- Smithsonian shows photos of Congo from 1800s to independence
With AP Photos WX1-2
By CARL HARTMAN
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) A century ago a Belgian official making his rounds in
Congo would recruit a couple of locals, have them shoulder a canvas-
covered hammock, don his white helmet and high-button boots, light his
pipe, climb in and get ready to take off.
It's a picture of Africa under European rule, part of a photo exhibit
called "In and Out of Focus" that opens Friday at the Smithsonian's
National Gallery of African Art. It covers the continent from the 1800s
Curator Christraud M. Geary devotes much of the show to what was once
the Belgian Congo. It was ruled for 23 years and exploited as virtually
the personal property of Leopold II, king of the Belgians, and then as
part of Belgium. The Belgian system was widely denounced in Europe and
America by Mark Twain, among others as taking cruel advantage of
To gain Belgian and foreign support, colonial authorities argued that
they had a civilizing mission. Photography in Congo during that period,
Geary says, was devoted largely to demonstrating that mission.
The exhibit's catalogue, but not the show itself, includes photos from
a brochure called "Yesterday and Today" published by the Belgian
government around 1950. One photo shows a canoe full of what appear to
be fiercely intent black warriors. Paired with it is a photo of two
black officers in Western clothes, quietly navigating on the bridge of
"Where 75 years ago the great explorers only found an ill-assorted
gathering of ferocious rival tribes, ground down by fear and hate, for
they were pitilessly decimated by internal strife, slave trade,
sickness, famine, there is today a peaceful community of nearly 12
million black men," the brochure says.
A decade later, in 1960, Congo won independence only to fall under
the rule of Gen. Joseph Mobutu, who changed its name to Zaire and
exploited it for 32 years. Since Mobutu's departure, the country's name
has changed again to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Much of the National Gallery show is devoted to the work of
photographer Casimir Zagourski, a lieutenant colonel from Russia's
World War I army who devoted the last 20 years of his life to a
sympathetic recording of Congo toward the end of Belgian rule.
Concerned about the spread of European influence, he published a series
of photo volumes under the title "Vanishing Africa."
His portrait of a young Tutsi woman from Rwanda, then also under
Belgian rule, is the signature photo of the show.
As time went on, many African photographers and the Africans they
pictured emphasized Western poses and clothing. But the tradition of
recording exotic garb, dances and ceremonies continued.
Geary said that if the exhibit included photographs from 21st century
Africa, it would include many people who have returned to elaborate
On the Net:
National Museum of African Art: http://www.nmafa.si.edu