The Elephant in the Room: Violence, Memory, and the Visual Unconscious of Belgian Colonialism at the Tervuren Royal Museum for Central Africa, 1897-2012

The Elephant in the Room: Violence, Memory, and the Visual Unconscious of  Belgian Colonialism at the Tervuren Royal Museum  for Central Africa, 1897-2012

Debora Silverman, UCLA Professor of Art History and History

Monday, November 18, 2013
4:00 PM - 6:00 PM
6275 Bunche Hall - new location
Los Angeles, CA 90095

In 2005, The Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, just outside Brussels, mounted a major exhibition, "Memory of the Congo," that attempted to confront for the first time a brutal colonial history in the center of the existing institution of official national denial. As part of this inaugural revision of 2005, the Museum's rarely exhibited core collections of Art Nouveau ivory sculptures and wood furnishings were reclaimed to public view. These objects exemplify a complex and understudied mix of artistic innovation, political radicalism, and imperial enthrallment shared by members of the fin-de-siècle Belgian avant-garde, and they form part of a distinctively Belgian design style made from the raw materials of empire. This presentation, drawn from extensive research and a forthcoming book, identifies the origins of Belgian Art Nouveau as a specifically Congo nature style in the 1890s, and the ways that stylistic forms of modernism expressed a displaced encounter with a distant, but encroaching, imperial violence--what Professor Silverman calls the return of the repressor in visual form. More broadly, she brings back to the interpretive field a surprisingly unexamined cultural history of violence in nineteenth century Belgium and suggests its interaction with patterns of violence in the Congo Free State (1885-1908).

Professor Silverman's books include Selling Culture: Bloomingdale's, Diana Vreeland, and the New Aristocracy of Taste in Reagan's America (1986); Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Siècle France: Politics, Psychology, and Style (1989; French edition, Flammarion, 1994; Japanese edition, 1999; Berkshire History Prize 1990); and Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art (2000) which was awarded the 2001 Ralph Waldo Emerson National Prize for Best Book in the Humanities, and a 2001 PEN American Center/Architectural Digest National Prize for “Outstanding Writing on the Visual Arts.”

Recent publications include “Transcending the Word: Gauguin, Music, and the Quest for Abstraction,” (2009); a new research series entitled “Art Nouveau, Art of Darkness: African Lineages of Belgian Modernism, Part I, Part II, Part III,” West 86th Street, Bard Graduate Center Journal for Decorative Arts, Design History and Material Culture, Fall 2011, Fall 2012 and Spring 2013 (all on JSTOR);  and “Marketing Thanatos: The Horror of Damien Hirst,” American Imago, Fall 2011. 

Professor Silverman has received a number of awards and fellowships, including the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, the Getty Research Institute Scholars’ Fellowship, and Historical Studies Member at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.  She was elected to the American Academy of Art and Sciences in 2008. Professor Silverman was the Marta Weeks Faculty Fellow at the Stanford Center for the Humanities in 2011-2012 where she explored critical histories of postcolonial museums and the Belgian case of King Leopold’s Tervuren/Africa. Her book, Art of Darkness, is in progress for publication in 2014.


Image: Eugène de Bremaecker, L'Esclave (The Slave), ivory, c. 1905, Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium.

Pay-by-space & all-day $12 parking available in lot 3.

Cost : Free and open to the public

UCLA African Studies Center310-825-3686

Sponsor(s): African Studies Center