In Mechelen, the colonial monument by Lode Eyckermans in the Schuttersvest pays homage to 31 “pioneers who died for the civilization in Congo” as it is inscribed on the statue. One of them is Van Kerckhoven, who was a notoriously cruel commander during the reign of king Leopold II of Belgium. The statue is very intriguing, with two stylized Congolese heads, a male and a female, as a Janus image. It aestheticises what is problematically called the African race and thus could be seen as a tribute to it. However, this is in stark contrast to the inscription on the plinth, since the inscriptions only tells one side of the story, the Belgian one.
Confronted with this, Michels asked the sculptor Raf Vergauwen to make a scaled-down copy of the monument. She collaborated with a group of Belgian citizens with Congolese roots living in Mechelen and the surrounding area 1 on a proposal for a new inscription for this copy. In June 2019, after several months of meetings and working sessions, the group introduced this new inscription to the mayor of Mechelen, with the proposition to also place this text near the original statue. This text discusses both sides of history and focuses on the word civilization, as well as acknowledging the impact of Belgian rule on Congo. Although critical, this inscription expresses a positive view of the future, a society of equality and respect.
A few weeks before their visit, another new text was installed by the Mayor’s council, one that the group feels is too limited in its - exclusively historical - message. The group also confronted the Mayor with the lack of participation by citizens of Mechelen in the placement of this new text. Some members of the group signed and published a letter about this in De Standaard newspaper on 26 June 2019.
The inscription proposed by the group:
THE COLONISATION OF CONGO
LED TO A SHOCK
IN THE HISTORY OF HUMANITY.
IN THE NAME OF CIVILISATION,
ATROCITIES WERE COMMITTED,
VILLAGES WERE BURNT DOWN,
THE COLONISATION CUT CONGO APART FROM ITS HISTORY,
CONTRIBUTED TO THE PROSPERITY OF BELGIUM
AND WEAKENED CONGOLESE SOCIETY.
THE WORD CIVILISATION SIGNIFIES RESPECT,
EQUALITY AND DIALOGUE,
IN RELATION TO A COMMON FUTURE.
THIS NEW INSCRIPTION
RESTORES AND PAYS HOMAGE
TO THE MILLIONS OF VICTIMS AND HEROES
OF THE COLONIAL TIME,
THOSE WHO ARE KNOWN AND LESS KNOWN.
BAKOKO NA BISO:
LUSINGA IWA NG'OMBE
PAUL PANDA FARNANA
For this project the artist collaborated with a group of Belgians with Congolese roots who live in the Mechelen area: Lieven Miguel Kandolo, Anne Wetsi Mpoma, Georgine Dibua, Jessy Ohanu, Michel Witanga, Joël Ndombe, Nadia Nsayi, Rina Rabau, Stella Okemwa, Don Pandzou, Floribert Beloko, Michel Mongambo and Sarah Bekambo. ↩