A statue depicting the angry spirit of a Belgian officer beheaded during an uprising in Congo in 1931 is at the centre of a tug of war between a US museum and a Congolese gallery at the site of the rebellion.
The statue of Maximilien Balot, a colonial administrator, has travelled to Europe but the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is accused of stonewalling requests for a loan to the White Cube gallery in Lusanga in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The Guardian reports that the row has developed into a legal dispute after the White Cube sought to raise funds by selling digital images of the Balot statue – known as non-fungible tokens or NFTs – resulting in accusations from the VMFA of a breach of copyright. Renzo Martens, a Dutch artist and director at the White Cube, said: “We have downloaded the image from the internet, as there is no other material made available by the VMFA. We do not have copyright for the image, we use it under the doctrine of fair use.” The row highlights the tensions between western institutions displaying artefacts dating from the colonial era and the countries from where artistic and cultural works were taken.
It was during a revolt against the rape of the wives of men who had refused to work at a palm nut plantation in Lusanga that Balot was hacked to death.
The brutal Belgian retaliation that followed led to the revolt of the Pende people, one of the last significant rebellions against colonial rule before independence was secured three decades later. Experts say that a statue was carved of Balot’s angry spirit in an effort to control it.
The statue was purchased in 1972 by Herbert Weiss, an emeritus professor at City University of New York while he was on a field trip near Lusanga, formerly known as Leverville after William Lever, the founder of Unilever. Weiss donated it to the VMFA.
The row highlights the tensions between western institutions displaying artefacts dating from the colonial era and the countries from where artistic and cultural works were taken.