Oliver Leu, Leopold’s Legacy

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by The Eriskay Connection (here). Softcover (17×24 cm), 152 pages, with approximately 300 color and black and white photographs, both taken by the artist and archival visuals. Includes essays by Matthew G. Stanard and Bambi Ceuppens. In an edition of 750 copies. Design by Carel Fransen. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Leopold’s Legacy by the German artist Oliver Leu was released in the spring of 2020, and it couldn’t have been more timely, as the Black Lives Matter movement that started in the United States similarly catalyzed Europe’s own reassessment of its colonial past and its legacies of systemic racism. As an artist, Leu is interested in the “construction of history, the abuse of power and the consequences of colonial pasts,” and his photobook probes all of these topics as it engages with Belgium’s dark history and the long-lasting legacy of King Leopold II. Leu uses the visual strengths of the photobook format to bring together a layered analysis that traces the country’s ignoble past, shows how the empire shaped its national story, and discovers how many of its colonial remnants are still very much present. In addition to making his own photographs, Leu researched and assembled a diverse visual archive that includes historical images, postcards, stamps, maps, screenshots, and even scans from Google Street View.

Leopold’s Legacy is a comfortably sized book, easy to flip through and read more carefully. The cover features an engraving of Leopold attempting to turn away from the flash of a camera. It was originally published in the pamphlet King Leopold’s soliloquy: a defense of his Congo rule (1905), a political satire by Mark Twain; in that publication, it appears with text underneath it reading “The only witness I couldn’t bribe.” The in-depth essays in Leopold’s Legacy (by Matthew G. Stanard and Bambi Ceuppens) lay out a context for Leopold’s rule, and provide an excellent analysis for understanding some of the complexities of Belgian history. They are fully integrated into visual narrative, and Leu uses different types of paper for the various parts of the book to further signal separate sections and sets of ideas.

The book content starts right on the endpaper. The list of the chapters appears on the right page in a large font, serving as a guiding point for the narrative that follows, which covers subjects such as the history of the Belgian Empire, colonial memories, the monuments, the crimes, and the legacy. On the top left page, there are two 1942 postage stamps (palms trees and a local soldier) from the Belgium Congo, and next to them is a quote by Éric Vuillard, director of the film Congo, describing the horrors taking place. Right away, this pairing hints at the country’s contentious history.

King Leopold II had many ambitions. As a monarch, he had little power at home, and was jealous of the European colonial powers around him. Dreaming about overseas influence, he used claims from scientific explorations to gain control over the Congo River basin area. During the Berlin Conference, he convinced other European nations to allow his involvement by promising to improve the lives of Africans. The Congo Free State was established in 1885, and was privately owned by Leopold II and legally distinct from Belgium. In reality, he used the colony for personal profit and made a fortune by exploiting the Congolese people who were forced to gather wild rubber and ivory. This was a brutal regime, and those who didn’t fulfill their quotas were murdered, tortured, and starved to death. One particularly outrageous practice was asking local soldiers to prove they killed rebels by forcing them to present the severed hand of the victim to their white officers.

Very few Belgians and Europeans travelled to the Congo, and Leopold himself never actually visited the country. As a result, imagery of various kinds (both photography and illustration) was particularly key in shaping the view of the region. Postcards were produced to promote a positive image of the colony, and over the years, they helped to shape colonial ideas. A number of photographs in the book show Congolese villages staged in Belgium for the 1897 Brussels International Exposition (seven of the Congolese who lived in these model villages died from tuberculosis). Leopold also used imagery to promote the advances he brought to the region and to legitimize his colonial regime, especially as images produced by missionaries were starting to capture the dark side of his exploitative regime.  

In particular, the photographs of Alice Seeley Harris, an English missionary and an early documentary photographer, chronicled the horrors and atrocities taking place in the colony, and her pictures are now recognized as early examples of a humanitarian photographic campaign. Harris’ images are extremely graphic and are not reproduced directly in Leu’s book. One of them shows a man named Nsala sitting by a house as he looks at the severed hand and foot of his five year old daughter, who was killed and allegedly cannibalized by militia forces. (In her essay, Ceuppens discusses this and other images, pointing  out that they were carefully staged to “manipulate the feelings of a white public” and as a call to action rather than “to understand and share Nsala’s pain”.) Ultimately, sustained political pressure ended the Congo Free State, and the Belgian Congo was founded in 1908. The death toll during the period was horrific, leaving (by some estimates) as many as 10 million dead, roughly half of the population.

Leu has collected a vast archive to visualize the legacy of Leopold’s rule. In his essay, Stanard points out that the images taken after 1908 were “equally, if not more important to the visual and monumental legacy of Leopold.” When Leopold died in 1909, he was infamous both abroad and at home, but over the subsequent decade, his image shifted to that of a “colonial genius who had acquired a massive resource-rich African territory for his home country.” In the following decades, hundreds of monuments, statues, and street names were installed around the country to celebrate the African colony and the King. 

Contemporary Belgium still struggles with its brutal colonial past, and the visual archive of contemporary monuments, statues, relics, and buildings assembled by Leu in different chapters here shows how deeply the colonial past is rooted in public spaces. The chapters have strong and sharp titles, illustrating ideas discussed in the book. The images in “Petrified Dreams” are printed full bleed on glossy paper and show the buildings with heavy colonial history, like the Africa Museum (recently renewed) and the Cinquantenaire Arcade, shot at night.  The imperialist colonial monuments are gathered under “Remnants, Relics and Monuments” in black and white images. They often depict Congolese figures as “second rank”, “uncivilized” human beings, anonymous and nameless. The chapter “Continuous Presence of Imperialism” presents a grid view of about 200 Belgian streets with problematic names that pay tribute to white colonials but fail to honor even a single Congolese. And the last chapter, “Past Tenses”, captures various statues, including the infamous “Leopard Man” that are still very present. Ceuppens discusses the complex reality of public memory today, which she describes as “dominated by narrow simplified, mythologised forms of cloistered memory.” History continues to be told without considering the wider context, minimizing the Congolese contribution to the discussion.

By gathering and organizing all of this visual information, and combining text and visuals in sophisticated ways, Leu is trying to recalibrate our reading of history. Since Leopold’s Legacy was first published, many of the monuments included in the book have been either removed or vandalized, signaling that a broader change of perspective is already underway. Acknowledging hard truths and taking responsibility for colonial history are keys to remembering and thoughtfully processing these kind of difficult truths. This book is an excellent contribution to the conversation and also relevant to related struggles to deal with the past in both European nations and the United States. It is a hard-hitting compendium that forces us to look closely, opening up more avenues for further discussion and engagement.

Collector’s POV: Oliver Leu does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked above in the sidebar).

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