“L’Indépendent Sanguine, Congo 1960-1965.”

This project explores the relationship between art and history in relation to the role of the United Nations in the Congo Crisis. In this section, a historical background to the UN mission will be given in order to contextualise the role of the UN in the Congo Crisis. This will then be followed by a discussion of the historiography on the role of the UN in the crisis, with particular focus on the shifting narrative of the Cold War and the call for a return to ‘Congolese voices’ within these histories. In the next section the relationship between art and history will be examined, followed by the selection of the six paintings chosen and their accompanying analysis. 

Historical Background of the UN in the Congo Crisis

The United Nations Operation in the Congo (Opération des Nations Unies au Congo, or ONUC) took place in the Republic of Congo (today the Democratic Republic of the Congo) between July 1960 and June 1964. In response to a request for military assistance from the Congolese Government, the United Nations Security Council authorised a peacekeeping force to address the civil unrest following Belgium’s proclamation of Congolese independence in June 1960.

Dictated by UN Security Council Resolutions, the task of the UN was to:

  • Assist in the maintenance of the political independence and territorial integrity of the Congo
  • Aid the Congolese Government in the maintenance of law and order
  • And to assist with a number of programmes in training and technical assistance 

Though originally mandated to aid in the removal of Belgian troops and to provide military assistance to the Congolese Government, UN action was swiftly extended. The secession of the Katanga province quickly became the nucleus of the crisis, Belgian intervention in the newly ‘independent’ state further mandating the entry of UN forces in August 1960. This force was strengthened further in early 1961 in response to the assassination of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. At its peak, the UN peacekeeping force comprised of nearly twenty thousand officers. The death of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld in late 1961 was then followed by a period of clashes between Katangese forces and UN troops under the control of the new UN Secretary-General U Thant. These clashes lasted until early 1963, when in February Katanga was fully reintegrated. By June 30th 1964 all ONUC forces were withdrawn from the Congo. 

Shifting Historiography 

Traditionally, scholarship has approached the Congo Crisis as a macro-historical study of Cold War diplomacy. Undertaken in the 1970s and 1980s, studies by Madeleine Kalb and Stephen Weissman portrayed Cold War objectives and American foreign policy as the central narrative within the Congo Crisis (Kalb: 1982; Weissman: 1974). Similar studies have also framed the United Nations involvement in the crisis solely in terms of Soviet expansionism and the broader ‘East-West’ struggle (Collins: 1993; Namikas: 2002). For much of the late twentieth century, works such as these placed the study of the UN solely within the external framework of Cold War rivalries and international diplomacy. 

Recent developments have led to a shift toward ‘de-centering’ Cold War history within the academic field. From this, a number of studies have arisen which dispute the traditional narrative of the UN in the Congo Crisis (Gibbs: 2000; Kent: 2017). However, criticism remains concerning the ‘Eurocentric academic model’ which dominates such histories (Mbembe: 2016, 29-45). Within the wider conversation on the ‘decolonisation of academia,’ calls have arisen for a ‘re-centering’ (Thiong’o: 1986) of historiography away from this Eurocentric model. Scholars such as Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja and Didier Gondola have been praised in their movement away from the dominant model, particularly in their placement of the crisis within a wider trajectory of Congolese history (Nzongola-Ntalaja: 2002; Gondola: 2002). Alternative historiographies have also arisen which highlight the role of visual and audio methodology, oral histories and other forms of knowledge production in the digital age. 

In particular, a number of recent works have explored the relationship between art, history and storytelling in Congolese historiography (Fabian: 1996; Jewsiecki 2003; Ceuppens and Baloji: 2016). Depictions of historical events in popular painting has sparked a debate on the role of art both in parallel and in juxtaposition to ‘traditional’ histories of the Congo. As a subject which has traditionally privileged external perspectives, the role of Congolese art is an exciting subject within the developing discussion of alternative historiographies of the Congo Crisis. 


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