Work by the city of Brussels to stop glorifying the country’s colonial past in public spaces has moved forward, with a new roadmap introduced by the Capital Region’s Secretary of State for Planning and Heritage, Pascal Smet, last week.
Some of the first works noted as ripe for removal are: a monument honouring Leopold II on Place du Trône near Brussels’ centre; and the shockingly-titled ‘Runaway black slaves surprised by dogs’ on prestigious Avenue Louise.
What to do with symbols of colonial violence and oppression is considered an urgent ‘quality of life’ issue by authorities in Brussels, one of the most diverse places in the world, with a third of residents born elsewhere. Home to over 180 different nationalities, the Belgian capital is often cited as the second most multinational city in the world after New York.
Despite being such a melting pot, Brussels might seem behind other places on inclusivity, only having set up a working group as the Black Lives Matter movement reverberated worldwide in 2020. But that was not the first step on the country’s post-colonial journey. Tervuren’s Africa Museum had already been closed for five years, renovated, re-curated and re-opened, by then. King Philippe has more than once expressed regret for Belgium’s brutal regime in Congo. And last year one of Brussels’ neighborhoods got into trouble for removing a defaced statue of colonial soldier Emile Storms without due planning permission.
2. A new plan
Smet’s working group has now proposed a 14-part plan and 200,000 euros worth of feasibility studies, starting with setting up a guidance committee and the creation of a ‘decolonialisation co-ordinator’ role. New town planning rules are also in the offing. Other work to be undertaken includes a full audit of the city’s movable and immovable heritage to lay bare links with colonialism.
Fundraising, education and the commemoration of communities affected by colonialism are further elements of Smet’s blueprint, as is the thorny question of what to do with items once they’ve been removed.
3. A symbolic public purgatory?
Smet seemed at pains to explain that wherever statues and artworks are housed, it would be more than a simple “mothballing” of the problem.
(this idea is) no mere logistical infrastructure, but a symbolic public place and one of the components that will mark the decolonial transformation of the urban monument landscape.Pascal Smet told magazine Bruzz
Projects and tenders launched by the public service equal.brussels will be guided by principles of the action plan and civil servants will have decolonialisation training. The Federal government is also expected to respond to the plan.