Belgium’s King Philippe returned a Kakuungu mask to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) during his state visit on Wednesday, signaling the beginning of “stronger cooperation” between the two countries.
The rare mask was previously on display at Belgium’s AfricaMuseum in Tervuren, just outside Brussels. The artwork will now be returned to Congo after nearly 70 years.
“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, which originally came from the Suku people of Kwango Province in the southwest of the DRC, has been the centerpiece of a number of temporary exhibits at the AfricaMuseum.
Only a few dozen examples remain in the world. “Congo no longer has an original copy in good condition,” a museum representative told De Standaard.
According to State Secretary for Science Policy Thomas Dermine, the Belgian authorities chose this symbolic mask because it is a large object with intact decoration. It is also well documented: the village and maker are both known.
When the AfricaMuseum reopened in 2018, the Congolese diaspora in Belgium raised the issue of restitution. Since then, a worldwide movement has criticized the fact that looted artworks from former colonies have been (and continue to be) displayed in Western museums’ colonial art collections rather than being returned.
The Kakuungu mask, on the other hand, is not part of the formal institutions and is on long-term loan to the DRC because there is no legal framework in Belgium for a gift from federal collections.
According to Dermine, the mask’s return will mark the beginning of “stronger scientific and museum cooperation” between Belgium and the DRC. This will center on new research into the origins of approximately 85,000 pieces from the AfricaMuseum.