Congolese community groups in Belgium are furious after revellers turned up to an Africa-themed party held in the grounds of a colonial museum dressed in pith helmets and blackface.
For more than a century, the Royal Museum for Central Africa has stood as a monument to the worst excesses of Belgium’s brutal occupation of the Congo, which inspired Joseph Conrad’s nightmarish Hearts of Darkness.
On Sunday, about 2,000 people attended an open-air party organised by company Thé Dansant. Photos posted on social media showed one partygoer blacked up and others in leopard skin print and others dressed as colonial era explorers.
“Ethnic, exotic or African is not a costume that you can put on and take off,” Emma Lee Amponsah of the Café Congo organisation told the Bruzz newspaper.
She criticised the organisers for festooning a stage with skulls on sticks for evoking voodoo and cannibalism. “In this way stereotypes are constantly being maintained,” she said, “explain to me how an event like this can still exist in 2019.”
In 1897, a human zoo of 267 Congolese people were exhibited in the grounds of the former Royal estate in the leafy Brussels suburb of Tervuren. Seven Congolese died of exposure after being shown to about a million Belgians during the World Exhibition.
Packed to the brim with more than 180,000 looted items, including the beheaded skulls of vanquished tribal chiefs, and more than 500 stuffed animals slaughtered by hunters, the museum celebrated the exploits of the Belgians who turned a huge swathe of Africa into a slave state.
The museum was reopened as the Africa Museum last year after a decade-long detoxification project to modernise it.
Primrose Ntumba, a museum spokeswoman, said it could do nothing to stop the event because it did not manage the grounds.
“ I think it is very unfortunate that Thé Dansant does not see that an ‘African fancy dress party’ can cause angry reactions, and all the more so at this location,” she said.
“Even if one person painted his face black, it was not meant to be offensive. Many people of African origin were enthusiastic about the concept and were present,” said party organiser Kjell Materman.
The United Nations has called on Belgium to apologise for its colonial past and accused the museum of not doing enough to exorcise the ghosts of its racist past.