Contemporary art does not escape the many social issues that prove to be an integral part of it. The Brussels-based multidisciplinary artist Laura Nsengiyumva rightly demonstrates the importance of a decolonial art practice and thought. She questions the art world and the way in which societal inequalities are reproduced in public spaces.
Through videos, performances and other plastic realizations, Nsengiyumva highlights the Afrophobia of the system that surrounds us. Art merges within this system and is a reflection of it, which makes it political by nature. This political character is as much overestimated as it is underestimated. Nsengiyumva herself notes with concern the danger of a simple “aesthetic revolution”, the glamourization of the smallest subversions. As Audre Lorde says in her essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” (1979), no liberation will be achieved without the oppressed defining themselves in their own terms, determining themselves in another system, developing new ways of fighting and, above all, of thinking. The master may allow the oppressed to temporarily beat him at his own game, but will never allow them to bring about real change.
Nsengiyumva thus develops a practice with a singular ontology, an artivism that is as much artistic work as it is activist project. She fully seizes the political identity of art and mobilizes it to attack various incarnations of racism in Belgium. For example, since 2017 she has made appearances as Queen Nikkolah on the occasion of Saint Nicholas Day (6 December). Dressed in a red tunic and her hair styled like a miter, she distributes candy to good children. She offers a cheery ceremony, as a wholesome alternative to the racist folklore that has Saint Nicholas [Santa Claus] accompanied by a black bogeyman [named Black Pete]. An experiment conducted by Bamko-Cran in Brussels in 2019 revealed that the latter is identified by children as an African who embodies the role of the bad guy, the jerk and the servant. With her performance, Nsengiyumva denounces the pejorative effects that these representations have on the self-image of Afro-Belgian children. Such ritualized aggression participates in structural oppressions that limit the full potential of their social development. As a particularly vulnerable group, children of African descent are pushed into what Miltos Santos labels a “mutilated citizenship”, which deprives them of the possibility of seeing themselves as full members of the society of which they are nevertheless part.
Nsengiyumva also seizes the opportunity to think about the involvement of those who promote these traditions as insidious weapons of racist domination. She rejects any assignment that requires her to embody a vile or inferior figure; she reclaims her power and asserts herself as a figure of active resistance against Afrophobia. In her red costume, she also dissolves representations of the bogeyman in a literal way by melting his effigies in chocolate over a low flame; this melting process is a recurrent technique in her work.
At the All-Nighter of 6 October 2018, Nsengiyumva presented her installation PeoPL for the first time. For this installation, she topples an ice replica of the equestrian statue of Leopold II from its pedestal, which melts into a sober but irreversible temporality. She thus criticizes the position that the monarch still holds in public space and in collective consciousness in Belgium. His heroization in the urban space is crystallized through various other markers of the colonial past that continue to live and function as propaganda. The artist speaks of it as a “Lesson of radicality: time matters”. Decolonial activists and their allies, including academics, vandals, and citizens committed to changing the current mindset, are making it increasingly difficult for problematic institutions to go unchallenged, as they press for discussions about the exclusionary and elitist nature of these institutions. This leads to the creation of platforms for the subalternized, who are increasingly taken seriously as a result of these approaches. This installation opposes the politics of the status quo and stands as an ode to those who take action to dissolve the myths that were historically constructed to glorify some and subjugate others. Nsengiyumva thus demonstrates how essential and indispensable it is to have a full awareness of art as a tool for political struggle.