Together, the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, and the Institut des Musées Nationaux du Zaire (IMNZ) in the Congo have defined and marketed Congolese art and culture. In Authentically African, Sarah Van Beurden traces the relationship between the possession, definition, and display of art and the construction of cultural authenticity and political legitimacy from the late colonial until the postcolonial era. Her study of the interconnected histories of these two institutions is the first history of an art museum in Africa, and the only work of its kind in English.
Drawing on Flemish-language sources other scholars have been unable to access, Van Beurden illuminates the politics of museum collections, showing how the IMNZ became a showpiece in Mobutu’s effort to revive “authentic” African culture. She reconstructs debates between Belgian and Congolese museum professionals, revealing how the dynamics of decolonization played out in the fields of the museum and international heritage conservation. Finally, she casts light on the art market, showing how the traveling displays put on by the IMNZ helped intensify collectors’ interest and generate an international market for Congolese art.
The book contributes to the fields of history, art history, museum studies, and anthropology and challenges existing narratives of Congo’s decolonization. It tells a new history of decolonization as a struggle over cultural categories, the possession of cultural heritage, and the right to define and represent cultural identities.