Gabriella Nugent | Colonial Legacies

Gabriella Nugent

“Art history has been undergoing a process of reckoning, from calls to address the legacies of slavery and colonialism to concomitant surveys of decolonsiation published in some of the discipline’s foremost journals.”

In Colonial Legacies, Gabriella Nugent examines a generation of contemporary artists born or based in the Congo whose lens-based art attends to the afterlives and mutations of Belgian colonialism in postcolonial Congo. Nugent analyses artworks, and demonstrates how their practices create a new type of visual record for the future. “I have always thought that the concerns addressed by the artists in my book were pressing, but it has been interesting to see them pushed to the forefront of art history, as well as museums and other institutions,” she states. 

Briefly and concisely explain in plain language what the book is about.
My book, Colonial Legacies: Contemporary Lens-Based Art and the Democratic Republic of Congo, examines a generation of contemporary artists born or based in the Congo whose lens-based art attends to the afterlives and mutations of Belgian colonialism in postcolonial Congo. Focusing on three artists and one artist collective, I analyse artworks produced by Sammy Baloji, Michèle Magema, Georges Senga and Kongo Astronauts, each of whom offers a different perspective onto this history gleaned from their own experiences. 

The careers of the artists discussed in my book, and the artworks that they produced, coincided with a critical awareness of the colonial era that surfaced in Belgium at the end of the 1990s and grew in visibility over the course of the 2000s and 2010s. These years were significant for the predominant role played by the visual arts in addressing the country’s colonial past, especially by artists of Congolese origin. The globalisation of the art world and the explosion of biennial culture in the 1990s led to the emergence of a younger generation of artists who offered a more critical engagement with Belgian colonialism, specifically in terms of the alternative perspectives gained from experiencing its aftermath.

In their photography and video art, I argue that the selected artists rework existent images and redress archival absences, making visible people and events occluded from dominant narratives. They expose the banal and everyday ways in which the colonial past punctuates the present. Moving beyond the relationship between past and present, I contend that their work looks forward to the unfinished work of decolonisation.

What or who inspired you to choose this topic?
My interest in the Congo can be traced back to attending high school in Belgium. There were many traces of the colonial past in the country but very little discussion around it and its continued repercussions elsewhere. More often than not, the tone was one of memorialisation, from the country’s monuments to the collections at the Royal Museum for Central Africa. For university, I moved to London to study art history, and themes of colonialism and postcolonialism in artistic practice started to interest me. During my Masters at University College London, I worked with Professor Tamar Garb, who subsequently supervised my PhD, and she had recently curated the three-part exhibition Distance & Desire: Encounters with the African Archive at the Walther Collection in Ulm, Germany. Several photomontages from Sammy Baloji’s series Mémoire were included in the show, and it was through seeing these works at the Walther Collection that ideas around a potential PhD topic started to become concrete. 

Do you have any reading suggestions to share (books, blogs, journals, ...) for anyone who wants to know more about the subject?
For a comprehensive overview of colonial memories in Belgium, I recommend Matthew Stanard’s The Leopard, the Lion and the Cock: Colonial Memories and Monuments in Belgium (2019), also published by Leuven University Press. In terms of the entanglement between Belgium and the Congo from an artistic perspective, one would do well to start with Debora Silverman’s wonderful work on Belgian Art Nouveau as “imperial modernism”, created from the raw materials of empire. She identifies the origins of this style as the imperial violence waged in the Congo. Her three-part study, “Art Nouveu, Art of Darkness”, was publised in the journal West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History and Material Culture between 2011 and 2013. She has another excellent article on the politics of colonial memory in Belgium through the case study of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, published in The Journal of Modern History in 2015.

Finally, my own research is indebted to a host of other scholars, largely anthropologists and historians, who dispense with horror, catastrophe and crisis as the main narratives of the Congo. To this end, I would suggest Johannes Fabian’s Jamaa: A Charismatic Movement in Katanga (1971) and Remembering the Present: Painting and Popular History in Zaire (1996), Nancy Rose Hunt’s A Nervous State: Violence, Remedies and Reverie in Colonial Congo (2016) and Filip de Boeck’s collaboration with Sammy Baloji, Suturing the City: Living Together in Congo’s Urban Worlds (2016).

How did the writing process for this book go? Did you experience anything surprising, amusing or strange?
Colonial Legacies is based on my PhD dissertation, and, over the course of writing it and subsequently revising it into a book, there has been huge shifts in the discipline of art history. When I first started thinking about this subject in 2014, there was of course interest amongst a small group of scholars, but not necessarily the wider field as “African art history” has often been treated as an optional subfield to a Eurocentric art history. However, starting in 2015 with Rhodes Must Fall and subsequent efforts by Black Lives Matter, especially in the summer of 2020, art history has been undergoing a process of reckoning, from calls to address the legacies of slavery and colonialism to concomitant surveys of decolonsiation published in some of the discipline’s foremost journals. I have always thought that the concerns addressed by the artists in my book were pressing, but it has been interesting to see them pushed to the forefront of art history, as well as museums and other institutions.

What would you like readers to remember about your book? 
The significance of art in terms of reconceptualising the past and the present.

Do you have any plans yet for another publication? What will it be about?
I am fortunate to be the recipient of a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship, so I will spend the next three years working on my second monograph, “Making and Unmaking: Contemporary African Artists and the Medium of Sculpture”. Moving away from photography and video, this project focuses on sculpture and sculptural installation. It starts by asking to what extent current approaches to decolonisation, i.e. museums, galleries and universities foregrounding artists from Africa, reinscribe an established sense of difference. Ideas of cultural difference were intrinsic to the emergence of the category of “contemporary African art” in the 1990s, a decade that witnessed the globalisation of the art world and its expansion to geographies once considered peripheral to a Eurocentric matrix. The popularity of contemporary artists from Africa at this time was often predicated on the ways that a certain “Africanness” could be read into their artwork: a subtext of exotic otherness.

My project brings together for the first time a generation of contemporary African artists working in sculpture and sculptural installation, such as Ibrahim Mahama, Nicholas Hlobo and Nandipha Mntambo, who started to exhibit internationally in the wake of this decade. I seek to examine the ways in which they respond to, but simultaneously critique, demands for “Africanness” in their work. Sculpture offers something unique in this regard: an intensity of making that revolves around craft and touch, the physical nature of materials and hand-worked methods that imply tradition and skill. The significance of sculpture thus lies in its capacity to act as a vehicle for past and present material traditions. From cowhide, textiles and jute sacks to stitching and weaving, I aim to argue that the selected artists use sculpture as a tool to re-stage their cultural heritage. I claim that their work offers an alternative model through which to envision African pasts, global presents and decolonised futures. 

 

Colonial Legacies

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