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11.30  Transformations of Place du Trône: Visualizing Narratives of Colonialism

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9:00, Sunday 5 Jun 2016 (30 minutes)

The Democratic Republic of Congo celebrated fifty-five years of independence in 2015. The busts and equestrian statues dating from the colonial era, however, are still present on Belgian squares and traffic junctions. As narratives of colonialism are not as unified as these representations suggest, some monuments have become places of negotiation where the past is debated and ideas for the future are expressed. The political use of Place du Trône, a square in Brussels that houses a statue of King Leopold II, provides an interesting case. The statue and its surroundings have undergone various temporary transformations, reflecting different discourses. Through a study of the transformative actions it might be possible to gain an understanding of coexisting narratives and the monument’s potential to be re-activated. In the absence of images depicting these temporary events, a hybrid form of visualizing undocumented moments, combining photographs and drawings, was developed. 

Even though there are reasons to believe that the figurative monument is losing its representational power, we argue that it continues to hold a unique communicative potential. The effort and technical skill required to produce the monument, its uncompromising materiality and its historical value have the monument retaining a certain sacredness, an “untouchability.” It is, above all, through the violation of its sanctity that the monument is still able to impress. In cooperation with a present-day human actor who mobilizes the symbolic site, the monument can temporarily regain its full communicative force. This dormant symbolic potential makes the monument an attractive locus for protest, as it lends its symbolic power to the action that is taking place upon/around it. 

At Place du Trône, we observed how different parties have expressed their views of Belgian colonialism by acting on or around the monument of Leopold II. The associations made with the king differ between actors with different social statuses and cultural backgrounds. Some groups reproduced the positive discourse as embodied in the statue, while others physically altered the king’s monumental representation in order to produce an image, which corresponds more closely with their ideas of the past and desires for the future. Place du Trône is a place of negotiation, a concrete locus where narratives clash and different conceptions of the past are temporary translated into new tangible images.

In this paper we address the way urban heritage can be transformed or re-designed in order to communicate other “versions” of the past as tension may arise between the scattered, contemporary understanding of an event and its unilateral, monumental representation. We question the contemporary political function of the monument as a stage for the expression of diverse and ever-changing vernacular memory. This project also aspires to provoke questions about appropriate ways of dealing with contested heritage. By addressing a number of political actions in which people challenge or defend the colonial monument’s right to exist, we hope to demonstrate the complexity of the present-day debate on colonialism and its representations.

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