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Sven Augustijnen, Photos prises par Jacques Brassinne à Lubumbashi au Shaba (Katanga), le 16 juin 1988 (Photographs taken by Jacques Brassinne in Lubumbashi in Shaba (Katanga), on 16 June 1988), 2011, 24 colour photographs, scanned and transferred to digital format, and shown as part of the installation Spectres. Courtesy the artist and Jan Mot, Brussels
Sven Augustijnen’s latest film Spectres (2011) sheds light on a dark chapter of Belgian history: the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister of the independent Republic of Congo, in 1961. The art institutions that have presented Spectres (such as WIELS in Brussels, De Appel in Amsterdam and Tate Modern in London, amongst others) have filled the important political function of publicly addressing and engendering debate on delicate topics that remain unsettled and repressed in Belgium.1 With Spectres, Augustijnen demonstrates that the artistic realm can act as an arena in which to deal with the ghosts of Europe's colonial past, while at the same time confronting the spectres of documentary representation.
The Trauma of the Real
In order to clarify these claims, let’s begin with a note on Hal Foster’s Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century.2 In his analysis of the avant-garde and its contemporary currency, Foster signals a return of the ‘real’ as a concern of contemporary artists working in the 1990s in two complementary variations: the real conceived as physical materiality (e.g. works using the abject) and as sociocultural context (e.g. works adopting the model of ethnography). Crucial for his thesis is the role of trauma: according to Foster, this return is to be understood as a reaction to the suppression inherent in the dominant modes of art-making during the 1980s and early 90s, particularly the use of the uncanny, superrealism and the simulacra. The assumption that trauma is amotivational force for making art is also relevant to Augustijnen’s film, and indeed to postcolonial artistic approaches to the documentary more generally,