“The most striking thing about monuments is that you don’t notice them. There is nothing in the world as invisible as a monument.” — Robert Musil, 1927
In the exhibition Colonial Monuments in Belgium at Be-Part Kortrijk, Belgian photographer Jan Kempenaers (°1968, Heist-op-den-Berg, lives and works in Antwerp) shows a selection of one hundred photographs of monuments commemorating his country’s colonial past. Kempenaers is known for his photographs of urban and natural landscapes, architecture and monuments, which he has been photographing since the mid-1980s.
Belgian public space has a considerable number of such monuments. Some colonial monuments were still well maintained at the time the photo was taken, others had been neglected or vandalised. Meanwhile, some monuments have also been removed. Surprisingly, some of the monuments were only erected in 2002 and 2005.
The whole exhibition reads like a collection, a typology of images that were once meant to provide confirmation of colonial thinking. However, Jan Kempenaers is an artist, not an archivist. Consequently, the photographs are not documentary and do not always show the monuments in their totality. The photograph of the monument to Father De Deken in Wilrijk, for instance, emphasises the threat posed by the hand hovering over the Congolese man’s head and the knee pushing down his back. When Kempenaers photographs the monument to Baron Jacques de Dixmude in Diksmuide, he places the figure of the Congolese slave central and we are shown only the baron’s feet and legs. Because the images are shot in black and white, the monuments in the photographs almost blend into their surroundings. Kempenaers seems to be asking us how many times we have casually walked past these monuments.
Thus, the exhibition Colonial Monuments in Belgium does not present a series of state portraits seeking to affirm the legitimacy of colonial thinking. The photographs question the status of these monuments, and the thoughtful exhibition offers food for thought.
On the occasion of this exhibition, Roma Publications is publishing the book Jan Kempenaers, Belgian Colonial Monuments 2, with a text by Phillip Van den Bossche (Roma Publications 435). The first volume of Belgian Colonial Monuments was published in 2019. A set containing both books and a print by Jan Kempenaers will be on sale at Be-Part during the exhibition.
About Jan Kempenaers
Jan Kempenaers (BE, 1968) lives and works in Antwerp. He studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent and at the Jan Van Eyck Academy in Maastricht. He has been affiliated with the KASK School of Arts in Ghent since 2006.
Since the mid-eighties, Kempenaers has been photographing urban & natural landscapes, architectures, as well as monuments. In 2012, he completed a PhD in the visual arts about the picturesque. His most recent book Belgian Colonial Monuments is published by Roma Publications.
Jan Kempenaers Colonial monuments in Belgium
1 October – 11 December 2022
Be-Part, Platform for contemporary art
Paardenstallen, Korte Kapucijnenstraat z/n, 8500 Kortrijk
Curator: Lara Verlinde