Belgium's King Philippe returns rare mask to DR Congo

Belgium's King Philippe returns rare mask to DR Congo
Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi (left) and Belgium's King Philippe with the Kakuungu mask. Credit: Cabinet of Prime Minister Alexander De Croo

During his state visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Belgium's King Philippe returned a Kakuungu mask to the country's former colony on Wednesday, an act that symbolises the start of "a stronger cooperation" between the two countries.

Until recently, the rare mask was on display in Belgium's AfricaMuseum in Tervuren, just outside Brussels. Now, after almost 70 years, the artwork will return to Congo.

"Dialogue, respect and equality are the basis of a new chapter that Belgium and the Democratic Republic of Congo are writing," said Prime Minister Alexander De Croo. "This also includes the restitution of cultural goods acquired during the colonial period. Handing over of mask to the National Museum of Kinshasa symbolises the new approach."

The rare Kakuungu mask has been the showpiece of a number of temporary exhibits at the AfricaMuseum and originally comes from the Suku people, an ethnic group from Kwango Province in the southwest of the DRC.

There are only a few dozen examples left in the world. "Congo no longer owns an original copy in decent condition," a museum spokesperson told De Standaard.

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The Belgian authorities chose this symbolic mask because it is a large object with an intact decoration, according to State Secretary for Science Policy Thomas Dermine. It is also well documented: the name of the village and the maker are known.

When the AfricaMuseum reopened in 2018, the Congolese diaspora in Belgium put the debate about restitution on the agenda. Since then, a worldwide movement has heavily criticised the fact that artworks looted from former colonies were (and still are) on display in Western museums' colonial art collections, instead of being returned.

However, the Kakuungu mask is not part of the formal institutions but is on long-term loan to the DRC since there is no legal framework in Belgium for a gift from federal collections yet.

The return of the mask is intended to mark the start of "stronger scientific and museum cooperation" between Belgium and the DRC, said Dermine. This will focus on new research to investigate the origins of about 85,000 pieces from the AfricaMuseum.

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