“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.
P.S. Due to some formatting problems with the IRM website, the map might not be in its optimal shape. By following this link it is possible to see the map in its full size on an external website.
The bibliography can be found here