Autumn/Winter 2012

– Autumn/Winter 2012

Contextual Essays


Events, Works, Exhibitions

Documentary as Anti-Monument: On Spectres by Sven Augustijnen

Robrecht Vanderbeeken

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,

  1. The film Spectres was part of the exhibition of the same name, which also included a series of photographs and archival material, shown at WIELS, Brussels from May to July 2011 and at Kunsthalle Sankt Gallen from August to October 2011, Kunsthalle Bern from October to November 2011, De Appel, Amsterdam from October 2011 to March 2012, among other venues. For more information see (last accessed on 6 August 2012).

  2. See Hal Foster, Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1996.

  3. Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International (1993, trans. Peggy Kamuf), London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

  4. RTBF (Francophone radio and television broadcasting organisation) news filed a complaint about interference; VRT (Flemish radio and television broadcasting organisation) news mentioned nothing. See Guido Convents, ‘VRT en 50 jaar Kongo: de wansmaak voorbij’, De Wereld Morgen, 7 July 2010, available at The Africa Film Festival would not only be placed under pressure, but also lost potential subsidies because of this; see Ellen van Campenhout, ‘Afrika Filmfestival zonder Vlaamse subsidies’, De Wereld Morgen, 15 April 2010, available at (both last accessed on 23 July 2012). The film Lumumba can nevertheless be seen in its entirety on YouTube.

  5. See Ludo De Witte, ‘De geesten van Leopold II en Lumumba dwalen nog steeds door dit land’, 12 April 2010, available at (last accessed on 23 July 2012). In an interview with Geert Van Der Speeten published in the cultural supplement of De Standaard on 25 June 2011, Vranckx repeated his message once again: he hopes that we can learn to deal with Congo openly, without a feeling of guilt.

  6. The demonisation of Lumumba was already a widespread strategy in the 1960s. See Ludo Martens, 1958—1968, 10 jaar revolutie in Kongo: de strijd van Patrice Lumumba en Pierre Mulele, Berchem: EPO, 1988.

  7. Another striking example of whitewashing is the bestselling book Congo: Een geschiedenis by David Van Reybrouck (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 2010). Despite his widely showcased concern about democracy, in Lumumba he sees not an icon of collective struggle for independence, but rather a vainglorious rhetorician. At the same time, Van Reybrouck attempts to increase Belgian immunity by reducing criticism to a masochistic desire or an unproductive critique of the critique. See L. De Witte, ‘David van Reybrouck masseert westerse bemoeienissen in Congo weg’, 18 May 2010, available at; and Joris Note, ‘David van Reybrouck tegen Lumumba. Was dat nu wel nodig?’, 27 March 2011, available at (both last accessed on 23 July 2012

  8. The telex reads: ‘l’objectif principal à poursuivre dans l’intérêt du Congo, du Katanga et de la Belgique est évidemment l’élimination définitive de Lumumba […] Bartelous en parlera à Tshombe.’ (‘the principal objective to pursue in the interest of Congo, of Katanga and of Belgium is evidently the definitive elimination of Lumumba […] Bartelous will speak to Tshombe’.) For a critical analysis, see L. De Witte, ‘Etienne Davignon en de laatste uren van Patrice Lumumba’, 26 June 2011, available at (last accessed on 23 July 2012).

  9. In her review ‘Heart of Daftness’ in Artforum (September 2011), Rachel Haidu rightly notes that in this scene, i.e. with the shot of the showy socks of Count Arnoud, Augustijnen’s camera captures a sense of remarkable impunity that is typical of postcolonial Belgium, a nation that treats its colonial history as simply a dynastic one. Haidu, however, describes Brassinne as a chillingly self-deceiving protagonist. In this way, Brassinne is given the benefit of the doubt; he is a victim misguided by his pathology, not a sly deceiver who is well aware of the role he is playing and who might even enjoy the fact that he can get away with it.

  10. In his analysis of the film, Sven Augustijnen’s Spectropoetics (Brussels: WIELS Contemporary Art Centre, 2011), T.J. Demos discusses the defence mechanisms at play in this scene. He refers, for instance, to the significant contradiction between the energy that Brassinne invests in participating in the film in order to defend his narrative and an enlightened remark that he suddenly makes, laughing smugly: ‘My opinion is certain, but others don’t have to share it. One is free.’ Also, driving away from d’Aspremont’s ch.teau, Brassinne nearly accidentally runs over the count’s dog, exclaiming with relief that if he had done so, he’d have been forbidden to set foot in the house again. Demos notes that Augustijnen’s inclusion of this small detail, where Brassinne’s emotional response is greater than his response to the fate of the Congo or of Lumumba, speaks volumes.

  11. The period resulted in more than ten million deaths, although the exact amount has never been precisely determined. For a revealing but disconcerting report, see Adam Hochshild’s King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999). The heart of darkness, as Joseph Conrad termed it, is still beating in the heart of Brussels, where the huge statue of Leopold II on his horse continues to look majestically down on his subjects in Throne Square, or in the royal crypt of the Church of Our Lady in Laken, where King Baudouin lies buried next to the grave of his great uncle Leopold. Augustijnen’s camera briefly zooms in here when Brassinne takes us to the commemorative Mass of King Baudouin. Afterwards, it follows Queen Fabiola during an official greeting at her husband’s grave and comes to a standstill with a close-up on a photograph of Leopold II that is placed on top of his tomb.

  12. See L. De Witte, The Assassination of Lumumba (1999, trans. Ren.e Fenby and Ann Wright), London and New York: Verso, 2001.

  13. Moïse Tshombe was the leader of the secessionist region of Katanga. Lumumba was assassinated there, in the presence of President Tshombe and his ministers.

  14. King Baudouin, who also spoke at this ceremony, was so offended that he wanted to leave immediately afterwards. From the interview between Brassinne and Augustijnen reproduced in the book Spectres, which is offered as the catalogue of the exhibition, we can gather that there is a strong kinship between Brassinne and Baudouin. Brassinne, who is approximately the same age as Baudouin, is to this day an informer of the Belgian court. Brassinne had to leave Congo as a Tshombist under the Mobutu regime on 25 November 1965, the day after his second coup d’état. But in 1985 he returned by order of the court to prepare the visit of King Baudouin in honour of the 25 years of ‘independence’. See Spectres, Brussels: Asa Publishers, 2011.

  15. At the moment when Brassinne is leaving the residence, Lumumba’s youngest son, who had run in the 2006 presidential election in Congo, suddenly enters — again, a moment of truth on screen. However, no attention is paid to the son. For Brassinne, Lamumba belongs to the past, and is not someone who can still play a role today.

  16. The catalogue, Spectres, contains a text by Ludo de Witte in which it is suggested that a memorial for Lumumba should be erected at the place of execution. See Spectres, op. cit.

  17. All traces are removed from the scene of the crime. The bodies were destroyed by cutting them into pieces, dumping them by the side of the road over several kilometres, and burning the remains or dissolving them in acid, as if dead was not dead enough.