“However, we are all bound by universal human emotions – and the objects in our collection bear unique witness to this. Each of them tells a human story.”
Museums often have aspirations surrounding the material they display, and the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden is no different in this regard. According to their website, they seek to tell the story of humanity through the objects they display. But what about the objects that are not on display? In the African section of the museum, a room contains a wall that has remained empty for about three years, which once contained their collection of Congolese art. The only evidence of what this collection may have consisted of is a single sticker on the wall which depicts a nkisi and a description that the artifacts were collected in trips like the one depicted in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Linking the collection to Heart of Darkness, beyond the fact that both are said to represent the region which was to become the Democratic Republic of Congo, exemplifies the challenging relationship between power, Western and non-Western, and the way that art in various forms plays into it. How did the lone artifact still present on the blank wall of the Volkenkunde get to Europe and what kind of power structures came into play in the movement of this object?
Following the travels of this single nkisi will allow us to explore the wider discussions surrounding African art, the artists who make them, and whether their journey to Europe was a legitimate one.