“King Kasaï”, by Christophe Boltanski: plunge back into the colonial night


The writer Christophe Boltanski in front of the naturalized elephant King Kasaï, in the AfricaMuseum, in Ternuven (Belgium), in 2020.

“King Kasaï”, by Christophe Boltanski, Stock, “My night at the museum”, 160 p., €18.50, digital €13.

The brutal colonization of the Congo by Belgian King Leopold II at the end of the 19th centurye century, then by the Belgian State until independence in 1960, belongs to those dark pages of history that we seem to be constantly rediscovering. However, the 10 million deaths caused in this country by the policy of forced labor, famine and epidemics are documented by an abundant literature, Ghosts of King Leopoldby Adam Hochschild (Belfond, 1998), to congo. A story, by David Van Reybrouck (Actes Sud, 2012). This “repressed” is one of the paths taken by Christophe Boltanski in King Kasaihis nocturnal survey of the AfricaMuseum, in Tervuren, in the greater suburbs of Brussels, in August 2020.

This place dedicated to the glory of the conquerors

For the “My night at the museum” collection, at Stock, the writer and journalist chose this imposing building designed by Leopold II as a propaganda tool, and inaugurated in 1910 under the name of the Royal Museum of the Belgian Congo, shortly after his death. In 1960, at the independence of the Congo, the colonial administration stored there a whole jumble of objects and memorabilia, renaming it, for the occasion, Royal Museum for Central Africa. The author was able to see this during a first visit in 2010, for his book-investigation Blood Ores (Grasset, 2012), on children extracting cassiterite – an ore of tin, an essential metal in electronics – from mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Met in a cafe in Paris in January, he remembers the discovery of this place almost unchanged since its opening, dedicated to the glory of the conquerors. He had been struck by “the games of opposition between civilization and the savage world, light and darkness. We can’t imagine seeing Mona Lisa in the middle of crucifixes of Our Lady of Lourdes and stuffed wild boars: this is exactly what we offer in Tervuren”he explains.

Between 2015 and 2018, the museum closed its doors for a major construction site. ” decolonization “. Is it this dimension of repair that motivated his desire to visit it again? “To be honest, I had offered to write about two haunted places: the Tervuren Museum and Hauteville House, Victor Hugo’s home in Guernsey. The publishing house encouraged me to write about Tervuren instead. Right, I think. » We too, so King Kasai continues the device of his first novel, The hiding-place (Stock, Prix Femina 2015), devoted to the author’s family, which combines the exploration of a closed place with a genealogical investigation.

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