[23] Marshall, 2018.

[24] ibid.

[25] See Césaire, 1956, 59-60.

[26] See Gilroy, 2004, 3.

[27] See Keating, 2012, 53.

[28] Ibid.

[29] See Barad, 2014, 183.

[30] Ibid., 184.

[31] See Fanon, 1965; Spillers, 1978; Mbembe, 2017.

[32] See Buikema, 2012, 55.

[33] See da Silva, 2016, 58.

[34] See Mbembe, 2017, 7.

[35] For an interesting review of a model of decolonial modalities and practices in the context of the museum in the West, see Csilla E. Ariese’s report (2019) on the decolonial program adopted by the administration of the Amsterdam Museum in the Netherlands. In this report, Ariese engages with the European Modalities of Practicing Colonial Heritage in Entangled Cities (else known as ECHOES). The report discusses four modalities of decolonising the museum:  removal, repression, reframing, and re-emergence. Ariese, however, adds four decolonial practices to surmount the abstract characteristic of the four modalities proposed by ECHOES. These decolonial practices are reflecting, reassessing, reorganising, and re-acting—all of which focus primarily on how the decolonization of the Amsterdam Museum is “internally thought and worked through” (Ariese, 2019, 1).