An artist walks into a church… what sounds like the start of a bad joke was in reality the start of something much deeper. Belgian artist and collector Charles Degeyter wants to ask questions. He’s interested in what happens when the viewer is challenged with questions around Belgium’s colonial past and the preservation of cultural material and works of art in so-called ‘world museums’.
What happens when you place an authentic Pende mbuya mask within a silver-plated and gilded reliquary container? What happens when that reliquary box is then placed on top of a church altar? His 2021 installation, ‘Qu’il Pende,’ was an in situ work placed within the church of Mullem as part of PASS 2021. The installation explored questions about Belgium’s colonial intervention in Congo. Triggered by the discovery of a letter written by Degeyter’ great uncle — a missionary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — addressed to Degeyter’ grandfather, “‘Qu’il Pende’ intends to show the transitional situation of Congo in 1931 when the Pende revolted against the continuing Belgian oppression and Christianization,” Degeyter explains. “My work never answers questions… It’s a platform for people to think about these things but it never offers an explanation.”
And raise questions it certainly did. To learn more about the installation and the dispute that ensued from ‘Qu’il Pende’, ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA spoke with Charles Degeyter.
Charles Degeyter: I like to blur the lines between the present and the past. A lot of artists just build on the 20th-century art discourse or go slightly further than the modernist or abstract expressionist path of art history. But that's a very, very narrow section of art history. It's an interesting blip but there's this entire history of humanity that goes before it that's equally as interesting and even far more interesting to me.
I like to look at historical events or historical cultures, look at their language of ‘form’ to determine what can be relevant for us today or how it also just tells a story about us as humans, how it can offer us insights.
My work never answers questions, but it intends to raise them. It’s a platform for people to think about these things, but it never offers a clear point of view an explanation. The viewer has to think for themselves to form an opinion about the work. I try to offer the nuances to the question in the work but it’s up to the viewer to form their own conclusions opinion about it.
For the installation ‘Qu’il Pende,’ for example, I think it’s just a question of where are we at this point in Belgium where there’s this entire history of a colonial past in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. How do we approach it? How do we tackle the debates that are emerging? How do we relate to the extremely heavy but important thing that’s above our heads?
So I was invited to enter the group show, PASS 2021, an initiative by artist Kris Martin curated by Jan Hoet jr. It was like a Parcours around three churches.
First was the church. It wasn't yet about the work I’d create but about the church. It's really interesting to create something for a church because it's this historic place — the church dates back to the 12th century or even earlier. I wasn’t raised Catholic and have no profound relationship with the church but I also didn't want to place a random piece of work inside such a historic monument. I have this church. I should create something that is quite daring, that is really asking a lot of questions about the role of the church.
At the same time, I was already obsessed with African art and I have a family connection to the arts. My great uncle was a missionary in the then Belgian Congo [not the Democratic Republic of the Congo] and during his time there he collected tiny figures. I remember as a kid, looking at these sculptures, wondering where they came from and what they were.
We recently found some letters that my great uncle wrote to my grandfather who was a brutalist architect. While in Congo, my great uncle put up some schools and he was really interested in arts. In his letters, he describes that the area that he was stationed in didn’t have a lot of figurative art. But they had magnificent spears and shields and he got an entire batch of spears from the Chief as a thank you for working there.
He also commented about how the shields were the most beautiful objects, even more beautiful than the spears, but that he could never get one because they were so sacred to the people that owned them.
Yes, again, it's super nuanced. It's not black and white, it’s not binary. It's all these different points of view, all these important layers of the debate that need to be seen.
I wanted to create something that would act as a personal investigation. It's part of my family history so I felt that I had the right to work with this history. It's easier not to address Belgium’s colonial history because it’s such a sensitive topic and many are afraid to address it head-on. It's easier to avoid it than to really do something with it. So I decided to do something with it, to try to create something interesting, to create an installation that challenges.
Transitional periods in time have always been very interesting to me, the time where one culture gets influenced by another. In this case, Congo was unwillingly influenced by Belgium and Christianity — and even earlier by the Portuguese who were already transitioning people to Christianity. I thought it was a very interesting topic to work with.
And so I thought of Christian iconography. I started looking for historical items that are really ‘strong’ and I came across these reliquary containers — silver and gold vessels that hold the relics of saints, the foot or the entire arm of the saint. You're preserving something but you’re also changing the appearance of that thing. You make it something bigger, something more. You cover it within the container, you can't see it.
I thought of making these reliquary containers for Congolese artefacts — a Christian reliquary container for a Pende mask. I came to this idea while reading the Pende book by Strother where he mentions that some Pende mbuya are said to represent the face of a deceased person.
The work specifically refers to the period May - September 1931, when the Pende revolted against Belgian colonial rule in Kwilu. The revolt was quickly suppressed by the colonial authorities but was one of the largest revolts in the Congo during the Interwar. It was important to find out as much as possible about it and the paper by Louis-François Vanderstraeten — “La répression de la révolte des Pende du Kwango en 1931” — was very important in that process.
How the work would be experienced was crucial. At first, the viewer only sees the fine and beautiful reliquary container. It is only later, when walking behind the altar, that the viewer is struck by this big pile of death masks which represent the casualties during the revolt. It’s not only about that specific moment in time of course, but also about all of the sacrifices and losses that were inflicted by colonial rule.
Creating a box also means that I would cover the mbuya mask — it's not the original thing anymore. It's hidden underneath this layer. Similar to what Christianity did to the Congo, it's not the same Congo anymore.
I'm sure a lot of practices are still the same today. In fact, I believe that the mbuya masquerade still exists today though it can't be the same. It has transitioned into something else and like enveloping the mask with this box, it shows something new, it's something different.
And it was crazy. It was such an otherworldly feeling. Goosebumps. To be able to present my work on the altar, the most sacred place in the church. It's literally where sacrifices are made to go up to God. And I could position the reliquary and pile of masks in exactly that place.
I worked on the piece for more than a year because the exhibition was postponed due to COVID-19. So to finally see it and in the setting where it was supposed to be was really intense.
It’s important to note that the church used for the installation is no longer used anymore. It’s been deconsecrated and not really used for ceremonies anymore.
So I installed the piece but the day afterwards the church porter protested saying it was blasphemy Placing this on the altar, the most sacred place of a church is wrong. It's not supposed to be there. That it should be put somewhere else" I wasn’t there at that moment but I believe that was the essence of it. It's a delicate subject, what I was presenting in the church. And I think he just couldn't cope with the idea of raising these questions inside the church.
But Kris Martin, the founder of the art fair PASS, called the representative of Sint-Baafs Cathedral in Ghent and explained the situation; "there's this work in the church that they want to take down. What should we do? Can you execute some power to have it stay up during the exhibition? It's very meaningful work."
We got a response from the church canon, the letter was almost like a real brief for the work. It was incredible. An English translation of the original letter in Dutch:
You ask me to make a note on this artwork.
I am very impressed with it. It has a great religious appearance and carries a Christian message in it both visually and contemporary.
The crown of thorns immediately refers to the suffering of Christ, but placed on an African mask, the meaning of Christ’s suffering is immediately opened up and actualised.
That suffering has a universal meaning and placed above that wonderful mask I immediately see a reference to the meaning of the Christianization of Africa and Congo in particular. On the one hand, the work of the missionaries meant for many Africans that the cross and suffering of the local population was alleviated by education and healthcare, protecting them from the slave trade… hence the golden crown…
But on the other hand, also a crown of thorns, because the downside of colonization was that they were victims of the pursuit of profit and exploitation by the colonists.
The fact that the African mask is under the silver mask makes it clear to me that the mask of colonization has been ripped off and that we must view this with all objectivity and honesty and dare to admit mistakes: making a mea culpa is part of the essence of Christianity.
But overall, I think this work carries a clear message for anyone who calls themselves a Christian. Tear off the mask of hypocrisy and show your true face. Then Christ will crown you with his crown, even if it has thorns, that’s the way life is.
Kris, one day I would like to exhibit this wonderful work in the cathedral during Lent. For I see the call to conversion, fraternity and mercy in this work in a beautiful and serene way.”
Ludo Collin, Canon Sint-Baafs cathedral Ghent regarding ‘Qu’il pende’ by Charles Degeyter
Absolutely! It made the church porter uncomfortable and that's one of the best reactions it could have achieved. It’s good that it made him uncomfortable, that it made him think about these things. His reaction also means that he’s not found acceptance around the subject. He's avoiding it instead of confronting the past. He's avoiding the question.
I hope it makes some people uncomfortable but I also hope it moves other people. I hope it causes a lot of reactions. I want the right people to be uncomfortable but I also want other people to find comfort in it or to find beauty in it or to find a void in it.
It's so important that these things are now finally being discussed.
That's a very difficult question. Part of why I think I can work with these questions is because it's part of my history. These pieces that are with my family, why are they with my family? What are they doing here? What can we learn from these pieces? It's all these questions that I have myself. What did my great uncle do in Congo? Why did we do it there?
I know it's very difficult to work with these artefacts and sacred objects, but it's also part of Belgian history. It's important for us to look into that mirror and to see things for what they are, not just avoid them like a lot of people do.
A major consideration when using the mask was to ensure that it wasn’t altered in any way. I didn’t do anything ‘more’ with the physical mask itself. I would never touch the mask or change its appearance. That's very important to me.
It’s about rhythm, shape, movement, lines, and forms. That’s what really draws me to African art. I can never fully understand the meaning of these pieces. What we have left are the forms and shapes, the things we can see, the things we can feel. We can’t attribute meanings to these objects or expect to understand them fully in the way that those that created them did. What we’re left with are incredible objects that talk to us now and offer us insights into the present. I cannot fully understand the language of these forms, but I can sense their quality and rhythm. And it’s a teaching school for me as an artist.
‘Qu’il Pende’ will be shown at Sint-Baafs Cathedral in Ghent in the spring of 2022.