King Leopold II of Belgium symbolizes ruthless colonialism in Africa. While he ruled what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as his personal fiefdom, millions of its inhabitants died and had their hands chopped off for failing to pick enough rubber vines to meet production quotas. In recent years, statues of King Leopold have been vandalized to repudiate the racism and exploitation he epitomizes. In Kinshasa, a replica of the equestrian monument to Leopold in Brussels was removed in 1960, during the rule of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who Africanized the territory’s name to Zaïre after independence. In 2005, authorities resurrected the equestrian sculpture as a reminder of the horrors of colonialism—just for one day, because popular outrage forced its removal to a park of outdated colonial artifacts.
In this triptych, a time-travelling cosmonaut, dressed in a golden space suit, surveys from his mount a desolate scene of post-industrial blight. The purple sky suggests a mental map of asynchronous history, inscribed with the veins of a leaf or the fate lines of a hand.
The central image represents Zaïre. The snake refers to the sect, Prima Curia, to which Mobutu belonged. Mobutu’s supporters set up domestic shrines with snakes in bottles; some of this detractors believed that Mobutu had sold their country to the Devil. This image suggests epic battles in Congo between forces, spiritual, magical, physical, and political, between darkness and light. Surrounding the central tondo, the image of a street vendor of light bulbs creates a cruciform contrast. At the end of Mobutu’s reign, vendors of light bulbs also began to sell cell phones, which gave people a freedom to communicate that Mobutu sought to prevent. Light bulb vendors, locally known as chayers, sometimes were also informers, because they saw what was going on in the streets. The letters K-A are emblematic of Kongo Astronauts and of the Egyptian Ka, which refers to the spiritual double of each person or spiritual being. Kongo Astronauts battle duality also, and this is the theme of the first image, on the left, representing the present and reversing the normal order of Western reading.