Matthias De Groof | Lumumba in the Arts

14th January, 2020 in Author’s corner

“Art reminds us of the impossibility of his death and leaves us horrified every time one remembers the tragedy.”

It is no coincidence that a historical figure such as Patrice Emery Lumumba, independent Congo’s first prime minister, who was killed in 1961, has lived in the realm of the cultural imaginary and occupied an afterlife in the arts. In ‘Lumumba in the Arts’ film scholars, art critics, historians, philosophers, and anthropologists discuss the rich iconographic heritage inspired by Lumumba. A short Q&A with editor Matthias De Groof.

Can you briefly and concisely explain in common language what your book is about?

“Lumumba in the Arts” is about Lumumba’s afterlife in painting, poetry, cinema, cartoons, photography, music, theatre and so on. What are the various artistic expressions around the figure of Lumumba, and why are there so many? Why is he beatified as well as diabolised in the arts? What are the secular and political representations of Lumumba? Is he being recycled and depoliticised, or – on the contrary – do the arts re-politicise his legacy? Is his afterlife in the arts so rich because artists want to continue his project of decolonisation? What does this tell us for today’s decolonial struggles?

What or who inspired you to choose this topic?

My earliest memory of Lumumba must have been as a child in the apartment of my grandparents. My grandfather who was a colonial doctor in Congo, considered Congolese independence as the amputation of his philanthropic project. He suffered a kind of colonial phantom pain. It goes without saying that Lumumba, as one of the leaders of Congolese independence, was perceived by him very negatively. His perception contrasted so much with the narratives I encountered later, such as Raoul Peck’s film Lumumba, The Death of a Prophet (1991), that I became intrigued by this figure of Lumumba and how stories always echo other stories. Why is he a hero to so many? My interest in Lumumba is part of my self-decolonisation and my ongoing reflections on why decolonisations often fail. Apart from the usual political-economy answer, imagery and imagination have to be taken into account too.

Do you have any reading suggestions to share (books, blogs, journals, …) for anyone who wants to know more about the subject?

Scanning worldcat on the entry “Lumumba” reveals that as many as 549 books having Lumumba in the title exist, but that there are no books on Lumumba in the arts except for Patrice Lumumba entre Dieu et Diable edited by Pierre Halen and János Riesz in 1997 and A Congo Chronicle : Patrice Lumumba in Urban Art edited by Bogumil Jewsiewicki in 1999. Our book builds on and actualises their work. The best readings on Lumumba as a historic figure, however, are undoubtly Ludo De Witte’s The murder on Lumumba (2001) and the two biographies written by Jean Omasombo in collaboration with Benoît Verhaegen

What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book?

I travelled to the place where Lumumba was executed. It became a memorial site under construction. The place in Katanga is fascinating because it is not at all what one would expect from a site supposed to honor and commemorate a symbolic figure whose death is really an enormous collective burden, since his murder constantly reminds one of so many things Congo and Africa could have been. Now, the place is more like a didactic theme park full of unfinished statues of different characters who played a role in the tragedy, including his enemies, or leaders who claim Lumumba’s legacy. The statue of Lumumba himself is totally out of proportion and makes him into a caricature as drawn by cartoonist Michael Cummings for the Sunday Express or David Low for The Guardian. Initially, we were not allowed to see it, but workers removed the cloth for us after some negotiations. During the tour, guided by the engineer of the site, we walked by the statue of Laurent Désiré Kabila, the president of the D.R.Congo who strongly claimed to be Lumumba’s political heir. The Congolese engineer who supervised the construction of the memorial site stopped, and had a close look at the dirt that was removed to build Kabila’s statue. He said: “Oh no! There is a high concentration of cobalt in here! The site is under threat!” We all laughed of course, but the anecdote also pointed very much to the heart of the link between Congo’s mineral richness, extractives corporate mining interests, the tragedy of the D.R.Congo – including the death of Lumumba – and the fragility of cultural or collective memory within such a context. It is a painful irony that the place of commemoration for someone who died for having said that Congolese wealth belongs to the Congolese, is at stake because of multinational interest in strategic minerals, especially since these minerals serve a green economy which is promoted as a so-called solution to the climate crisis which resulted entirely from western colonial relations to other humans and nature.

What would you like the readers to remember from your book?

The tons of films, photographs, paintings, songs, novels, poems, plays, essays and interviews that exist about Lumumba have convinced me each in their own way and little by little, of the importance of this figure, and helped me in understanding the complexity of decolonisation and the current post-colonial situation in Congo. But above all, these art forms have charged the figure of Lumumba with emotional depths. He is hated by those who consider him a common war criminal and honored by those who felt betrayed by his subverted project of independence, but most of the arts mourn him. In different ways they express the cries, the fear, the emptiness, the blood and the tears that accompanied his imprisonment, martyrdom and death, or the torture and murder of those he symbolises. Art reminds us of the impossibility of his death and leaves us horrified every time one remembers the tragedy. These emotional depths and the passion for the figure is what I would like the readers to gain from the book.

Do you have any plans yet for a next publication? What will it be about?

My new publication will be about the ways in which art and visual cultures express the entanglements between coloniality and the Anthropocene; a link which many leaders of the independence struggle were fully aware of.

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