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Brutal Exposure reviewed by Vava Tampa

13 April 2015 by Lucy Johnson

Image of Congolese man with injured wrist at entrance to exhibitionThere are less than two months left to visit our powerful exhibition Brutal Exposure: the Congo at the International Slavery Museum. Vava Tampa, founder of Save the Congo and chair of the Morel Prize, has given his thoughts on the display:

Brutal Exposure: the Congo at Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum is notable for many things. One of the masterpieces at the heart of this brilliantly staged installation is a still, sanitised portrait of a Congolese man Lomboto.

Simple and sublime, Lomboto’s portrait, which is also the exhibition’s lead image – and one of the few images that became iconic for colonial brutality – fills the high white wall of the exhibition’s entrance space, a small charismatic room on one of Liverpool’s defunct docks which once had a monopoly on all transport of cargo to and from the Congo.

From a distant, its large, eye-catching size looks intriguing, even inviting for your eyes to feast on – but this tainted poetic outlook is soon eclipsed by Lomboto’s distressing gaze. It’s a difficult sight to forget. He stands upright, half covered with his disfigured hand expressively placed for a public display, and stares absorbingly deep and directly onto his audience, with a patina of serenity that feels awkwardly more like a warning to those thinking of taking another step past him that: this is not a pedantic exercise into history.

People looking at wall graphics in the exhibitionIndeed, this installation, the first ever photographic installation in support of human rights, is not for those with fragile heart – not the least because this is the first ever full-scale exhibition that attempts to expose the scale and scope of King Leopold’s brutality in Congo; a story that reads like a fictional novel from abolitionists in which death, brutality and exploitation all erupt to make their presence felt with such confidence and poignancy in an attempt to harness the mood of 19th century parliamentarians, religious leaders and members of the public to take a stand against colonial brutality in some far corners of the world. That story is brilliantly told in George Washington Williams’s letter, Mark Twain’s ‘King Leopold’s Soliloquy’, Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, Sir Conan Doyle’s ‘The Crime of the Congo’, ED Morel’s ‘Red Rubber’ and in Adam Hochschild’s ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’.

But what this exhibition does, which books often fail, is that it shines a light – without saying so – on the strength of human spirit: the refusal to turn a blind eye by the Somerset–born missionary Alice who, despite considerable censorship and the constant threat posed by the King’s army, ‘Force Publique’, dreamt up improbable but insightful ways (long before the arrival of photojournalism) to give the world and history a glimpse of the brutality used to gain access and control of Congo’s richness at the turn of the last century.

Wild rubber was coltan of that time, which Europe had a capacious appetite for. And Congo, which had been given to King Leopold as his private property at the ‘Die Kongokonferenz’ in Berlin 130 years ago this year, had the misfortune of having the only forest in the world with wild rubber. Tapping wild rubber, however, was a difficult job, and Leopold’s agents used cruel and brutal tactics to ensure the native gather rubber for the King. Any Congolese man who failed saw his wife kidnapped, those who resisted had their hands chopped, those who fought back were killed and rebellious village were razed to the ground. And by 1908 when the British campaigner ED Morel managed to sway Britain to twist Leopold’s arms into giving up his private property, an estimated 10 million Congolese had been killed in the space of 25 years.

Photograph of display with visitors and entrance to Congo Atrocities lecture

This is what makes Alice Seeley Harris’s pictures deeply poignant, and personal. From the first piece of what this show calls ‘Brutal Exposure: The Congo’ to the amplified 19th century lecture poster, provocatively titled ‘Congo Atrocities’ – and behind which seats The Harris Lantern Slide Show, which became the lifeblood of the Congo campaign, and beside which is a large picture of Alice standing in her Victorian long dress within a mountain pile of Congolese children to other dozens of snapshot-sized photo of locals – many of which have been rarely exhibited but all reproduced anew, and stuck seemingly casually to the wall, we see Congo through Alice’s eyes; the crimes she witnessed and the victims she met.

Standing before some of the pictures, more than 100 years after they were taken, trying to fathom how was it possible that when slavery was abolished in the United States and across the Caribbean, in Congo, as recent as 1908, it was still being practiced widely and publicly, is hauntingly painful. But if the exhibition’s title suggests that this brutality is being exposed, then it misleads. For, even now, more than 100 years after Leopold, countless continue to be killed, raped and brutalised every day by local and foreign armed groups for access and control of minerals destined to sell in London, Paris, Washington and elsewhere.”

Brutal Exposure: the Congo runs until 7 June 2015 at the International Slavery Museum.

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