Illuminating Profanations: Looking through the Veil
by Nefeli Forni
Teaching Associate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst
Of Naked Obstinacy
It is said that in Greek antiquity statues of gods were chained in place within the temples built in their honor in order to forestall the fugitive powers they rendered vitally manifest from stealing themselves away. At the AfricaMuseum we today witness a spectacle no less intriguing: sixteen sculptures that refuse to budge. Where access to the former was once vouchsafed by physical impediments to the metaphysical forces that threatened to carry them away, it is by virtue of a force no less metaphysical that the sculptures in question today stay put – that is, by virtue of heritage ordinances. The peculiar circumstance of sculptures seemingly endowed with volitions of their own, whether inclined to move or to stay put, is not the only attribute on display in the rotunda at Tervuren that gestures back to Greek antiquity: of the sixteen sculptures on display, no less than thirteen feature varying degrees of nudity. That the ancient Greeks prized nudity and associated it with beauty and by extension with truth is well attested – as is the persistence of that association into modernity.
But even as the metaphorical association of truth with nakedness has long been naturalized, to the point that expressions like “bare facts” and “the naked truth” border on pleonasm, the nature of this association has not proven immutable. Plato is credited with inverting the sense of truth (aletheia ) from its commonsensical association with what has been seen (eidos ) and the faithful re-presentation thereof (1), to precisely what is not seen, to that which cannot be seen, but only revealed in the form of an idea to an intellect undeceived by appearances. The very fact that the English word “idea,” indissolubly linked in intellectual history with Plato’s forms, is itself derived from the Greek eidos registers this epistemological shift and by extension the influence of Platonic tradition. Under the dual influences of Neo-Platonic philosophy and Biblical revelation, truth (and the beautiful) receded from the surface of things, from what Merleau-Ponty described as the “flesh of the world.” In its aesthetic presentation, nudity would come to no longer express the truth of this creaturely life, but the truth of that which lay beyond creation, obscured by the veil of appearances separating this world from the next—but for the grace of revelation. When, in the ensuing centuries and perhaps most dramatically during the early modern period, the pursuit of the truth of that which is observed received renewed vigor under the guise of empiricism, this renewal did not constitute a reversal. For even the most self-evident facts, those written upon the surface of things, conceal within themselves multitudes of others.
Although it may be said that, “Even in the most moralistic times, truth has always been represented as a naked body,” (2) it does not follow that all naked bodies are equivalent or that all nudity is one and the same. A cursory appraisal of representations of human nakedness suggests three forms of the nude: the highly idealized or divine nude characteristic of pre-modernity and of religious imagery, the naked body as an object of the discourses of science, and the titillating body of erotica. Corollating to these forms of nakedness, we may relate three forms of the gaze that attends to them: the pious, contemplative gaze of reverence, the impartial gaze of scientific objectivity, and the libidinal gaze of sensuous desire. With these distinctions in mind, it becomes apparent that not only do the forms of nakedness on display in the rotunda at Tervuren lend themselves to disparate lines of interpretation, but that the significance of each is inflected by the others.
Of the nineteen figures in varying degrees of nakedness, seventeen are unambiguously Congolese. Conversely, only a single sculpture depicting a Congolese figure is adorned with anything more than a loincloth – Arthur Dupagne’s suggestively titled Saison sèche . With the exception of Oscar Jespers’ Négresse à l’amphore (1924), an enceinte figure in a soft cubist style, somewhere between art deco and primitivism, the Congolese figures are cast in a natural or realist manner. This naturalism may strike the viewer as suitable to the anthropological pretensions of the occasion. In contrast, just three of the seven European figures depicted are less than fully clothed. Of these one is a child and one exposes a single breast to an expectant infant. In the last, la Belgique boldly bares her chest; less boldly her nipples are modestly covered. With the possible exception of a single child, none of the European figures are rendered in a natural or realist manner; they are overwhelmingly neoclassical in style. While these differences are certainly legible in the sculptures adorning the rotunda on their own, their significance remained largely implicit and static, that is, until the addition of the permanent installation RE/STORE.
Lift Not the Painted Veil…
If the naked body symbolizes truth laid bare, then its counterimage is not clothing, but the veil. (3) RE/STORE consists of a series of sixteen semi-transparent veils placed in front of the sculptures on a circular marble wall. Printed on each are images—or rather counterimages—created by collaborating artists Jean Pierre Müller and Aimé Mpane. As a noun “store” may refer to a physical space. The verb “to store,” means to place and to keep. Its connotation may be that of the past—something no longer in use may be put into storage, but also of the future, for it is kept in reserve for possible need or use. As a noun, it may also mean something of value and importance. Thus, “store” connotes the placement or distribution of valuable objects in space with an eye toward their future use. Additionally, in French, “store” may be defined as a material protecting against the light, in fabric or light material, fixed at the top of a window (interior or exterior) and which winds and unwinds around a horizontal roller, (4) like a curtain or veil. “Store” is also related to memory, that ‘place’ of interiority which registers and keeps. RE/STORE may be said then to constitute a re-memorializing of the history of the Belgian Congo as represented in the sculptures of the rotunda, and, thus, as engaged in a most unusual sort of restoration.
Among the first four statues installed in the rotunda of the AfricaMuseum is Arsène Matton’s allegorical La Belgique apportant la sécurité au Congo (Belgium bringing security to Congo). Belgium is represented in the form of a woman, as the case in most of the other statues where the Nation is personified. Her dress is reminiscent of a warrior, perhaps Athena, or rather Belgique herself. Adorned with pteruges and greaves, the hilt of a sword protruding at her hip, she holds a resplendent banner which envelopes her in its folds like a cloak. She lifts her gaze to the horizon. Her chest is bared, though her nipples are covered discreetly, and she does not hold a shield – she seems to not need any protection. She is exposed and sovereign. The vulnerability signified by this partial nudity expresses her invulnerability. She bares herself, but her nudity is not the nudity of a woman. It is the nudity of an idea. Kneeling at her feet to her right, the figure of a naked African man looks up towards her face, his arm outstretched to her far hip in a tender embrace. La Belgique’s right hand seems to caress his head. At her feet and to her left, a young naked African child sleeps. In contrast with the allegorical nudity of la Belgique, the nakedness of the child and the man do convey vulnerability and bestow a moral valence to the security la Belgique embodies. Bay leaves between the man’s body and her leg suggest the peace and triumph brought by security, but also serve to separate and mediate the invulnerable nudity of her incorporeal form from the vulnerability of his corporeal nakedness.
Jean Pierre Müller’s counterimage to Matton’s sculpture is Security RE/STOREd . On an olive veil, against a patterned field of disembodied eyes, (5) stands a 1960s era Belgian para-commando holding an assault rifle. With a gaze that is at once empty and penetrating, he stares straight ahead. His fatigues lie in marked contrast to the merely symbolic armor of la Belgique as well as the contrasting nudities of la Belgique and the Congolese figures. There is something extremely poignant in the blank stare of the Belgian soldier. His eyes resonate with the swarm of faceless eyes before which he stands. He seems to represent both an unsettlingly corporeal realization of the incorporeal field of surveillance behind him and a certain blind National agency of (post-)colonial domination. The transparency of his gaze reduplicates the gaze of la Belgique which emerges from within him. Is the post-colonial figure of the para-commando, whose presence in the Congo was justified on humanitarian grounds, haunted by the nationalist idealization represented by the figure of la Belgique, as if by an apparition clouding his vision? Or is he merely a post-colonial avatar of a colonial domination that was itself justified on humanitarian grounds?
The transparency of the veil allows for a superposition of the two images and the constitution of a third image, such that the Congolese man to la Belgique’s right, remains visible, only now he is transported to the feet of the para-commando and looks up to him instead. Without the acknowledgement that this Congolese man received from la Belgique’s hand in Matton’s work, his presence is annulled by the severe military figure. His existence remains unacknowledged, underlining his submissive character. The flag is also visible on the right of the mercenary, behind his shoulders. Accent lighting illuminates the left side of la Belgique’s face. As a result, the face of the para-commando is divided in a strong dual effect known as metastability: we see both la Belgique’s feminine traits on the left and his stern face on the right. Where one begins and the other ends is not clear – we must direct our focus to one but are never free of the other. Regarding the effect of such “metapictures” (of which metastability is but one variety), W.J.T. Mitchell writes that they create “the sense that the image greets or hails or addresses us, that it takes the beholder into the game, enfolds the observer as object for the ‘gaze’ of the picture. ...It reveals the relation of the visible and the readable to be one of negation and interdiction, a site where power, desire, and knowledge converge in strategies of representation.” (6) Indeed, this third image seems to observe us through the highly idealized and almost mythological feminine figure, through the soldier’s blank stare, and through the veil’s field of eyes. It represents oppression, violence, militarization, danger (the weapon), and hyper-control. In other words, the security that was putatively established through colonial rule. Yet the para-commando in question postdates Congo’s independence; it therefore displays the persistence of occupation and of the presence of foreign military security. Considered in relation to one another, the titles of Matton’s La Belgique apportant la sécurité au Congo and Müller’s counterimage, Security RE/STOREd , indicate a temporal disjunction between the before and the after . Implicit in this cleavage is the rupture of an event the significance of which is all the more poignant in its omission. That event is, of course, Congo’s independence on June 30, 1960.
Does the soldier simply represent the ugly truth concealed beneath the highly idealized iconography of la Belgique (and therefore a simple inversion of a veil and the truth beneath)? The temporal disjunction posed by the two figures is suggestive: the purity and goodwill putatively expressed in the partial nudity of la Belgique appears within the guise of a mercenary. Conversely, the figure of the para-commando, whose interventions in the postcolonial period have always been justified in terms of human rights, is haunted by the colonial legacy that subtends it.
Arthur Dupagne’s Le guerrier (The Warrior ) shows a young naked African man holding a spear and a blade-like stone tool. He represents the native, primitive form of a warrior by being totally naked and by the forms of his tools. The muscular and hypersexualized body of the African male is here emasculated by the sculptor: he has no penis. As such, the black colonized subject holds the weapons of war but does not embody one of the ultimate threats for the colonizer: his sex. Aimé Mpane’s RE/STOREd Warrior features a wheelbarrow draped with bananas and a red sign next to its wheel that reads “Banana à jeter” (“Bananas to throw”). In the new image combining statue and veil, we see the bananas hanging between the warrior’s legs, his face framed by the two handles of the wheelbarrow. His absent penis could be read as another ‘banana’ to be thrown away. Nonetheless, because the wheelbarrow covers all of his nudity, showing only his shoulders and legs below his knees, we may also read this third image as a call to throw away the stereotypes that conform with the colonial discourses that constructed those bodies in the first place.
Paul Du Bois’ La Charité (Charity ) represents Belgium as a European woman in a long robe holding a baby who reaches for her exposed nipple on the left. Belgium nurses the Congo. She is solemn, her robe exposing, underneath, her left thigh and part of her calf, feminizing even more her figure. Charity was essential in the framing of Belgium’s “civilizing mission” in the Congo. Publicly, Leopold II claimed that his work in the Congo was not related to any economic or imperial ambitions but that it was exclusively out of “Christian duty to the poor African” (7). Aimé Mpane’s counterimage, Charity RE/STOREd , consists of a priest transported upon a one-wheeled rickshaw by two children with striped t-shirts. The priest wears a hat, a long robe, and a cross. The children bear the weight of religion which sits in repose. Although all three characters are fully silhouetted—no features are discernible, Aimé Mpane intended for the priest to be interpreted as white, (8) an emblem of the Belgian colonizer who used religion as a way of justifying colonization and different forms of exploitation. Nonetheless, the absence of visible personal traits of the priest is provocative given the reality that today many priests in the Congo are local or regional black Africans.
While the significance of the color of the priest’s skin must not be dismissed—indeed, that the imputation of skin color is demanded of the viewer elicits a particularly powerful effect—the fact that all three figures are almost fully silhouetted and therefore nearly transparent serves to juxtapose their relative anonymity with the intimacy between the figures of Du Bois’ sculpture who retain their features. Simultaneously, it serves to foreground the relative social positionality of the silhouetted figures: the priest occupies a seat of power, his anonymity is the anonymity of the power of the institutions associated with colonial administration. It does not entail the erasure of his personal identity but subsumes it within an organ of institutional power. Stunningly, the transparency of the priest allows for a nearly unobstructed view of the golden figures of Du Bois’ La Charité . In contrast, no light shines forth through the silhouetted children. Their anonymity suggests an erasure of personal identity entailed by their powerlessness—an effect accentuated by the visibility of the striped t-shirts they wear, as if the presence of this simple commodity-form were their sole defining feature. The charity shown to the infant is transformed by Mpane’s counterimage into a relation of servitude. The infant’s proximity to the smaller of the two boys in particular suggests their equation within the visual field—identity in non-identity: infant and boy are at once the same and different. They seem to represent two visions of a youthful Congo. The boys appear to stand still, immobilized. They frame the priest between them and all three figures appear to look in concert, as if at us, their viewers, but we cannot return their gazes. Within the third image constituted by the interplay of sculpture and veil, the luminosity of the sculpted figures transports them into the foreground, they seem to take over the image filling the void left by the priest whose hat dissolves into a blackened halo about Belgium’s head. The two children now labor under the weight of Belgium and the infant Congo.
Arthur Dupagne’s Homme à sa toilette (Man at his toilette ) depicts an intimate moment of a naked black man cleaning himself, his foot resting on a rock while using a stone on his heel. This naturalistic portrait consolidates the gaze of the colonizer capturing a personal ritual of hygiene of the colonized body. The fact that the man is supposedly cleaning himself with a stone is absurd; the absurdity of it is his weakness, and ultimately his social—if not literal—death. The discourse of the ‘wild man’ and the primitive black subject allows for not only such a representation, but for the Congo to be colonized in the first place. Jean Pierre Müller’s Achilles , depicts a wounded Achilles, after Charles Alphonse Gumery’s Achille blessé au talon par la flèche de Pâris (Achilles Wounded in the Heel by Paris , 1850). The nudity of Achilles is recognizable for he is a Western hero who transcends time and place the way any figure who stands for an origin does: standing before , he nonetheless remains part of the making of history within the European tradition. The weight of this recognition—that is, of the cultural and historical self-identity of the West, contrasts with the anonymity of the black subjects of the rotunda’s sculptures. The Congolese are ‘nobodies’, removed from time and place, stripped of history and identity. And yet, through their similar postures and in the manifest vulnerability they share—both of which Müller has adeptly signaled through the juxtaposition of these “found” images—a commonality is brought to the fore. As a mythopoetic figure, Achilles is timeless, and therefore outside history. The anonymous Congolese man, ostensibly trapped in a state of nature, is ephemeral, his existence seemingly limited to subsistence through Dupagne’s sculpture. Nonetheless, like Achilles, he too is putatively outside history and therefore timeless. We have here, then, the juxtaposition of one mythical figure constitutive of European identity, Achilles, with another mythical figure of a very different sort, the uncivilized African, that is no less constitutive of European identity. But, by virtue of the mimetic element evident in the images themselves, these contrasting images seem to coalesce into one, subverting the ideological function each performed independently.
Arsène Matton’s L'esclavage (Slavery ) is contrasted by Jean Pierre Müller’s Le viol (The Rape ), the former depicting a Moor holding a naked woman by the wrist, in submission she kneels over the dead body of a child, and the latter based on Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna. The nudity of the white Sabine man is a sign of vulnerability; a vulnerability that exposes his failure as a man to protect his property, his woman. The naked figure of the Roman kidnapper exhibits the triumphant power of his body, exposing a masculine nudity of dominance. Her nudity could symbolize the being at the mercy of the Roman man, her abductor and rapist. She is naked, in his arms, against her will. The Sabine man looks at his opponent, the perpetrator looks at his victim, and the woman’s gaze drifts away from the two gazes and bodies of the men. The naked body in the sculpture of both black woman (oppressed) and dead baby (“collateral damage” of the slave trade) underlines the Arab as the oppressor. Matton’s sculpture exposes the obscene exploitation of the black woman’s body by the Moor within the economy and social institution of the slave trade in the Congo under the control of the Moorish kingdoms. This haunting and brutal image served as a form of putative testimony justifying Belgium’s ‘moral’ intervention, veiled as a humanitarian and liberatory mission against slavery. Belgium brings civilization to the Congo and yet, as Müller’s counterimage reminds us, European civilization is itself founded on rape, slavery, and all forms of oppression and domination it claims to condemn.
In Praise of Profanation (9)
Although the rotunda is no longer the main entrance of the AfricaMuseum, it remains the entry to the symbolic space of Belgian Congo and its history, where the unabashed celebration of Belgium’s colonial exploitation is embodied in these sculptures. In the process of renovating the museum, the desire to erase this legacy and remove the sculptures that were increasingly a source of the embarrassment of patrimony was frustrated. These works are both constructing and promoting a particular self-image of Belgium and its actions in colonized Congo, allowing the AfricaMuseum to become an attempt of fashioning Belgian identity through its colonial endeavors. The idealized iconography can now be judged as obscene, inducing the shame of one’s self-image exposed, laid bare. Uncovered, it is impossible to forget, erase, or deny. RE/STORE enacts the urge to cover an embarrassing legacy – only it covers with veils that expose by means of counter-images. These veils conceal and cover, obscuring the sculptures underneath while simultaneously playing the textiles’ transparency in order to not eclipse the figures. RE/STORE’s remarkable use of these enveiling counter-images conjures a dialectical image that renders sensible the space of representation precisely as a contested space in which the participation and identity of the observer are also put into play.
As we hope to have shown, the dialectical interplay of sculptures and veils, of images and counterimages, and the constitution therein of what we have described in terms of a “third image,” is highly complex and suggestive, rich in antagonism and interpretive possibilities, and always eluding any unambiguous resolution. If the sculpted bodies may be associated with transparency (and, by extension, with truth)—either of the anthropological/eroticized sense in the case of the Congolese figures, or of the allegorical/symbolic variety evident in their largely clothed European counterparts—and the veils, as veils, may connote covering, concealment, modesty, or the imposition/superposition of meaning, of discourse over and above the
thing-in-itself what, then, is the valence of “the third image” constituted by the sculpture-veil dyad?
The third image is not a figure of unification or reconciliation in which the antagonism of the dyad is dissolved, nor is it a mediating image between two alternatives. In this regard it would be a mistake to understand RE/STORE as a dialogical exercise, for sculpture and veil are not engaged in conversation and the third image they constitute is marked by an irreducible antagonism, a constitutive negativity. For this reason, it is additionally important to recognize that RE/STORE exemplifies neither a liberal-pluralistic ideal of communicative space nor a simplistic impulse to “set the record straight” either by contextualizing the original figures with data or by simply (and simplistically) blotting them out with “true images,” whatever that might mean. Finally, it is not a reiteration of the defacement of existing works associated with the May ‘68 movement insofar as image, counterimage, and the third image never collapse into static unity. Instead, through its juxtaposition of image and counterimage and the constitutive negativity of the third image, RE/STORE renders visible the contentious space of representation itself—what Jacques Rancière calls “the distribution of the sensible” (10)—a space in which aesthetics and politics coalesce. This coalescence never signals resolution.
Truth is complex; it can be relative and fluid. It can include contradictory experiences and realities, entailing profound schisms. All real; even possibly simultaneous. Seemingly irreconcilable. Truth itself may be too much at first sight. The playing with the veils in order to restore the sculptures elicits an aesthetic perplexity that is provocative. The installation offers an indictment of the role of artistic work in the process of defying the social imaginaries of what the Belgian Nation is. This decolonizing process is proposed as a relation in which the statues and the artwork on the veils create a manifestation of meaning through a state of associative visual co-dependence.
- A-letheia , literally, the alpha privative prefix “a- ” signifying negation + the verb root “-leth- ” meaning “to conceal, to cover, to forget” was associated with memory and true or faithful speech, whether the revelatory speech of the oracle, the just speech of the monarch, or the laudatory speech of the poet. Cf. Marcel Detienne’s The Masters of Truth in Archaic Greece.
- Nancy and Ferrari 103.
- Where clothing may signify various social distinctions—age, style, class, gender—the veil is above all else an instrument of discretion, modesty, and concealment.
- My translation from the French definition to be found in the Larousse online dictionary: https://www.larousse.fr/dictionnaires/francais/store/74794.
- A motif that reoccurs across the four most prominent of the two artists veils—those that face the rotunda center—as well as in Mpane’s Métamorphose (Metamorphosis).
- Picture Theory, p.75, 82.
- Hochschild, p.120.
- From an interview that took place in January 2020 between me and the artist at the AfricaMuseum.
- “Profanation... neutralizes what it profanes. Once profaned, that which was unavailable and separate loses its aura and is returned to use. [Profanation] deactivates the apparatuses of power and returns tocommon use the spaces that power had seized.” Agamben, Profanations, p. 77.
- Mitchell, W.J.T. 1994. Picture Theory. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press; Rancière, Jacques 2009. Aesthetics and Its Discontents. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press; Rancière, Jacques 2013. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic.
Agamben, Giorgio 2007. P rofanations . Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books.
Blumenberg, Hans 2010. Paradigms for a Metaphorology . Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Clark, Kenneth 1956. The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Detienne, Marcel 1996. The Masters of Truth in Archaic Greece . New York, NY: Zone Books.
Ferrari, Federico and Jean-Luc Nancy 2014. Being Nude: The Skin of Images. New York, NY: Fordham University Press.
Hadot, Pierre 2006. The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hochschild, Adam 1999. King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Mitchell, W.J.T. 1994. Picture Theory . Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Rancière, Jacques 2009. Aesthetics and Its Discontents . Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Rancière, Jacques 2013. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic.