Return of colonial-era statue to Congo fuels environmental revival

By Thomson Reuters Apr 22, 2024 | 2:06 AM

By Benoit Nyemba

LUSANGA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO – Joyful singing and cheers echoed around the hills surrounding a small village in western Democratic Republic of Congo as a procession emerged from an underground cave bearing an antique wooden figure of a Belgian colonial officer.

The “Balot” sculpture was made in the area in the 1930s when Congo was under Belgium’s brutal colonial rule. An artist collective led a long-running campaign for its return from a U.S. museum under a project to regain lost heritage and restore depleted forests.

“It’s symbolic,” said Joel Kashama, a resident of Lusanga, where colonial-era plantation farming reduced once-dense rainforests to sparse pockets.

The sculpture, which depicts a colonial administrator who was killed during a worker revolt at the plantation in 1931, is now considered a symbol of colonial resistance.

It is back in Lusanga for a six-month display after spending more than 50 years at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Its homecoming coincides with growing global pressure on Western institutions to repatriate artifacts taken during the colonial era.

Its return results from years of activism by the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League (CATPC), a collective of Lusanga-based artists who use the proceeds from their art, including sales of digital images of the Balot statue, to fund reforestation projects around Lusanga.

“Everywhere you look there used to be huge forests, and when the white man came, they cut down all the wood to use it,” said artist and CATPC member Alphonse Bukumba. “We wouldn’t live like this unless we had seen the world burn.”

CATPC’s efforts have already reforested 230 hectares around Lusanga, with ambitions to expand to 2,500 hectares to create a carbon sink, restore biodiversity, and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Congo ranks among the world’s nations most vulnerable to climate disasters, with a population of 95.3 million and a poverty rate of 62.3% in 2022, according to the World Bank.

The collective will showcase their work at the 60th annual Venice Biennale in November, in hopes of inspiring global action on climate change and advocate for African artists’ recognition in environmental sustainability efforts.

(Reporting by Benoit Nyemba; Writing by Cooper Inveen; Editing by David Holmes)