"What story would you tell a stranger? Your great-grandfather's, who was a colonial official? (...) The one of your grand cousin who worked his way to death on a plantation? Your godfather's, who proselytized foreign people? "
These questions are asked by the Afro-German curator and editor Yvette Mutumba at the beginning of a text on the intertwining of one's own family history with colonialism and the overlapping of "one's own" and "stranger". As questions, they show that working up the personal story is always accompanied by a questioning of one's own position as well as its contextualization into a metanarrative.
In their work "Congobos" (Eng. Congo forest) Irena Eden and Stijn Lernout put such an unpleasant story in the foreground. In a formal imagery using media installation, video and large-scale frottage work, they address the interconnectedness of personal stories of the Belgian and Congolese populations, intensified by colonialism. In ethnographic style, these rarely discussed family references are worked up on the basis of the case study of Stijn Lernout's family history. A search by means of interviews with great-uncle, aunt and cousin, who were in the Congo during the Belgian colonial rule, and an intensive examination of this history with the inclusion of various literary sources, resulted in a work of both atmospheric and abstract character.
In a video installation, the artist duo shows several, in their disposition spatially linked, images of a forest. In addition to the video installation, the large-scale frottage works also refer to the "Congobos" and show greatly enlarged views of this forest. From a superficial point of view, one could believe that this is a piece of the Congolese rainforest, also with regard to the title of the work. In reality, however, there are detailed pictures of a forest near Geluwe. The question is, what connection does this small village of the municipality Wervik in Flanders have to the Congo? The connecting element is reflected in the naming of the forest. When a Belgian missionary from Congo returned, he opened the Café Congo, which meant that the nearby forest also got this name.
The frottage works positioned around the video installation bring the history of the Congolese-Belgian ties to another level. While the video installation and the large-scale works on the Congo forest in an atmosphere-reduced manner show the relationships of the inhabitants of a small village in Belgium to the former colonial country, portraits of those persons are presented in further frottage works - from Patrice Lumumba, Joseph Mobutu to to Leopold II - who played a role in the history of the Congo.
In a subtle way, Irena Eden and Stijn Lernout discuss the relationship between Belgium and the former colonial country Congo with "Congobos", a history of interdependencies and relationships that is often avoided in both political and social contexts. Cross-border connections and relational connections are topics that are constantly being taken up by Irena Eden and Stijn Lernout, and so the project "Congobos" joins this approach of artistic exploration. Here, a story is told that advocates working up the Belgian colonial rule, and deconstructing the boundaries of dual categories of "the stranger" and "one's own" through the depiction of family relationships.
© Aline Lenzhofer, free lance curator, Vienna