A Congolese artist’s trials in Brussels

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Pauline Bock

Anne Wetsi Mpoma decided to open her own space in Brussels, Belgium to display artworks from black artists, either African or Afro-descendants, because the lack of opportunity for them to showcase their work is staggering, she tells The Brussels Times.

The Wetsi Gallery opened in November 2019 with the goal of showing art that, “by its form or content, offers counter-narratives against the erasure of black artists in the world of modern and contemporary art.”

Wetsi Mpoma isn’t afraid to tell it, bluntly: “This structurally racist system is depriving itself of a wealth of art. When black artists can’t exhibit their art, it’s a loss for them, for their communities, but also for Belgium. It makes no sense, and it’s sad.”

She is trying to show real images of Afro-descendents, she explains, away from “NGOs’ poverty in Africa stories” or idealised profiles of “Afropolitans”.

“I can take risks, such as displaying art by artists who haven’t found their style yet. If people feel like they can’t make it into a gallery, their artworks might remain in a drawer. The first barrier is psychological: by being invisibilised, we invisibilise ourselves further.”

That’s true for all artists, she says, but especially for those who are black, and even more so for black women. She would know: born in Belgium to Congolese parents, Wetsi Mpoma has struggled with racism, in the art world and in Belgian society.

“Every black person in Belgium has been discriminated against and has known racism,” she says. “The mentality that developed during the time of colonisation is still around: this idea that colonisation had positive aspects, such as bringing ‘roads, schools and electricity,’ in short, civilisation, and that people in Africa would otherwise still be naked in the woods.”

She recalls an email exchange with a collector of Congolese art, who implied he was helping her by dealing with her: “When, in fact, in providing him with the art, I was the one helping him!”

Such colonial bias affects how black people are seen in art, too.

After a recent trip to see the “Black Model” exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, Wetsi expressed regret in a blogpost that none of the artworks presented at the show were images of black bodies she would be happy to show her son: nude studies of black men, women and children, representations of maids caring for white children and enchained slaves.

“They were blacks in subaltern positions in which (society) still wants to see them today,” she wrote, saying that in this light, the paintings became “abject and revolting”. Art, she added, should “allow populations who have suffered centuries of slave trade and colonial propaganda to be represented as human beings in their own right.”

In February 2019, the UN called on Belgium to “recognise the true scope of the violence and injustice of its colonial past in order to tackle the root causes of present-day racism faced by people of African descent”, in a report that found that “racial discrimination is endemic in institutions in Belgium”.

“People of African descent face discrimination in the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights”, the report read.

Among many other recommendations, it called for the Africa Museum to take colonial imagery off its walls. In response, Charles Michel, then Belgian Prime Minister, said the UN report was “very strange” and that Belgium has “always tried to fight against any form of discrimination”.

Wetsi Mpoma, who is 44, has dreamt of opening her own gallery since she was an Art student, but it “wasn’t supposed to happen this way”.

She had her professional path all planned: she would find a permanent job in a gallery, and then one in a museum or another cultural institution, where she would perfect her craft as a curator and learn the trade before opening her own space.

After her master’s in Non-European Civilisations and Art at the Free University of Brussels, she found an assistant position in a gallery in New York, Gallery 317 in Manhattan.

Finding a job in Belgium was another matter. She freelanced, partnering on tours and exhibitions with Bozar, Wiels as well as the Africa Museum, but there was “always a good reason not to hire (her)”, she says.

Just like with housing discrimination towards Afro-descendants, she found that when recruiters said “We would like to hire black people,” it never meant that they actually did.

She also realised that big museums and institutions asked for her input only on shows related to race: “I am an art historian, not only a black woman giving tours about black people!” And she would not take an institutional job – she values her independence too much. “I like having one foot in, one foot out.”

Anne Wetsi Mpoma has so many ongoing projects that she gets lost trying to list them.

There’s the show she is curating for the Strombeek Cultural Centre, on the representations of the black female body, the book on decolonisation for which she has written a chapter about the arts, the monthly events and shows she is planning for the gallery, her project to act as an intermediary between African artists and bigger galleries in Brussels, among others.

Opening her gallery is a risk worth taking, she says. “I see a need for that, in the art world, for black artists. And the fact that I am a black woman, curator and gallery owner, is important.” – Excerpted from The Brussels Times

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